Bersheba was nervous.
Rufus could feel the tension in her shoulders and from time to time she would raise her trunk and cautiously sniff the air. Her normally certain steps were uncharacteristically hesitant. Occasionally she would stop altogether — a massive grey dam — causing the long column to concertina behind them and the overseers to scream abuse.
He studied his surroundings to see if he could identify the source of her concern. Sometimes the scent of wolf or some other predator would affect her, but he could see no sign of any danger. A pair of young buzzards circled high above, their shrill ‘ky-iiiik’ cries sharp in the clear air. He was tired and not a little nervous himself. He had been woken in the night by the shuffling of feet and the muffled clink of armour shortly after drifting into unconsciousness. It was pitch dark, so he could see nothing, but there must have been some movement of men from the front to the rear of the column. It was unusual, but not unknown. Nevertheless, he had cursed them for his hours of lost sleep.
The baggage train snaked through the centre of a steep-sided, wooded valley with a small stream wandering along it. On each side of the stream for a hundred paces the terrain was flat water meadow: sweet, knee-high grass scattered liberally with tiny flowers of blue and yellow. The meadow looked inviting, but the slippery sward made difficult going for the heavy-laden wagons and progress was slow. The cart containing Bersheba’s feed had already become bogged down twice and they’d had to enlist a dozen slaves to push it clear. He prayed no one was wondering why such a light load should cause such a problem, and scattered the straw a little thicker across the cart’s floor. A wide gap was developing between the drab-clothed baggage minders and the glittering plate armour of the close-ranked legionary formation ahead of them. As Rufus watched, a mounted officer galloped back to confront the quartermaster responsible for the Second’s transport.
‘If you don’t get this column moving and catch up with the main force, General Vespasian will have your testicles for a paperweight and your cock for a fly whisk,’ the horseman roared.
The quartermaster stared back at him contemptuously. He was a veteran of campaigns from the dusty African plains to the snowy wastes of Germania. He had been shouted at before and was not going to be cowed by any young staff peacock. ‘If the legate thinks he can move this shambles any faster than it’s going he can have any part of me he likes, and I’ll throw in my poor old piles as a bonus. The fact is,’ he said with exaggerated patience, ‘whoever led us into this mud patch didn’t take any account of my wagons. The only way we’re going to catch up in the next hour is if you stop, and we both know Vespasian isn’t going to do that. So you go back there and tell him we’re doing the best we can, and that we’ll make better time once we’re out of this swamp.’
Rufus heard the younger man suggest that the gap in the column threatened the security of the legion. The quartermaster took a long look at the receding backs of the legionaries and spat on the grass beside the officer’s horse.
‘The more time we spend standing here arguing the worse it’s going to get. Send back a squadron of cavalry if you like, but by the time you’ve got them organized I’ll probably be sitting in my tent drinking wine and dreaming of women, which is what I generally do of an evening.’ He pointed to the thin line of auxiliary infantrymen escorting the baggage train. ‘We’ve barely seen a sign of the enemy for a week, and these lads are more than a match for a few spearmen.’
‘The responsibility is yours, then.’
‘The responsibility was always mine, sonny. That’s what they pay me for, and nothing you pretty boys who wipe the legate’s backside say will make it different.’
The young officer muttered an obscenity and galloped off after the main column, his horse’s flying hooves spattering the quartermaster with muddy sod. For a moment the man stood grinning, pleased with his small victory, then he turned on the soldiers who had stopped to listen to the argument. ‘What do you layabouts think you’re looking at? Get back there and get these tortoises on the move. Use the whip if you have to. I want this shambles back with the main force before they make camp. Move, you lazy bastards.’
‘The beating heart of the Empire.’ The mild voice came from just below Rufus’s left foot and he looked down to see Narcissus walking by Bersheba’s side, four of his Celtic bodyguards at his back. The Greek still wore native clothes, but he was clean-shaven and his bald head glowed pink in the early-afternoon sun. He noticed Rufus’s puzzled look. ‘Men like these,’ he explained, nodding to where the quartermaster stood shouting out his commands, ‘are the beating heart of the Empire, for without them there would be no Empire.’
‘Did a philosopher write that?’ When Rufus had been an animal trainer for the arena, his master had paid for the young slave to be taught to read and write and given him access to an extensive library. But Fronto had been accused by one of Caligula’s aides of cheating the young Emperor and Rufus’s chances of freedom had died with the trader.
