XIX

Although he had never been more deeply asleep, Ballista woke easily, without a sound, and was calm feeling the pressure on his neck. He opened his eyes. He saw one of the two men whom he had known he would find looking down at him.

Calgacus removed the fingers he was pressing below and just behind Ballista’s left ear. The northerner smiled. The waking gesture was one of many signs he, Calgacus and Maximus had evolved over the years. Sometimes, he thought these signs amounted almost to a private language. It was something to be used when words would not do: in the din of battle, among the intricacies of a court, or in the dead of night.

Calgacus’s face moved. In the light of the low, central fire, it lost much of its ugliness and assumed a delicacy it lacked by day. It wore a sad, tender expression.

Ballista rolled out of his cloak and painfully levered himself into a sitting position.

‘Maybe half an hour to dawn,’ Calgacus said.

Ballista had slept for a couple of hours. In that time, the wind had dropped altogether, and it had clouded over. The moon was hidden. The sky now was a uniform blue-black, except for a few rents in the clouds where it was a translucent yellow-tinged blue. With no wind, the Steppe grass had ceased to sing. Other sounds had come to the fore: the lapping chuckle of the stream, a background chirring of insects — it was a warm June night — and the strange whistling of those large mouse- or squirrel-like rodents that seemed to inhabit every hollow in the Steppe. Now and then, a horse stamped or coughed.

With difficulty, Ballista got to his feet. Allfather, he was too old for this. Forty-one winters on Middle Earth; far too many to be sleeping on the ground in a war shirt of mail. He walked, stiff in every joint, to the thorn fence. He pulled up his mail, fumbled with the clothes under it and pissed on the zereba.

When finished, he walked back and sat down heavily next to the old Caledonian.

Calgacus passed him a beaker of warmed, watered wine.

‘Thank you.’ The northerner sipped. It was too hot to drink. Calgacus passed him some dry biscuit and a hunk of cold fat bacon. Ballista put the bacon on the leg of his trousers; it was no time to be over-fastidious about grease. He dipped the biscuit in the drink and, as each bit softened, nibbled it.

‘Anything?’ Ballista asked.

‘Horsemen moving from the little camp over the river, about an hour ago.’

‘How many?’

Calgacus shook his head. ‘It had already clouded over, black as Niflheim.’

‘And they were leaving the camp opposite us?’

‘It sounded like they went to the big camp to the south.’

‘Any sign of men withdrawing from there?’ Ballista asked.

‘No.’

They sat in silence. Beyond the wine and the bacon were other smells. The Alani dead had not started stinking yet. There was the scent of clean water, of leaf mould, of crushed grass. Against the bitter aroma of wormwood were other, sweeter scents of those flowers not yet scorched by the heat of summer. The smells of horse and unwashed humanity may have been there, but Ballista could not tell; he was inured to them. The smell of the bacon was there. It came to dominate. Ballista started to gnaw at it.

The Alani had not asked for a truce to reclaim their dead. That was not good. It meant they were going nowhere. They had moved some horsemen from the camp opposite Ballista to the main one. It might help Ballista’s men, but was not good for those holding the wagons.

Ballista could not see how the main defensive line might be improved. The wagon-laager would be near impossible to move or burn, and it would be slow and difficult to get across. Its real weakness had no remedy: there were too few defenders. In each of the six wagons were a Roman soldier and one of the Sarmatian drivers; except the third from the left, which had two Sarmatians but no soldier. In four of the five fortified gaps between the wagons, one of the Heruli was stationed; two of them, Ochus and Datius, were carrying wounds. In the last gap on the right, the gudja had taken post, thus freeing Andonnoballus to move about as the commander.

Andonnoballus had with him the two slaves owned by the soldiers to act as runners. The arrangement was the product of much thought and discussion. It was the best they could do. But it was desperately inadequate. There was no reserve. There were just far too few men.

Behind the clouds, the eastern sky had lightened a little. A lone bird began to sing. Almost inconspicuously, others — dozens, then hundreds, if not thousands — joined, until, before the listeners really noticed it, the air was full of birdsong.

‘Do you think the Sarmatian drivers will fight to the death?’ Calgacus asked. ‘They are kin to the Alani.’

Ballista did not reply at once. He was still listening to the dawn chorus, trying to hear any sounds beyond it that signified danger.

‘The Urugundi have their families. While the gudja lives, they must fight.’ Calgacus answered his own question.

‘Even if the Gothic priest falls, and the old witch too, it is too late for the Sarmatians. They have no more freedom in the matter than we do,’ Ballista said.

