XX

Calgacus had taken longer than the others to get up on to a wagon. It was not just the splint on his right arm impeding him; when he moved, things deep in his shoulder grated together painfully. None of the demented running, clambering, jumping or fighting had helped. And he had long accepted he was far from young.

Finally achieving a point of vantage, Calgacus peered out across the plain. He was not going to admit either to the pain, or that he could see little apart from a blurred cloud of dust that marked the retreating Alani horsemen.

‘Quite a few of them are carrying wounds,’ Maximus said.

‘But, again, they are leaving their dead,’ Andonnoballus said. ‘They will return.’

As they watched the Alani ride away, Ballista and Andonnoballus discussed what had happened, re-creating in detail the ebb and flow of events.

Calgacus had no patience with such futile endeavours. The face of battle was no stranger to him. Battle was nothing but chaos, every man isolated in his own few yards of fear and exertion. Every participant saw a different battle. Yet, afterwards, some primal urge forced the survivors to impose a pattern, to tell a clear, linear story. It was as if their own memories lacked the necessary validity unless they could be placed within something generally agreed.

‘Their plan was sound,’ Ballista said. ‘They made two diversions; one across the watercourse, the other some mounted skirmishers looking like they might attack the centre of the wagon line. These tied down some of our men, while their two main assaults came in on foot at either end of the laager.’

Calgacus watched three vultures coast in just outside the laager on their feathery wings. All their grace was lost when they came to earth.

‘And it nearly worked,’ Ballista continued. ‘At the western end they were fighting hand to hand around the wagon of the gudja. Here in the east they got inside the defences. If we had not blocked the breach and killed the few already inside, it would have worked.’

‘But it did not work,’ Andonnoballus said. ‘There is nothing nomad horse archers hate more than trying to storm a wagon-laager, even if it is defended by only a few desperate men.’

‘It is not just on the Steppe,’ Ballista said. ‘There is nothing harder in the world than taking any fortification manned by just a handful of brave, well-equipped men who will obey orders and dig in their heels. The casualties of the attackers will always be horrendous.’

The Alani had indeed suffered many casualties. No fewer than thirty-nine nomadic corpses were counted. Luckily for the prospects of the majority of these Alani in the afterlife, the three surviving Heruli were too tired and too busy to scalp and strip the skin from the right arms of more than a couple each.

Only eight of the defenders had fallen: the Heruli Ochus and Aordus, three soldiers, including the one who had been lying already close to death in their wagon, and three Sarmatians.

For the moment, all the corpses were given the same treatment. Defenders and Alani alike were merely rolled and thrown out beyond the defences. Lack of manpower, time, even energy, precluded anything more elaborate and either denigrating or respectful.

Calgacus felt that at this place — Blood River, as it was in his mind — the spirits of death hovered close. He knew Ballista’s people saw the choosers of the slain as beautiful young women. These white-armed, white-breasted girls would carry the chosen to Valhalla, and there in the golden hall of the Allfather they would serve them mead, maybe take them as lovers. For Hellenes like Hippothous, or Romans like Castricius it was different. For them, two grim-eyed warriors, Sleep and Death, bore them away to the underworld, where all but a tiny few would flit and squeak like bats in the dark and cold for an eternity. Calgacus had no idea of the views on the afterlife of his own native tribes in Caledonia. He had been taken too young. He hoped a lifetime among the Angles and serving one of them in remote places would make him eligible for Valhalla. You had to die in battle. There were worse ways to die. Your passing would be one of pain, but that might seem a low price to enter one of the better afterlives. Although the many willing virgins of Manichaeism — was it seventy or more? — also had a strong appeal. And it might be you did not have to die a violent death to get there. Maybe, if he lived through this, he would find out more about the strange new religion.

At any event, Calgacus hoped the souls of those killed had departed, for there were any number of vultures arrived. Ungainly in their haste and greed, they set up a flapping uproar as they squabbled over this sudden, rich bounty. Things would get worse later, when the darkness allowed the scavengers of the earth to overcome their fear of living men and slink out to devour the dead.

The majority of those being consumed were Alani. The losses of the defenders had been light, but they could ill afford them. Ballista and Andonnoballus rearranged the defence. The river remained held by Hippothous and Castricius. Each was as skilled a killer of men as the other, Calgacus thought, and each as dangerously insane as the other. They were aided by the interpreter and the soon-to-be-freed slave of the soldiers. A reserve of six was to be held back. It consisted of Ballista, Andonnoballus, Maximus, Tarchon, young Wulfstan, and Calgacus himself. It would be certain to be called upon. The actual wagon line now was held only by the gudja, two Heruli, three Roman auxiliaries, four Sarmatians and the other military slave. The latter had also been promised his freedom, conditional on both his martial valour and his survival. The latter seemed the larger impediment to his manumission.