Narcissus laughed. ‘Yes, it sounds like something Cicero would have put in one of his speeches, but I’m afraid it’s all mine. I quite like it. I must write it down and expand upon it. Narcissus’s History Of, and Peroration Upon, the Empire and its Officials. It should sell well, don’t you think?’
Rufus smiled politely. ‘I didn’t expect to see you again so soon,’ he said, casting a wary eye towards the cart, where Britte sat beside a boisterous Gaius watching them suspiciously. Narcissus followed his gaze and shook his head ruefully.
‘Women. They are such fickle creatures. I have been wooing a certain haughty lady who is important to our cause, but I fear she will be an expensive mistress.’ Rufus was surprised. This was hardly an appropriate time for romance, and Narcissus seemed the least romantic of men. ‘Do you notice anything different?’ The Greek changed the subject abruptly.
Rufus shrugged. ‘You seem to have lost your horses and you shaved this morning. I haven’t shaved for a week.’
‘Your personal hygiene is of no interest to me. And you know very well no sensible horse will come anywhere near this lumbering monster.’ He patted Bersheba on the shoulder to show no offence was meant. ‘No, do you notice anything about your surroundings?’
Rufus looked around him. Nothing seemed to have changed in the last hour. The valley was perhaps a little wider, the legionary formation ahead of them a little further in the distance. But there was something. The column itself. It seemed… thicker? The crowd of baggage slaves about him was packed closer and many of them were wearing their cloaks despite the afternoon heat. He gave Narcissus an enquiring look, but the Greek’s only reply was an infuriatingly enigmatic smile as he kept pace by Bersheba’s side.
It was one of those peculiarly beautiful British days when sharp, clean air and a cloudless sky seemed to combine to create an effervescence in the blood: a heady elixir that heightened the senses but, conversely, lowered the guard. Rufus felt the moment it changed, and he saw Narcissus’s expression turn serious as he felt it too. Two heartbeats. A tiny oasis of calm in the midst of a thunderstorm. An unnatural stillness, as if for an instant the entire universe, god, animal and man, paused to take breath.
A pair of fat wood pigeons exploded from the trees at the edge of Rufus’s vision. The earth sprouted men.
Rufus’s eyes didn’t believe what they were seeing. There must have been five hundred warriors hidden among the trees, but such was the level of concealment it seemed their gods had made them part of the landscape. One moment the valley was a tranquil forest scene, the next it was filled by an avenging army with a single objective.
For the first heart-stopping instant of the charge the Celtic warriors ran in silence, but when they had covered half a dozen paces the air was split as five hundred throats united in a single scream that chilled Rufus’s blood and made Bersheba shift uneasily between his knees. They could have attacked anywhere along the column, but their chieftain had bided his time until the Emperor’s elephant was directly opposite his ambush. Every eye in that sweating, racing mass of men was focused on her. Every sword and every spear thirsted for her blood. None of the warriors wore armour, because this was a lightning attack designed to break the thin screen of auxiliary troops. Its power was in the speed and momentum of the attackers, which would take them through and beyond the defensive line and into the mass of unarmed baggage slaves. To slaughter. To Bersheba.
‘So that is their intent?’ Narcissus said calmly. ‘Take your elephant and your family to the far side of the column. You will be safe there.’
Only now did Rufus notice the figures around them shrugging off their thick cloaks, revealing the pot helmets with their neck-protectors and cheek-pieces, the faded red tunics, and the gleaming plate armour — the lorica segmentata — of the legionary heavy infantry that clinked rhythmically as they marched. They were already in their sections and they moved purposefully through the auxiliaries to form a double line, perhaps two hundred paces in length, precisely where the British attack would strike. The first Britons were still fifty yards away when, at a shouted order, the legionaries hefted their brightly painted rectangular shields shoulder high and locked them in an impenetrable defensive wall. A second order and the razor-edged short swords they carried on their right hips sang free from their scabbards in a single practised movement.
Another enemy might have hesitated; might have seen their defeat in that wall of painted shields. But not this enemy. From his position on Bersheba’s shoulders Rufus saw them, not now as an amorphous mass, but as individuals, mouths gaping and eyes bulging with pent-up hate. They fought naked from the waist upwards, though it was difficult to tell because their bodies were so densely covered in intricate blue-veined tattoos they appeared clothed. Each man was magnificently muscled and carried a seven-foot throwing spear or a heavy, straight sword. Many had limed their long hair into jagged spikes that made them appear even taller than they were. Their feet were bare, the better to find purchase on the slippery grass. Every one was a warrior, bred for battle.
