9

THE BOILER BOYS

This time, the Hun warlord was in cold control. He held his numberless horsemen back out of range and did not use them. For half an hour or more, there was merely the screech and ratchet of the gigantic torsion springs, the juddering release of beam against padded crossbeam, and the south-west tower and its surrounding walls, weakened if not brought down by the ram, continued their slow-motion fall.

Thus began the long afternoon of attrition.

The VII Legion had triumphed over the siege-towers and the ram, yes. Helped by the fact that the Huns had started wrong, attacking piecemeal instead of along a single, concerted front. Had they brought up the siege-towers and ram together, against different walls, while giving the machines full, coordinated covering fire from horseback, Viminacium might have already fallen, and the legionaries would all be on Charon’s ferry across the Styx by now. But over the onagers the VIIth could not triumph. They were hopelessly out of range. Even the Romans’ best ballistas and sling-machines were nothing like the size and power of the besiegers’.

The tension of waiting could drive a man mad.

‘Pennants!’ a young voice screamed. ‘I see pennants! Windsocks and dragon banners!’

It was a signifer, the young boy Sabinus had tried to steady in the legionary chapel. He sat astride the battlements like a sunstruck fool, gesticulating wildly. ‘I think it might be the Ioviani Seniores. Or the Cornuti. Look, to the east! From Ratiaria!’

The boy had imagination, certainly.

Tatullus strode over, dragged him back from the battlements, looked into his eyes and saw the frantic, burning light in them. The boy continued to gibber, so he cuffed him senseless and ordered him lugged down to the hospital.

The centurion scanned the eastern horizon.

There were no pennants.

Whumpff. Another hundredweight ball hit the south-west tower. Plumes of dust rose high into the still summer air.

And then out of the west, the tide of horse-warriors came surging in.

Knuckles came slouching by, a stubby little crossbow clutched in his huge paw.

‘You look like a bear trying to peel a grape,’ said Sabinus.

Knuckles stopped and wiped his brow. ‘If only I could get at ’em with me club, sir, I could do a power of good for Rome and the Lord Jesus Christ, sir.’

‘You’ll have your chance for a bit of face-to-face yet, soldier. Don’t doubt it.’

There came a blizzard of arrows arcing in high.

‘Take cover!’

‘You need to get off the wall, sir, under the canopy.’

Sabinus moved. Around him, cries of stricken men. The clatter of arrows, sometimes the soft thock as they hit flesh. Outlandish screams. They couldn’t afford to lose any. But they were. The walls had to be manned.

They couldn’t just wait and be picked off by those lethal arrow-storms. Somehow they would have to attack.

He gave the order to pull the men back off the east wall, manning only the south and west. The attack remained concentrated there, and Sabinus reckoned it would stay that way.

They must counter-attack soon. They must do something.

Down in the yard, the heavy cavalry stirred.

From the artillery units still working on the southern gate-towers, ballista bolts cut through Hunnish warriors and their horses alike. A perpendicular hit could go through three men in a line, it was said. Sabinus called up every last crossbow unit to the battlements. Densely packed volleys proved murderous to the ranks of the unarmoured horse-warriors, however loosely spaced and fast. They died by the dozen. Eventually they pulled back out range again.

‘They’re not invincible,’ said Tatullus quietly.

‘I never thought they were,’ said Sabinus.

‘Mad as fuckin’ badgers, though,’ said Knuckles.

Arapovian sat and rebandaged his arm, then took up his bow again.

Centurion and legate departed.

‘Tell me about Armenia, then,’ said Knuckles. ‘I could do with a laugh.’

‘Armenia?’ The look in Arapovian’s eyes gave even Knuckles pause. ‘One day I will tell you about Armenia. For now, I kill Huns.’

The onagers started up once more. And with them, looping round wide, came the horse-archers. You could almost hear the collective sigh of exhausted men stumbling to their feet again, cranking back their bows, hefting their shields, stowing a new row of lead darts.

The onslaught recommenced.