It all looked hopeless. Twenty-one men to hold out against still easily more than ten times their number. The majority of the defenders were carrying some wound or other. Several of these were seriously incapacitated; the Herul Datius, the interpreter, one of the Sarmatians, young Wulfstan, who had picked up a nasty gash to his right arm right at the end of the fighting, and, of course, Calgacus himself.

For certain it was hopeless. They were all doomed. Calgacus wondered if he was afraid to die. Certainly he did not welcome death; neither the probable pain of the thing itself, nor the uncertainty of what might come after. And he wanted to live. He wanted to go back to Sicily. He wanted to marry Rebecca, to look after Simon, to have a son of his own. But if all that was to be denied him, if the norns had spun that he was to die out here on the Steppe, then he might as well die bravely. He might as well die out in the open by the side of Ballista and Maximus. As Ballista often said in Greek — some poem or other — death comes to the coward as well as to the brave. And if, by chance, any of them survived, what a song this doomed last fight would make.

‘Three riders coming from the main Alani camp,’ someone called out.

Wearily, Calgacus dragged himself to his feet, along with everyone else whose station allowed them to see.

‘ Zirin! Zirin! ’ One of the horsemen had a good, strong carrying voice.

‘The call of an envoy or herald,’ Andonnoballus said. He stood high on a wagon, and waved them to approach.

The three rode abreast, very close together. They rode slowly. The outer two seemed to be supporting the one in the middle. As they got closer, the latter could be seen to be slumped in the saddle.

At about the distance an arrow might still penetrate armour, a bit over one hundred paces, Andonnoballus called that it was close enough.

The three stopped. One of the flanking men slung a leg over the neck of his mount and nimbly dropped to the ground. As if it were a sack, he roughly pulled the one in the middle from the saddle. The man feebly put out an arm but crumpled in a heap. The other hauled him to his feet, hung something around his neck and pushed him in the direction of the wagon-laager.

‘He will give you the message. It is his calling,’ the one on foot shouted in the language of Germania. He vaulted back into the saddle. ‘Let him smell his way to you.’ The Alan and his companion laughed, spun their horses and raced away.

There was something strange about the man. He walked like a man in a thick fog; arms out in front, stepping hesitantly, as if he suspected the ground might betray him. And he was not walking straight towards the camp but off at an angle that would take him past its southern extremity.

‘By all the graces,’ said a voice in Latin.

‘Gods below,’ said another.

‘Fuck,’ said Maximus.

Calgacus saw the man stumble, almost fall. There was something odd about his arms.

‘Come on,’ Ballista said to Maximus. The two clambered through the protective screens and dropped down outside the laager. Vultures waddled away, loud in their complaints.

Instinctively, Calgacus scanned the plain. He could see the two horsemen. They were more than half a mile away. He could see the smudge of smoke that bannered the big nomad camp in the distance. He could see nothing else. Except along the watercourse, there were no trees. As far as he knew, there were no hidden gullies or deceitful undulations where ambushers might lay hidden.

Ballista and Maximus had reached the man. Solicitously enough, they had removed the thing hung around his neck and taken him by the shoulders. Yet in the act of supporting him they seemed to wish to keep their distance.

‘Infernal gods, it is the herald Regulus,’ someone said.

‘How could they do what they have done?’ another said. ‘What evil daemon could drive anyone to this?’

When they were about as far as a boy can throw a stone, Calgacus saw, and wished he had not. The horror was beyond all bearing.

There was blood all down the face of the praeco, all down his soiled tunic. His arms were stumps. They ended at the wrist. There were no bandages. Instead, the wounds appeared to have been cauterized. But there was much worse, a much fouler disfigurement. His eyes were gone. No one, not the most skilled physiognomist, could read his soul in those ruined, bloody sockets.

‘Bear a hand,’ Ballista said. ‘Bear a hand, and haul him up.’

Calgacus swallowed his revulsion, took the herald under a shoulder and, as gently as possible, helped lift him up into the wagon-laager.

‘Get flax and the whites of eggs for his eyes,’ Ballista said.

‘I will take care of him.’ The gudja — tall, imperturbable — laid an arm around the shoulders of the praeco, and led him away to his wagon as a father might lead a son.