With the coming day, the wind returned. The rents in the cloud were ripped wider, revealing a sky turned pale, silver-gold. Soon, all that was left of the blanket of the dark were isolated clouds fleeing south, the tattered survivors of some celestial rout.

As the light improved, Ballista, Calgacus and every man in the beleaguered laager peered out across the Steppe. Rather than serried ranks of Alani, their mounts literally champing at the bit, there was nothing to be seen except the quiet, dark shapes of the two nomad camps and the smoke rising above them.

The defenders watched and waited. The Alani presumably took their breakfast. The mingled smells of woodsmoke, dung burnt as fuel, and food drifted over.

‘After yesterday, they are reluctant to attack,’ Wulfstan said. He sounded at once both hopeful and disappointed.

‘It may well be,’ Ballista said. ‘But it also means they think they have plenty of time.’

‘And that means Naulobates’ ugly fucking Heruli were nowhere fucking near by last night,’ Calgacus said.

‘They are nomads; they travel fast. They could outrun the news of their coming.’ Ballista felt he had to say something encouraging.

When Arvak and Alsvid, the horses of the sun, hauled the bright chariot over the horizon, the Alani stirred. A dozen outriders rode out of the camp in front of Ballista and formed a screen. The rest followed, forming up into a compact body under the tamga standard, out of bow shot. There did indeed seem fewer of them than the day before.

The Alani standard bellied out in the north wind. The tamga looked a bit like an upside-down Greek omega with a stylized bird perched on top. Ballista wondered if it had any meaning beyond signifying this particular nobleman.

A messenger, one of the soldiers’ slaves, ran up and told Ballista that much the same was happening at the other camp. There, the Alani had split into three divisions; one aimed at each end of the wagon-laager, one at the middle. There were fewer riders in the latter group.

Ballista thanked the messenger, told him what little news there was and sent him back to Andonnoballus. The main attacks would come here across the river, and at either end of the line of wagons.

The Alani across the river remained where they were.

Maximus started laughing. ‘Keeping out of harm’s way today,’ he called. Ballista and Wulfstan joined in the laughter.

‘Why are you fuckers giggling like girls?’ To Calgacus’s eyes, the Alani were an undifferentiated blur.

‘The priest or nobleman Ballista shot in the leg yesterday is summoning their gods again,’ Wulfstan said. ‘He is rather further away, and hardly in front of the others at all.’

The deep percussion of the nomad war drum carried across the plain. It reverberated in every man’s chest. High, peeling horns rang out. The enemy trotted forward.

The Alani set to with their customary whooping. The handful of Heruli answered with their high yipping sound.

‘Are you ready for war?’ Ballista’s battlefield Latin carried across the martial sounds of the Steppe.

‘Ready!’ The familia and the auxiliaries huddled in the wagons shouted back. The voices of the latter were muffled and faint.

‘Are you ready for war?’ Three times the call and response rang out. Yet it was a thin and insubstantial thing against the nomadic uproar. Ballista wondered if the traditional Roman battle call had ever been heard so far out beyond the frontiers. This was not the imperium, but another world. This was barbaricum, and it demanded something else. His youth in Germania told him a battle can be won or lost in the shouting, before a blow is struck.

‘Out! Out! Out!’ Ballista bellowed the age-old war cry of the Angles. Wulfstan, Calgacus and Maximus picked it up. ‘Out! Out! Out!’ Tarchon shouted something similar. Ballista wondered if the Heruli behind him heard, and if it held any folk memories for them.

The ground rang under the drumming hooves of the Alani ponies. The nomads had accelerated into a fast canter. They were shooting as they came. The arrows whistled full of menace through the air. But the trees on both banks and the reinforced zereba rendered them ineffective.

Ballista and his men, steady on their own two feet, and presented with a large, dense target, released fast and accurate. Three, four horses crashed to the ground, riders thrown tumbling into the dirt. When the Alani reached the opposite tree line and reined in, there were five riderless horses turning and boring amongst them, causing confusion.

The majority of the Alani swung down, throwing their reins to the few who remained on horseback. The latter wheeled and kicked back towards their camp, four or five ponies galloping behind each on lead reins.

Ballista kept shooting: pluck arrow from ground, nock, draw, aim, release. Nomads continued to fall. Ballista half noted one staggering with an arrow protruding from his eye.

A shaft ricocheted off the lime next to Ballista’s face. It left a weeping, sappy scar on the bough. Ballista drew and released again. The incoming arrows were getting closer. About half the dismounted Alani had remained on the far bank. Scattered among the trees and undergrowth, they were pouring arrows into the defences.