Soon a decurion came running. ‘First-floor guardroom, sir. Stone came straight through the wall. Tower still holding but roof’s beginning to pitch badly.’

‘Bag it up. Give ’em covering fire.’

‘No archers, sir.’

‘What do you mean, “No archers”? They’re your unit; where are they?’

‘My unit’s gone, sir. In heaven or hell, wouldn’t like to say. Enemy arrows are coming in like rain.’ He gasped for breath, waving his empty hands. ‘Their cavalry below the walls. Continuous stream of them. Every man on the open roof was caught out. Lying up there like sticklebacks, sir.’

‘Jesus.’

Tatullus reviewed the situation for his commanding officer. ‘The siege-towers weren’t a problem. Light cavalry, obviously not, however many arrows they drop on us. The ram’s finished. It’s the onagers that we have to take out, and fast. The south-west tower won’t take a lot more, then we’re fighting hand-to-hand over the rubble.’ He grimaced. ‘Outnumbered a hundred to one.’

He was right, and Sabinus knew it. The big onagers back there, half a mile off, bucking in the dust, spewing out their massive loads, kicking back like the wild asses they were named after, they were the enemy. And they were going to break in. It was only a matter of time. Another shuddering thunk, the whole west wall trembling, bruised and battered, a fresh crack running to the foundation stones, men reeling back from the battlements choking on dust. The onagers relentless, kicking up again, and again. No, they could not just sit here and let it all fall. Not now. Not after so many years of patient endurance.. .

Once a single gap was breached, once the barbarians were inside the fort, the hand-to-hand fighting would be brief indeed. His auxiliaries would flee. His runners would do what they did best, and run. And his last three hundred would fight like Leonidas’ Spartans to the bitter, bloody end. So he truly believed. Perhaps take twice as many of the enemy with them as they went, screaming blue murder, down to hell. Six hundred of the enemy slain would make no difference. Life was cheap to them. Tens of thousands more would ride straight on down the imperial trunk road to Naissus. Then Sardica? Adrianople? And then the capital itself? It would be like a monstrous wave, a bristling, shaggy wave of savages armed to the teeth, sweeping across Europe without end.

At last the onagers paused in their onslaught. The galloping horsemen below pulled back again to regroup, and replenish their quivers from the Hun supply wagons back on the crest.

Now.

‘Tubernator! Sound the cavalry charge!’

Down at the south gate there was a disciplined frenzy of activity. The cavalrymen, already armoured up by assistants, hauled themselves onto their huge, shaggy-hooved mounts, settled themselves into their high-fronted saddles with a bronze brace at each corner, rock-solid, massy, inhuman. Their leader was Andronicus. No fool: but, alas, no Malchus either. They checked their long cavalry swords, hefted their emblazoned shields, couched their long ashen lances, and formed up at the gate in a long Teutonic column, four abreast. It was they who had carried out the original punitive attack on the Hun people north of the Danube, which had brought down this terrible vengeance. Inexorable orders from the Highest Authority, it was true; a grim but necessary task. Now they rode out against the enemy with real anger in their blood.

Sabinus raised his hand, glanced out once more across the plain. The Hun horsemen were vanishing away, ghostly figures glimpsed through clouds of ochre dust. His hand dropped. The gatekeepers hauled back the mighty oak timbers, the two iron-bound gates groaned open, and the column moved out at a steely trot. A great glittering serpent gliding out from its lair into the waiting world beyond.

The men on the battlements gave a cheer to see them. The majesty and power of the Schola Scutariorum Clibanariorum. Less majestically, the Boiler Boys, since they would bake inside their weighty armour on days like this. But they deliberately trained in the hottest weather, sometimes wearing extra clothing beneath the armour. They were used to it.

They pulled their horses’ heads in low and continued to trot steadily to maintain formation till the last. Their mounts wore shining silver chamfrons, masks of armour, of little practical use against arrows but highly effective in scaring the enemy horse. Horses were scared by everything: camels, elephants, other horses in masks. Sabinus had even heard that horses would turn back from attack at the merest scent of lion dung. Sadly he had no sacks of lion dung available just now.