The attack had no tactical formation, but it seethed with bloodthirsty intent. The fastest and strongest gradually emerged from the pack to take the lead. They were the champions, the battering rams who would smash great gaps in the enemy line and allow the long swords the space to carve left and right, cutting bone and sinew and enlarging the break still further. But the men facing them behind the big shields were warriors too. Each soldier of the Second Augusta was a battle-hardened veteran of the German frontier wars. He had eaten and passed wind, served and suffered, laughed and cried with the comrades to his left and right for longer than he cared to remember. They were his family and he trusted them, quite literally, with his life. For if their sword arms should fail them after an hour of hard fighting, or the curve-edged shields that protected them give way before a charging enemy, they were all dead. So he trusted them. And they trusted him. They had confidence, because they were the best-equipped army in the world and they knew it.
‘The Second won’t use their throwing spears,’ Narcissus predicted. ‘They want them in tight, buckle to buckle, where they will become entangled.’ For the first time Rufus noticed that the front rank of legionaries had embedded the heavy metal-pointed spears they carried into the dry ground at the rear of the line, while the second rank held the heavy spears shoulder high in two hands ready to stab at any exposed throat or chest which showed itself.
Closer now, so Rufus could actually hear the muted thunder of a thousand charging feet slamming into the turf above the panicked gabble of voices around him. With twenty paces between the opposing forces one man broke clear of the other attackers, not a giant, but with long legs that flew across the grass.
‘Hold. Hold. Hold.’ The shout of a centurion was repeated along the line by the double-pay men.
The warrior with the long legs screamed a mindless, high-pitched message filled with venom and launched himself from ten paces, feet first, at the painted insignia of a legionary shield. It was a suicidal one-man bid to crack open the Roman line that appeared as if it must succeed. But the Romans were ready.
‘Now… brace!’ The centurion roared his command. Three hundred forearms tensed in the leather shield-straps, three hundred fists tightened on the hand grip behind the heavy bronze boss and three hundred shoulders pushed forward against the bare wood of the shield’s rear surface. The attacker struck the centre of the line with the force of a charging bullock, but the shock of his flying leap was absorbed not only by the man whose shield he had targeted, but by those on his right and left who had, at the last instant, edged their own shields behind his. The Briton was smashed backwards to sprawl dazed in front of the shield wall and in the same second fifty of his fellow tribesmen hit the legionary line in an avalanche of bodies with all the power of hate behind it. When they met, the very air shook with the impact. The Roman shield wall buckled and contorted, but, incredibly, it held, and the frustrated warriors leapt to their feet and began pounding the hated insignia with their swords. But a long sword needs room to be swung and before they could make more than two or three swingeing cuts the main British force was crushing them forward against the Roman line. Trapped between the two pressures, they could only jab ineffectually at the helmeted heads showing behind the shields. Now it was time for the scorpion sting of the gladius. The legionaries’ short swords with their needle-sharp triangular points had been designed for just this close work. Rufus heard the shrieks of surprise and pain as the first Britons died, their exposed bellies pierced as the defenders stabbed between their big shields at the nearest foe and wrenched the blades free in the classic gutting stroke. From between each pair of legionaries, the spears of the second rank darted and jabbed at neck, face and shoulder, ripping at eyes and throats. The first blood of the afternoon stained the crushed blooms of the blue and yellow flowers and ran down to nourish the fertile earth of the meadow.
The noise of the battle was an assault on Rufus’s ears. A cacophony of grunts and screams; howls of mortal agony and roars of frustration; the mighty, reverberating clang of the British warriors’ long iron swords against the hardened wood of Roman shields: the damp, butcher’s-block thud of a sword edge hacking into muscle and bone.
He attempted to move Bersheba away from the fighting through the ranks of panicking baggage slaves with their mules and oxen, but even the elephant’s enormous bulk could only make slow progress. As they went, he felt her twitch beneath him and he struggled to hold her as she danced and shuffled, threatening to crush the terrified men around her. Now another sound registered itself on Rufus’s senses, a whizzing, quicksilver buzz like the high-speed passage of some giant insect. Suddenly he understood why she was so animated. He looked beyond the melee of warriors struggling to overcome the Roman line in what had become a great shoving match. A dozen men stood clear of the ruck and he saw one of them swing his arm four or five times in a circular motion before unleashing some missile towards them. This time he heard the smack as a round stone an inch across hit Bersheba on the rump, making her dance sideways. Slingers; of course the British would have slingers. They were at the limit of their range and the stones were as little threat to Bersheba as fleabites, but annoying just the same. Another missile whirred as it passed close above his head and Rufus realized with a thrill of fear that, although the elephant was safe from the attack, her rider was not. If any one of the stones which were bouncing so harmlessly from Bersheba’s leathery skin hit his head it would smash his skull like an eggshell.