Ballista passed the piece of papyrus taken from the herald’s neck to Andonnoballus. There was Greek script on it. The Herul’s lips moved as he read it, but he made no sound. Finished, he smiled, but with no humour. He held the papyrus up and read aloud. ‘Hand us Andonnoballus and Ballista, and the rest of you can depart unharmed. If not, when you fall into our hands, you will beg for this man’s fate.’

A muttering ran along the wagons, as men repeated it and translated it into various tongues.

Laughter — muted, rueful chuckles at first; no one was sure where it started — spread through the laager.

‘Fuck you!’ Maximus howled. Others joined in: obscenities, curses, vows of revenge, even dark jokes were shouted at the distant Alani camp and at the uncaring vastness of the Steppe.

The gudja returned.

‘How is he?’ Ballista asked.

‘At peace,’ the Goth replied.

Ballista looked shocked.

‘It is best,’ the gudja said. ‘What life would there be for a man with no eyes to see, no hands to feed himself?’

The others were silent.

‘They had castrated him as well.’ The bones and amulets in the hair of the gudja clinked as he turned to go.

‘Sure, it is a kindness,’ Maximus said, ‘but a terrible kindness which will weigh on you.’

The gudja walked off without replying.

Calgacus drew a little apart with Ballista and Maximus. They stood in the centre of the laager. ‘Are you certain no one will betray us?’

‘Certain,’ Ballista said. ‘No one could be that big a fool. The Alani have lost too many for clemency. Everyone knows they will kill us all.’

‘The Alani king is not here, and I have not seen the Suanian Saurmag among them, but still they want you badly,’ Maximus said.

‘And Andonnoballus,’ Ballista added. ‘It is interesting they want him, but not the other Heruli.’

‘They are moving.’ The shout from Wulfstan curtailed further speculation.

There were more Alani this time, but they kept further away. Somewhere near extreme bow shot, approaching three hundred paces, thirty or forty Alani swarmed. Many of them got down from their ponies.

Except for those keeping watch over the other approaches, the entire beleaguered garrison crowded to watch. Hippothous came and stood next to Calgacus and the others. The Greek had left Castricius overseeing the river.

The sounds of hammering drifted across, covering the sighing of the grass and the quarrels of the vultures. The hammering stopped. There were wild shouts and mocking laughter. Then there were screams — at first of fear, then of agony, terrible agony.

I dare not see, I am hiding

My eyes, I cannot bear

What most I long to see;

And what I long to hear,

That most I dread.

Hippothous recited the verse well.

‘Sophocles,’ Andonnoballus said.

Hippothous was not the only one to look at the Herul with surprise.

Andonnoballus ignored them.

The Alani mounted up, whirled their horses and, whooping, rode a little further away.

Three stakes were left standing in the Steppe. On each a man was impaled.

‘Who are they?’ Calgacus’s eyes were not near good enough to hope to recognize individuals at that distance.

‘It looks like the rest of the staff,’ Maximus said, ‘Porsenna the haruspex, and the other scribe and messenger — the poor bastards.’

‘Poor bastards,’ Calgacus agreed.

‘I suppose sending the herald to us was irony,’ Ballista said.

A chilling scream cut across the plain.

‘At least one is alive, then,’ said Hippothous.

‘They will all be alive,’ Andonnoballus said. ‘If he can take the pain and not move, it can take a man hours, sometimes a day or more to die. It all depends how you insert the stake up his arse.’

‘You know this?’ Ballista said.

‘I know this,’ Andonnoballus said.

‘Alani indeed is the most cruel of savages,’ Tarchon said. ‘And most terrible ones for thieving. When they cross the Croucasis so their ponies can eat the sweet meadow grasses of Suania, always they are stealing; apples, pears, small children, all manner of things.’

‘They have put them out there to dishearten us,’ Ballista said. ‘If any of us go out to help them, we will be ridden down.’

Another ghastly scream echoed across the Steppe.

‘We have to do something,’ Maximus said.

‘Wax,’ Tarchon said. ‘Beeswax best in the ears. Next to no sound gets through.’

‘Something for them.’

‘Oh, in that case, we must shoot them.’

‘The Suanian is right,’ Andonnoballus said.

‘It is a long, difficult shot,’ judged Ballista.

‘I would take it myself, but they are your men.’

‘Yes,’ Ballista agreed. ‘They are my men.’

They brought him his own bow, the one he had loaned to the slave down by the river, and gave him some space to concentrate.

A bright, sunny June day, not much past noon. As hot here as it would be in Sicily. A steady wind from the north. He would have to allow for that. The grass shimmered in the nearly three hundred paces between him and the twisted figures on the stakes. Silkweed and side-oats waved above grass. He drew the composite bow — two-fingered, back to the ear, sighted down the shaft — released, and missed. The arrow slid past the right of the central figure. He had overcompensated for the breeze.