The retreating Hun horsemen were still barely aware of the impending attack on their rear. Andronicus rose up in his saddle and gave the nod, and the column moved into an easy canter. A Hun glanced back and cried out a warning. Immediately Andronicus drove his spurs into his horse and it gave a low whinny as it moved into a full charging gallop. The column drove forwards.

The massed ranks of retreating Huns broke loose and separated before the juggernaut of iron and bronze could slam into them, and Sabinus saw immediately, from his accursed grandstand view on the western guard-tower, that his last, desperate attempt at counter-attack would fail. What a heavy cavalry column did best was hit a hard target, but here there would be no hard target to hit. The nomad horsemen galloped away into empty space before the Roman heavy cavalry, the Pannonian plains to them much like the limitless steppes of their native Scythia. The great armoured column punched into empty air, into taunting nothingness. And then some of the Huns, those with a few arrows left in their quivers, wheeled round and came back at them from the side, deft and fast, bows already slipping from muscular, copper-skinned shoulders.

Sabinus felt like the emperor himself in Constantinople, high up in his kathisma, his private box in the Hippodrome, watching an afternoon’s harmless entertainment. He tightened up with self-loathing. He had been to the capital, had seen the Obelisk of Theodosius the Great in the Hippodrome, triumphally erected back in 390. He had stood and surveyed the bas-reliefs of scruffy barbarians in animal skins, bowing low to the emperor and his family on high in their royal box. What arrogance. What hubris. What a hostage to fortune that haughty, self-laudatory monument would prove to be. The Emperor of the Eastern Romans, God’s Vice-Regent on Earth, perpetually victorious over the pagan hordes… To watch his men about to be slaughtered like this was almost more than Sabinus could bear.

‘Hunting the Huns on the open plain is like hunting a tiger in a dark forest,’ said a soft voice nearby. It was Arapovian. ‘At night. With a stick.’

‘Stow it, soldier.’

Sabinus was ready to sound the recall already, but then Andronicus gave a seeming yell of triumph, and Sabinus hesitated. It seemed the cavalry officer believed there was still a chance they might get through to the onagers and destroy them, before they themselves were destroyed.

Keeping his men in a tight and perfect column, essential when so vastly outnumbered, Andronicus turned them as tightly as he could and ploughed in left across the files of fleeing Hun horsemen. No, there was no satisfying hard target to splinter and demolish, but these light horsemen, out of arrows, barely armoured, indeed some barely clothed, could be cut down ruthlessly in smaller groups. And getting in amongst them like this, there was no chance their Hun comrades could reply with arrow-fire. They would only kill their own. It was a good move.

Sabinus nodded with satisfaction. One thing that stone-faced warlord had not expected, he guessed, was any such counter-attack. Well, let him feel it now. Now those light horse-warriors would feel what it was like to have the Boiler Boys crashing into their flank.

When a lancer drove into the flank of a Hunnish horse, the massive weight of the armoured knight tended to carry him right into and over the flailing and tumbling steppe pony. Either the rider was trapped or trampled beneath, or else, if he tried to come up again, the next lancer would be ready immediately behind to finish him off. Andronicus himself drove his lance in low, straight into a squat pony’s belly. The pony squealed and keeled over, dragging his lance from his hand as it went. Andronicus promptly pulled up and drew his spatha, his long-sword. The Hun horseman rolled and came up standing, covered in dust, half blinded, whipping round, drawing his curved sabre. The lancer behind Andronicus came past the Hun on the other side, galloping in close enough to touch him. He lowered his shield, aimed the heavy bronze boss straight for the Hun’s spinning head, and let his horse do the rest. The effect at that speed was to club the warrior headless where he stood, leaving nothing but the stump of a cadaver gouting blood from the neckhole.