The other nomads — twenty, twenty-five of them? — were rushing down the bank.

A nomad suddenly collapsed, clutching his leg. Another tripped, tumbling face first down into the water. Further along, off to the left, one seemed to half sink into the earth and screamed a terrible scream as if some chthonic deity were dragging him down to the underworld. Others shied away from those areas of the bank. The pits dug by Hippothous and Wulfstan were channelling the Alani, making them bunch up, making them yet better targets.

‘Shoot the ones in the water.’ Ballista doubted if all would obey his order. It is almost impossible to shoot at someone else and not the men shooting at you. Fighting the urge to target the embroidered coat of a bowman pulling an arrow from his gorytus on the bank directly across from him, Ballista closed one eye, allowed for the man’s movement and sent an arrow smack into the chest of a man splashing through the river.

The attacking party reached the southern bank. Two nomads climbed over the top. Both toppled back, skewered by shafts from Ballista and Wulfstan. Ballista’s vision of the world shrank to just those few feet of muddy riverbank. Three more nomads hurled themselves over. Ballista missed. Wulfstan hit another. Four more followed over. They were at the zereba; wielding their long swords, trying to hack a way through the thorns. Ballista shot one in the shoulder; higher than he had intended.

Two of the Alani crouched to hoist one of their kin over the zereba. Ballista shot the one on the right in the side. He collapsed, dropping the nomad half in the air. The man screamed as he landed amid the sharp, tangled thorn bushes. He thrashed around, becoming more embedded. Red gashes of blood blossomed where his clothes were torn. Ballista drew his spatha and brought it down on the man’s head. The long, heavy blade crumpled the skull like an eggshell.

The Alani who had survived the ill-fated attack were scrambling back across the riverbed, up the opposite bank and into the shelter of the trees and undergrowth. The ones who had remained there were still shooting. They continued to pose a threat. It was best to keep your head down. Yet the intensity had gone. An Alan would pop out, shoot a wildly aimed missile and duck back. Given Ballista and his men were helmeted and armoured, to come to serious harm they would have to be either unlucky, slow or stupid.

Ballista leant his back against the sticky bark of the lime tree. There was a gash on his left forearm. Not serious, but he had no idea how it had got there. Now he had noticed it, the thing stung abominably. He wiped something else sticky off his face. A mess of blood and brains came away on his hand; from the man he had killed with his sword. It tasted as if some were in his mouth. He took a drink of wine, rinsed his mouth and spat. He stoppered the flask and checked on the enemy. Nothing new. He nocked an arrow. With more incoming than outgoing, there was no need to conserve arrows. He scanned for a target, found one, waited and shot. He missed, but it was good to keep their heads down.

‘Keep shooting,’ he called.

One of the messengers puffed up to Ballista and sketched a Roman salute. He was a slave of the military and had a sword in one hand. ‘ Dominus, Andonnoballus asks for help. The Alani have got into the laager. They have taken the wagon at the eastern end. They are throwing in men. They will roll up the whole line.’

Now that the fighting on his own front was not so pressing, Ballista could hear clearly the din of battle behind him. Some of it was hand to hand. Thinking, he released another arrow. It shaved past the head of an Alan in the bushes opposite.

‘ Dominus? ’ The messenger was shifting on his feet in his impatience for an answer.

Ballista stood, turning it over in his mind. Could he make a difference with but a few men? And if he did strip his own defences, would the Alani recover their spirit and overrun the zereba?

The interpreter, the one who had done well in the fighting in the original ambush, came from the opposite direction. He skidded to a halt, doubling up. He was very out of breath. He had a blade in his left hand and his right forearm was heavily bandaged.

Ballista could not remember the man’s name. ‘What is it?’ He could wait no longer. It was not going to be good news.

‘The Alani have dismounted.’ The interpreter’s chest was heaving. It was not that far to run; he must have been fighting. ‘They are assaulting the wagon of the gudja. The Goth needs more men.’

‘Fuck.’ Ballista swore monotonously as his mind raced. The Alani over the river had taken casualties. They had been held by the zereba. Perhaps it would be fine if he went with some men. And — the thought struck him — the Alani had taken riders from over the river last night. Perhaps the river was never anything but a diversion. He would take Maximus, Tarchon, the injured Calgacus and young Wulfstan with him. It would leave only Castricius and Hippothous. Two men to hold off forty or more. Ridiculous.