The second arrow missed as well; same side, a touch closer. The third took the man in the leg. Ballista killed him with the fourth. In all, it took nine arrows to kill the three men. It took quite a long time.

When he had finished, Ballista walked alone down to the stream. Calgacus followed him at a distance. Ballista sat and stared out across the water. Calgacus sat not far away and watched him. From things Maximus had said, Calgacus imagined that Ballista might be thinking about hauling the haruspex off Tarchon’s horse and leaving the diviner to his fate. Right from the start, from the days by the Suebian sea, Calgacus had said Dernhelm was no natural killer. He had always said that. Now, the boy was a man called Ballista, as proficient a killer as varied training and extensive experience could make. Yet, in some ways, nothing had changed.

Maximus walked down to where Calgacus was sitting. ‘The Alani are stirring.’

‘How long?’

‘No great hurry. Their outriders are just leaving the camp.’

Calgacus nodded and levered himself to his feet. Hercules’ hairy arse, his shoulder hurt. ‘You go back. I will fetch him.’

Ballista was looking away, his gaze fixed a distance upriver. Some birds were darting among the reeds. They were small, fast; maybe a brace of snipe. Calgacus could not tell. ‘The Alani,’ he said.

Ballista looked at him, a question on his face.

‘Plenty of time. The main body is still in the camp.’

Ballista motioned for Calgacus to sit down. ‘Herodotus says the nomads blind all their slaves; presumably, to stop them running away. He must have been misled. Having blind slaves would not work. The herald would not have found our camp. It is hard to think of a worse place for a slave to make a run for freedom. There is nowhere to hide on the Steppe, except for the grave mounds that have been opened and in the watercourses.’

Calgacus said nothing. He had long grown used to Ballista’s oblique approaches to what troubled him.

‘A story in the Toxaris of Lucian is set out here, on the Tanais river. The Scythians lose their camp and herds to a surprise Sarmatian attack. A Scythian warrior — I forget his name — is among those who escape. But his blood-friend has been captured. I do not remember his name either. The one who escaped goes to ransom his blood-friend. The King of the Sarmatians laughs in his face. What will he use for ransom, as the Sarmatians have already taken all his possessions? He answers his own body. The Sarmatian king says he will only take a part of the ransom offered — he will take his eyes. The Scythian lets himself be blinded. Somehow, the two swim the Tanais to safety.’

Calgacus sat, waiting for Ballista to talk himself out.

‘But does the story end well? Inspired by the sacrifice, the Scythians rally and defeat the Sarmatians. The two friends live out their days honoured by their people. But the one who was ransomed cannot bear to see his friend’s sightless eyes. Maybe the empty orbs are a constant reproach to him. Anyway, he plucks out his own eyes. Presumably, they sat out the rest of their lives in the wagons with the women and the children, in their shared darkness.’

Ballista stopped.

‘What happened to the staff,’ Calgacus said; ‘it was not your fault.’

‘Not even Porsenna the haruspex?’

‘From what Maximus says, he was endangering Tarchon’s life; all of your lives. You did what you had to do.’

‘You always find a path to it not being my fault.’

Calgacus frowned, obviously framing his words with care. ‘Not always. The things you did the year before last in Cilicia — those you did not have to do. Torturing the Persian prisoners — or at least your pleasure in the torture — killing the Sassanid king’s eunuchs in cold blood, raping his concubine Roxanne; you did not have to do any of those things. But at that time you thought your sons and Julia had been killed by the Persians. Your grief and desire for revenge had driven you mad.’

‘So, again, you would say it was not my fault,’ Ballista said. ‘If you had been a Greek, you could have been a Sophist.’

Calgacus wheezed. ‘You read too many Greek books.’

Ballista smiled at his old friend. ‘I was reading Euripides back then in Cilicia; I have not read him since.’

‘The Alani will not wait for your philosophizing.’

‘Euripides was not a philosopher. He was a poet, a tragedian.’ Ballista got up, and helped Calgacus to his feet.

‘Probably much the same bollocks,’ Calgacus grunted.

‘In some ways,’ Ballista said.

The Alani arrayed themselves in a loose but complete circle around the wagon-laager, all mounted, about three hundred paces out.

‘The battue,’ Andonnoballus said. ‘The hunting formation of the Steppes. It drives the game into the centre.’

‘So, they are thinking to hunt us down like animals,’ Tarchon said.