It became a rout of the arrowless, fleeing steppe warriors, torn asunder by the heavyweight lancers, who were getting closer to the onagers all the time. Once there, a few well-aimed sword-strokes could do a lot of damage and buy them useful time. But in the whirling, blinding dust, the cavalrymen took too little notice of fresh Hun horsemen coming down from the ridge, quivers packed and bristling.

Suddenly the Roman column found itself falling behind, unable to pursue at such speed, and with some way still to go to reach the onagers. And then the Huns came back, deft and fast, lightweight gallopers as fast as swooping falcons, curling in on either side of the column, loosing off arrows on lethal flat trajectories – no elegant high arcs through the morning sky now – and angled to the column so as not to fly on and hit their own. The warriors held their small, deadly bows almost horizontal, shooting from the side, arrows barely visible as they spat from the bow from a mere hundred yards, fifty. They thocked into heavy wooden shields, each shield on each lancer’s left arm soon stuck with eight or ten arrows, weighing the rider down, tiring him. Soon even those strong arms began to drop, necks and shoulders became more exposed. The lancers were drenched in sweat within their coats of mail, eyes blinking furiously, straining to see.

The Hunnish horses didn’t seem afraid of the big Roman mounts masked in their unearthly silver chamfrons. Perhaps their riders didn’t allow them to be afraid. More arrows skidded off shoulder-guards or steep-sided Spangenhelms, sometimes ricocheting into softer flesh – the power behind each missile was awesome. Others hit direct and passed on, barely slowed by plate or chainmail, to bore into meat and bone. Blood gleamed on polished armour, as thin as oil on water, or trickled beneath, runnels of blood and sweat commingled.

A pair of buzzards, male and female, with two scrawny chicks to feed, circled overhead.

Andronicus pushed back his visor and left it up, raging and oblivious of pain in the chaos of the fight. He was hit in the thigh, but time enough for it to hurt later. He bellowed another order and then tightened up again, roaring round to the right, holding his long-sword thrust straight out before him like a lance. He had realised what was happening. Although they had done good damage to the arrowless riders in retreat, they were now surrounded, like hornets in a beehive. All he could see around them, their only horizon, was one vast, extended circle of galloping riders. The Huns loosed their arrows when passing through only one quadrant of the circle, so they wouldn’t hit their own men the other side. Smart. They reloaded around the rest of the gallop.

Andronicus’ men were going down everywhere, reeling in the bright sunshine, crying out, heads thrown back, lances trailing. He drove his wheeled spurs into his charger’s broad flanks and led his men to break out of the circle again. No Hun line could withstand that shock. But instead of withstanding it, the enemy simply melted away before it. The circle ebbed around them and re-formed and they were still surrounded. The Huns’ tactical agility was extraordinary. But how did they know when to re-form, when to hold fire, when to move? Who gave the order? It was uncanny. Even now, Andronicus could admire it. He had heard of the Huns. Now he saw them, and understood. No demons out of the wilderness, after all. Just awesome warriors. Perhaps the hardest that Rome had fought in all her long history.

Across the plain, on the low rise, the Hun warlord sat unmoving, like some primitive votive statue cut from basalt in the desert. He gave no orders to his whirling thousands.

Another flight of arrows came in and Andronicus crouched low in his saddle, his face buried in his horse’s coarse mane. Sometimes that rough, sweet horse-smell comforted him, in the stables at the end of a hard day’s training or, better still, a hunt. But not now. All comfort was far from him now. An arrow clanged on his shoulder and cut his neck open. His sweat stung in the wound. His linen soutane was sticky with blood.

Too many of his men were fallen, and the column’s coherence was lost. The day, too, was lost. The sun was well past noon, and sinking, its light beginning to shine from behind the stone warlord on the crest and his innumerable ranks of warriors, to burn cruelly in the eyes of the Roman lancers and their comrades on the doomed walls of Viminacium. The judgement of the sun was plain.

From those walls came the desperate, far-away sound of the recall. Andronicus could have laughed. Some hope. ‘Come and get us, friends,’ he muttered, finding his mouth was full of blood.