Ballista looked at the expectant faces of the messenger and the interpreter. Fuck! Where to go? To the gudja? To Andonnoballus? He turned to the interpreter — Biomasos, that was his name.

‘Had the Alani actually got through the defences when you left?’

The interpreter shook his head. ‘But they were…’

Ballista motioned him to silence. A plan fully formed — as in some improbable, queasy-making Greek myth of the birth of a divinity from a parent’s head — had appeared.

Ballista turned to the interpreter, and pointed west. ‘Biomasos, you see the last of the limes, where Tarchon and Calgacus are fighting? Go and send them both to me here. You will take their place; use Tarchon’s bow.’

‘But Dominus, I am a poor shot, and my arm is wounded.’

‘No matter, just show yourself now and then, take the odd shot, let them know there are still men defending the zereba.’

‘We will do what is ordered, and at every command we will be ready.’ It was good the interpreter had done a great deal of work for the military.

As Ballista waited, he took another arrow and aimed very carefully at an Alan lurking in a thick patch of brambles across the stream. He took his time. He dismissed from his mind a nomad arrow that came from nowhere and crashed through the foliage not far from the right of his head. Gently, he released. The arrow sped away. Like a striking hawk, it flashed over the water. A foot or two from the chest of its prey, a briar deflected it. The tribesman yelped, and dropped hurriedly out of sight.

Tarchon and Calgacus arrived.

‘The best hunting is the hunting of men,’ the Suanian said. He was beaming. The mountaineer liked killing people. ‘There is no boar nor lion that can compare.’

‘Fucking half-wit,’ Calgacus muttered.

‘You all follow me,’ Ballista commanded.

Running, bent low, they reached Maximus at the right of their line without mishap. There was something comical about six of them attempting to find cover behind one tree, broad though its trunk was.

Ballista addressed the slave. ‘You will take the place of Maximus here. You heard what I said to the interpreter.’

The slave looked aghast.

‘If you play a man’s role here, I will purchase your freedom — if we survive,’ Ballista said. He saw that the bracing effects of his words were somewhat undercut by the last phrase. ‘If I fall, one of these men will buy your freedom.’

‘We will do what is ordered, and at every command we will be ready.’ The slave took the bow and gorytus that Ballista passed over.

‘Let us be men,’ Ballista said in Greek. ‘Maximus and Tarchon with me. Calgacus, watch our backs, finish off any wounded. Wulfstan, use your bow, try to keep out of the melee. Ready?’

‘Ready.’ Maximus, Calgacus and Tarchon gave a quiet, personal acknowledgement. It had none of the bravado of the Roman call and response. Wulfstan said nothing.

The five of them checked their swords, hefted their war gear.

Ballista spoke in his own language, two lines of epic poetry.

Wyrd will often spare

An undoomed man, if his courage is good.

Calgacus spat. ‘If you are doomed, no courage will change the course of events.’

‘You really are a miserable old bastard,’ Maximus said.

They were all laughing, except Wulfstan. The young Angle’s face was clouded.

Ballista drew his dagger, snapped it back; drew his sword, snapped it back; touched the healing stone on his scabbard. All the time, he looked at Wulfstan, thinking. Then he cursed himself for not realizing more quickly.

‘Wulfstan’ — Ballista spoke in their own language — ‘if you live through this, I will give you your freedom. If I fall, these men can witness, I wish you manumitted in my will.’

The boy’s face broke into an enormous smile. ‘Thank you, Atheling. No doom can touch us now.’

‘Huhn,’ Calgacus snorted.

They pushed through the undergrowth away from the river, up to the tailgate of the wagon at the eastern end of the semicircle. It was deserted. There was fighting in and around the wagon beyond.

Ballista waved Wulfstan out into the open centre of the laager and led the other three along the inner side of the wagon.

The defences between the two wagons had been breached. A Herul and a Roman soldier lay dead there. Alani were treading on them as they clambered through. All the attention of the tribesmen was on the wagon where there was still resistance.

Ballista caught the eyes of the others. He held up three fingers. They nodded. One — two — as he lowered the third finger, they hurled themselves around the corner of the wagon. The first Alan looked round. Ballista’s spatha sheered half his face away. Maximus darted past Ballista’s right shoulder and thrust his shorter gladius deep into the chest of a second. Tarchon moved up on the left. A third, climbing through the gap in the barricade, opened his mouth to scream, threw up his arm to shield himself. The sound never came. The arm was severed at the elbow. The nomad looked at the stump stupidly. It was fountaining blood. Tarchon drove the point of the blade into his throat, then pushed him away with a boot. Another Alan had been clambering into the wagon with the fighting. He turned, went to shout a warning, and an arrow took him in the neck. He turned slowly, as if taking a last stock of the sunshine of the mortal world, and fell off the wagon. Four Alani dead in about as many heartbeats.