‘No, for us it will be different.’ Andonnoballus seemed remarkably cheerful. ‘I imagine they will ride in fast, putting a lot of arrows in the air. They will come close, maybe only twenty paces from us. Some will stay in the saddle, shooting. Behind them, the rest will dismount. The ones on foot will move into…’ He struggled for the right word in the Greek he was speaking. ‘Into chisel formations — is that right, chisel? The pointed thing sculptors use?’

‘Yes, chisel,’ Ballista said.

‘Good. Then they will storm the laager in chisel formations.’

‘How many points of attack?’ asked Ballista.

Andonnoballus laughed. ‘I have no idea. But as there are so few of us, providing they attack in at least two places, they will overrun us.’

Doomed, Calgacus thought, fucking doomed. And it was odd Andonnoballus could recognize the poetry of Sophocles, but claimed he was not sure of the Greek for ‘chisel’. Strange people, these Heruli.

‘But,’ Andonnoballus said, ‘I do not think the gods will let that happen. I have been observing the heavens. From the flight of birds, I know the gods are watching over us. And I heard a wolf howl not long ago.’

‘And that is good?’ Ballista questioned.

‘Very good,’ Andonnoballus replied.

Not far away, the other surviving one of the Rosomoni, Pharas, was laughing. He seemed at ease, content with the way things were. From the other side of the laager, the last Herul, Datius, looked across with comparable equanimity.

Out of their minds, Calgacus thought. Absolutely fucking out of their minds. Surrounded, outnumbered beyond measure, in the middle of nowhere, and a wolf and a few birds convince them we will be fine. Had they not noticed the Steppe was full of fucking birds, probably lots of wolves too? It was certainly full of fucking Alani warriors. Obviously, having your skull bound into a point as a baby did something to your brain.

‘What are they up to now?’ Maximus asked.

‘They are going to sacrifice some of our oxen,’ responded Andonnoballus.

‘Sure, I could do with some roast beef myself,’ Maximus said.

Ignoring the irreverence, Andonnoballus, who seemed now in an expansive mood, decided to explain the ritual. ‘You see the naked sword? It catches the sun, just to the right of the oxen. That is Akinakes.’

‘I had a horse called that once,’ Maximus said.

‘The Alani, like the ancient Scythians, are simple, childish in their religion. They worship but two gods: Anemos and Akinakes. They say there is nothing more important than life and death. So they worship Anemos and Akinakes because Wind is the source of life, and the Sword the cause of death.’ Andonnoballus pointed to one of the drivers. ‘Their Sarmatian cousins hold the same view.’

‘The north wind that quickens their mares?’ Ballista said.

‘And the wind that is their breath. They are simple people. They build no temples. Nothing but thrust a drawn sword into the ground. See, now they are offering the blood of the oxen to Akinakes.’

‘The Heruli do not worship Akinakes and Anemos?’ Ballista asked.

‘Of course we do.’ Andonnoballus sounded surprised. ‘But we are not so foolish as to ignore all the other gods: Air, Earth, Sea, Springs, Woden, Orestes, Abraham, Apollonius, Christ, Mithras. There are many, many gods. All must have their due. My…’ He paused. ‘My king is a most devout man. Naulobates has summoned holy men from different religions to his court. This summer, they will debate their beliefs in front of him; Persian mobads, Christian priests, Platonic philosophers, Manichaeans. He asked Mani himself, but he could not come. Perhaps it will happen while you are in his camp.’

‘A delight to anticipate,’ Maximus said, straight-faced. ‘If we survive today.’

Andonnoballus laughed again. ‘Have I not told you, the gods have their hands over us.’

The great war drum of the Alani began to beat. Akinakes having had his fill of blood, the ring of warriors began to whoop.

‘Not long now,’ Andonnoballus said.

Castricius ran up from the zereba. As he did, the whooping of the Alani faltered.

‘Over the river,’ Castricius said, ‘the Alani are moving. They are riding away.’

‘Did I not tell you?’ Andonnoballus said.

The war drum lost its rhythm and was silent. Anxious shouts replaced the exultant Alani whooping.

As Calgacus watched, the Alani formation broke apart. In moments, the nomads were dashing away to the south. In no order, individual horsemen scattered like so many terrified animals before a brush fire.

Andonnoballus turned to the north. Like a great wave born in the depths of the ocean, a wall of dust bore down on them. Hundreds, possibly thousands, of cavalry riding fast, bright banners flying in the choked air above them.

‘The wolves of the north,’ Andonnoballus said. ‘The Heruli are come.’

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