Now mere isolated individuals, some cavalrymen tried to pull their mounts round and head back to the fort, but they were picked off one by one. Others milled vacantly. Andronicus twisted in his saddle and looked around, and another arrow cut across his back. Had he been sitting straight it would have killed him. There was only one thing left to try. There would be no return to the fort for them. He gave one last, desperate order, spraying blood. ‘Free charge for the onagers!’ He gritted his teeth. Think of it as a suicide mission. Never give up hope. Die in the attack.

The onagers stood impassively, a hundred yards off still, thickly surrounded by Hun horsemen, arrows nocked. He spurred his horse forward with a last fury. Crazy. To take out those onagers and do any lasting damage, many men would be needed, with leisure time to spare. Not like this.

One blood-boltered fool flailing his sword in the air. It seemed to him now, out on his own, with his men trailing wounded or dead behind him, that the Huns were waiting for him, with a true warrior curiosity as to how profound his courage might be. How would he die? Like a man, after all?

Andronicus galloped on, sword stretched out before him, arm shaking, the sun in his eyes. If it is with all dying men as they say, he saw his own family before him when he died, arms outstretched to embrace him, and not the searing sun.

The Huns said among themselves that he died bravely, that leader of the iron horsemen. Later that night, stripped of his armour, they would lay him on a pyre with their own dead, and send him to the otherworld in the care of his gods whose names they did not even know.

A long way back, a single Roman lancer had obeyed the recall and broken free of the Hun circle uninjured. Sabinus ordered the south gates open. But the Huns’ murderous impudence knew no bounds. A single copper-skinned warrior, clad in nothing but fur and feathers, came galloping in fast and low on a filthy little piebald, slewed in hard virtually under the heavy charger’s thundering hooves, drew his bowstring back into his chest and loosed an arrow. Travelling all of five yards, it smacked into the lancer’s face, punched through and came out the back of his helmet. The heavy horse continued to canter forwards, its dead rider lolling. The little horse warrior of the steppes pulled up to inspect his handiwork, and from his fellows an admiring cheer went up at this deed of battlefield daring. As if it was mere sport to them, even as many of their own tribe lay dead around the walls of the fort. All men must die. Why not die gloriously, in battle? War was much like a hunt over the steppes, and the best hunters always make the finest soldiers.

Tatullus bestrode the battlements, ordering his crossbowmen to take the Hun rider out, but they couldn’t hit him. They were few now, and very tired. Their crossbows trembled in sweaty hands, their arm muscles ached atrociously, their tired eyes blurred. The rider kept galloping, turning. He even punched his fist at them. Obscenely the dead rider, the arrow stuck through his head, still lolled in his wooden saddle when his horse trotted in through the gates.

‘Get him down,’ said Tatullus, ‘and close up.’

‘Sir?’

Tatullus glared at him. No, there would be no more coming back.

The gates began to close.

‘Another man coming in!’ came a call from the walls.

Hell.

But not one should be lost out of fear. The gates would stand open for any who came. Tatullus sent a runner to the guard-tower.

Sabinus was hit, but he would not have anyone know it. His side was heavily padded with linen bandages, which he hoped would soak up the blood. But every time he shouted an order, he bled more. He could feel his face whiten and sweat. His ears rang as his blood pressure dropped. Let me not faint, he prayed. He pleaded. Not for himself but for his men and the honour of Rome. Let those of us who still live and breathe, heroes every one – after this much battle, this much loss – let us not die now. Let rescue come soon. Let justice be done.

A loose Roman horse was ambling back from the scene of the cavalry’s carnage, nodding its big head sleepily, as if returning from no more than a day in the haymeadows. As it passed a tangle of slain Hun warriors lying close to the fort, one of the dead rose up from among them, black with old blood, seized hold of the horse’s reins and saddle, and hauled himself up onto the peaceable beast. Together they rode on serenely towards the south gate.

It was Malchus! The man was indestructible. Multiply wounded, ridden down by a horde of a thousand, taking refuge out there among the middens of the slain. Through the mask of black blood gleamed the white teeth of his smile.