Ballista gestured for Wulfstan to come close. Calgacus was making sure the downed Alani were dead with the point of a sword. Another one, blissfully unaware, appeared through the gap in the fortification. With a wild yell, Tarchon smashed him backwards. Cries of consternation arose from outside.

‘Tarchon, Wulfstan, stop any more getting through here.’

They moved into position, Wulfstan sending a couple of arrows whipping out, to leave no doubt in Alani minds that the defences were manned again.

Ballista and Maximus jumped up into the rear of the next wagon. Calgacus, his right hand still near useless, slowly hauled himself up after. Bodies were strewn across the floor of the wagon; six or seven of them, defenders and attackers, piled indiscriminately. Otherwise, it was empty. The fighting had moved on. The three followed through the body of the wagon, stumbling over the corpses.

Outside on the Steppe, over the boom of the war drum, horns blared out afresh. Most likely they were telling of the closing of the breach, Ballista thought. But were they summoning reinforcements or admitting defeat? Wyrd will often spare an undoomed man, if his courage is good. The lines ran in his mind.

There were half a dozen Alani preparing to storm the third wagon. They had their backs to Ballista. As he saw them, two slipped off around the inside of the wagon to outflank the defenders.

Side by side on the tailgate, Ballista and Maximus looked at each other. They both mouthed, ‘One-two-three.’ Together, they jumped down. The Alani heard them, glanced back, expecting their own. Horrified, they started to turn. Ballista staggered a little on landing. Rather than try to regain his balance, he carried on forward — half running, half falling — blade first, at the Alan on his right. The nomad was wheeling around, bringing his sword across to guard himself. It was all too late. The tip of Ballista’s steel sliced through the side of the nomad’s tunic and on into the delicate flesh. It grated on rib, and kept going. Ballista used the impact to halt his momentum.

Ballista heard Calgacus curse as he dropped from the tail of the wagon behind.

Pushing the incapacitated, probably dying, man away, Ballista turned to face the one to his left. He used his shield to parry a wild swing to his neck. Both stepped back. Ballista got into an ox guard; shield parallel to the fighting line, sword held overhand, sticking forward from the side of his brow like the beast’s horn. The Alan held his shield in the same way, but had his sword down by his right thigh. Both shifted on their feet; waiting for the other to move, waiting for an opening.

Ballista could hear the clash of steel, stamping footfalls and grunts to his left, heavy feet and Calgacus swearing to his right. No time to look; both his friends were still alive.

With no warning, Ballista thrust at the face. His opponent brought his shield up. Ballista rolled his wrist and changed the blow into a downward slice to the left leg. The Alan withdrew the leg, stepped forward on to his right, and made an inside-edge thrust to the head. It was the obvious response; the one Ballista had expected. With a speed that belied his size, Ballista twisted his entire body, bringing sword and shield up and across almost together. The impact ran through his left arm as the shield blocked the Alani’s blow, but he more heard than felt his own sword cut into the nomad’s exposed right arm. It was like a knife in cabbage. The man shrieked, dropped his weapon, reeled around. Quite calmly, Ballista chopped his sword down into the man’s right thigh. He could be ignored for now.

A glance to his left. One Alan down, Maximus driving the other back. Ballista looked to the right. The two outflanking Alani were coming back, heading for Calgacus. They were moving cautiously, swords and shields well up. Ballista edged over towards Calgacus; close, but not so close they would get in the way of each other’s swordplay.

A strange quiet seemed to descend as the four became isolated in their minimalist, deadly dance — a half-step here, a slight change of balance there. Sunlight flashed on the questing steel. Ballista only part registered a lithe shape drop softly from the wagon behind the Alani. An elegant lunge, and the Alan in front of Ballista dropped like a poled beast. A movement like a mere tremor in the hot air, and the other pitched forward, coughing out his lifeblood.

‘Thank you,’ Ballista said.

‘Think nothing of it,’ Andonnoballus said. ‘And thank you for coming.’

Maximus had killed his man. Calgacus shuffled over and finished the second Ballista had felled. The four men stood, panting.

‘They are withdrawing.’ A voice could be heard from somewhere. As if in confirmation, there was a diminishing thunder of hooves and a bray of distant horns. It took a moment to realize the war drum was silent.

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