Behind him rolled a dust-cloud of numberless horsemen.

‘Every other unit off the walls and to the south gate!’ bellowed Sabinus.

Men scrambled, some nearly laughing with tiredness.

The legate clutched his side. He sent one of the few pedites still standing down to Tatullus.

The centurion understood. For their own sake, Malchus must be saved. Such small miracles were everything now; now everything else was lost.

‘Take your pikes! Holding pattern at the gate – and I mean hold them!’

Tatullus himself had taken up his beloved billhook, a fearsome weapon which combined a broad curved pike-blade and a long, thin side-spike. He would never ask his men to do what he would not. He stood out before the gate unshielded. An experimental arrow flew close by. He appeared not to notice it, settling his close-fitting helmet more firmly on his head, his deep-set eyes looking out unblinking and unafraid.

Malchus was still a hundred yards off, trotting calmly, though a little unsteady in the saddle. And then the thundering hooves.

‘I want him in! Do not close the gate.’

The exhausted and the walking wounded men formed a semi-circular pike line about the south gate, thick ashwood pike-butts jammed in the hard ground, blades ranged outwards at chest level. On their left arms, propped forward, their big oval infantry shields. No horse would charge a line of standing pikes. Only mortal men indulged in the heroics of suicide.

The black and bloody chimera that was Malchus brushed between two parted pikes, saying never a word. But he was indeed grinning. He vanished into the courtyard and the pikes closed up. They managed to take a couple of steps backwards for the safety of the gate. Then the Huns were on them.

Curved sabres flashed in the air. One or two horsemen, vainglorious and young, tried to hurl themselves from their saddles over the line of pikes, knives clutched in their fists, only to be battered down by embossed shields, or impaled in the air as they leaped. A pike sank down to the earth with the dead weight, and another horseman rode in close and lashed out with his bullhide whip, pulling the pikeman after him. The wretched man fell forwards, stumbling over his own shield, and a third Hun lopped his head off.

‘Pull back in formation! Gatekeepers, stand ready.’

It was desperate.

Other Huns were dismounting, comprehending quickly that horses were an encumbrance now, and instead running at the line of lowered pikes, aiming to slip between them and knife the defenders. The shields tilted further forward, the only gap between them for the pikestaffs. A billhook slashed sideways. It was Tatullus, standing at the very front of his men, as implacable as a bronze statue. A Hun warrior’s stomach opened and he sprawled in his own guts. Two of his comrades leaped back, hissing, one of them only just in time to avoid another lethal side-swipe from that billhook.

In the very shadow of the gate-tower, a big fellow swung a club. It was Knuckles. The club was already dove-grey with spilled brains.

‘Hold them!’ yelled Tatullus again, stepping slowly backwards, the circle of pikemen shrinking behind him. He prayed there were crossbowmen left on the wall above. They were finished without a good volley.

Suddenly the Huns fell back again and in another instant, from behind them, arrows came arcing down on the isolated pikemen in short, high trajectories. Shields were hauled up but often too late, the arrows whistling down cruelly on exposed heads and sagging shoulders. Angry shouts, screams, men clutching and staggering and falling back, losing formation.

Yet even as those still standing stepped backwards over their fallen comrades, they lowered their pikes again and locked shields, and took another stand, now in the very arch of the gateway. Their discipline was magnificent. A Hun horseman who had blindfolded his horse rode at them screaming in fury and crashed into the immoveable shield-wall. Pikes finished him.

More Huns milled frustratedly, dismounting and remounting aimlessly, seeing the gates standing open just before them, some even screaming insults at each other as if unable to believe that, after all the day’s punishment, this handful of dusty, dogged men were still able to hold them back, thousands of them. Truly, these Romans were no women.

Sabinus stood unsteadily on the south wall above, marshalling what remaining crossbowmen he could. So much for their limitless supplies. The store of crossbow bolts was at last running low. They had never reckoned on an assault of this magnitude. In the distance he could hear a harsh, grating, goading voice above the melee, and guessed that it was the implacable Hun warlord ordering his men on, telling them to finish it. Sabinus grunted. Let ’em try.

He raised his hand. His last crossbowmen stepped up to the battlements. His hand dropped, and a last, terrific volley of iron-tipped bolts sliced mercilessly into the front rank of the milling and frustrated Huns. Instantly, Tatullus turned and drove his men back inside the fort, and the gates were slammed together. Even as the gatekeepers set the first oak crossbar in the huge holding-braces, a great weight slammed into the other side. The soldiers dropped their pikes and shields in the chaos and threw themselves against the gate.

‘Get the second bar in now!’ ordered Tatullus. Not loudly, but they heard him.

From the wall came a second Roman volley. The gate was now almost blocked by the heaps of the Hun dead. Yet another slamming assault on the other side, though, until the second, higher crossbar was in, and then the gate settled together, rock solid. The Huns broke against it like waves at the foot of a cliff.

Up on the walls the crossbowmen cranked their bows for one last volley, set the bolts in the grooves, held the stocks to their eyes and took aim into the clouds of dust below. But as the dust slowly settled they saw that the enemy had gone.

Arm muscles shaking and burning, they lowered their weapons and bowed their heads. Sweat ran down their filthy faces. Not one had the strength to wipe it away.

Sabinus turned from them so as to control his voice. ‘Well done, men,’ he said quietly.

But they could not go on.

He ordered a head-count.

Tatullus came up the stairs and saluted. He glanced briefly at Sabinus’ wadded side, then looked him straight in the eye. A momentary pause.

‘Sir.’

Sabinus nodded. ‘Centurion.’

‘Fit: twenty-four. Wounded: as many as two hundred. Walking wounded: perhaps fifty.’

And slain? Sabinus could do the sums. Half the legion. More.

‘How many auxiliaries still with us?’

Tatullus looked out over the fort. The auxiliaries were busy helping the limping wounded, hauling the dead, taking round water, bringing up the last of any missiles they could find. He looked back. ‘All of them, sir. None has abandoned us. Not one.’

At those words, it seemed to Sabinus that even his centurion’s hard eyes shone bright with emotion.

Wiping his bespattered club clean beside a water-butt, Knuckles came upon the cavalry captain, Malchus.

He had refused medical aid, and was sewing, swabbing and bandaging himself from a little wooden box by his side. Knuckles watched in fascination. Malchus smeared a whitish paste over his stitched wounds. Knuckles could smell it was garlic, and maybe oxide of zinc. The captain threw back his head and closed his eyes and clenched his teeth a while. Must have stung a bit. Then he bandaged his shallower cuts. There were a lot of them: on his arms, his legs, a nasty one on his thigh, and a nastier one still across his chest. One of his ears didn’t look much like an ear any more, either. Then he took out a squat bottle of watery red liquid and poured it in a thin trickle over his bandages, letting the linen soak it up.

‘Red meat, wine, garlic,’ muttered Knuckles. ‘What you doin’, makin’ a fuckin’ casserole of yourself?’

Malchus looked up and grinned painfully. ‘Very tasty dish I’d be, too.’

Knuckles grunted. ‘Ladies first.’

Across the plain, if any cared to watch, the slain cavalrymen were being stripped of their armour. And a more mysterious figure was moving against the sinking sun. A vulture seemed to keep watch over her, circling high above. She wore long dark robes, an elaborate head-dress, and seemed to hold a twisting snake in her hands. Occasionally she knelt down beside one of the fallen Roman cavalrymen like a ministering angel. Arapovian watched from the walls with his deep-set hawk-eyes, and thought he saw one of the cavalrymen stir and try to scrabble desperately out of her long shadow. The Armenian gripped his bow more tightly as he watched, but he was helpless. They were all helpless. The woman knelt beside the cavalryman, and when she rose again he moved no more.

She would be ministering to them all soon enough, if no help came.

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