He was manoeuvring his way down her flank to a less exposed position when he noticed the spearman. The bright-blue boar tattooed upon his chest made him stand out even in that jostling crowd of warriors. He was tall, with the broad shoulders of a wrestler, and the arm that was thrown back was as thick as one of Rufus’s thighs. His massive fist was wrapped round the shaft of a seven-foot ash spear. As Rufus watched, the arm whipped forward. It was an incredible cast, and he could barely believe the speed with which the spear crossed the hundred paces that separated them. Surely it must fall short? Please be short. But he realized with horror that its arc was bringing it directly towards him. To Bersheba. Its aim would bring it plunging into her ribs close to the top of her right foreleg. If it had enough force behind it, it could penetrate her lungs.
By now he was on the ground beside her. He saw the spear come as if time had slowed to a crawl. Watched it spiral on its own axis, the polished metal of the lethal leaf-shaped point glinting in the sun as it rolled. He screamed in impotent anguish as it dropped, increasing speed, towards her. No! With all the strength he could muster he launched himself into the air so he was almost half his own height from the ground. Still the spear came and for a split second he feared that he had mistimed his jump and that it would be his body that felt the murderous bite of that terrible blade. But the fingers that reached out to snatch the spear from the air a bare four feet from Bersheba’s exposed flank were sure. He landed in a crouch with the long ash shaft clutched convulsively in his right fist, heavy and dangerous, the wood still blood-warm from its thrower’s hand and damp with the owner’s sweat. When he looked up every eye was on him, slaves and auxiliary soldiers staring with that not quite canny look he had seen aimed at Cupido after the gladiator had performed another seemingly impossible feat in the amphitheatre. For a moment he was no longer Rufus, the slave; he was Rufus the entertainer, who had once won over the mob in the crumbling magnificence of the Taurus arena. Very deliberately, he rose to his full height and brandished the spear above his head so all could see it. The acclamation began as a murmur but quickly grew to a roar that almost drowned the death cries from beyond the undulating wall of legionaries. When it reached its peak Rufus threw back his arm and hurled the spear in a great whirling curve over the heads of the Roman line and into the packed mass of British warriors.
Bersheba caught his mood. She turned her huge head in the direction of the fight, flared her galley-sail ears and raised her trunk to let out a trumpeting roar of defiance that echoed along the valley. It was an ear-bursting blast that made even Rufus, who had heard it a hundred times before, quail before its power. The violence and the terror of it cleared a half-moon among the awed baggage slaves in front of her and for a fleeting moment it seemed that even the battle paused. To the Britons she was the terrible beast they had come to kill: the Roman monster whose annihilation would shatter Roman hopes and weaken Roman hearts. Now they saw her in all her might and for a second the sheer visceral force of it unmanned them, but only for a second. For the battle was continuing. Men were dying, Romans as well as Britons, because Rufus could hear the screamed curses as they were dragged, bleeding, from the front rank, and see that the shield line was noticeably shorter than before. If the Britons managed to outflank the legionary shields, only a few lightly armed auxiliaries would stand between them and the helpless baggage train. He looked round for some avenue of escape, but Narcissus touched his shoulder. ‘Wait.’
A rasping signal sounded from the curved horn of one of the cornicens — an insignificant echo of Bersheba’s trumpeted battle cry. Then, above the screams and the insane clamour of the battlefield, Rufus heard a rumble that reminded him of a distant waterfall, growing louder with each passing second.
They came simultaneously from both ends of the valley, as if they were practising a parade-ground manoeuvre. Two squadrons of cavalry, big men on big horses, recruited from the flat plains of northern Gaul, armed with iron-tipped lances and heavy swords. If the British war chief had seen them, he would surely have given the order to flee, but he was caught in the crush in front of the Roman line, cursing and screaming at his men to break through, to kill the beast. By the time the warriors at the rear realized what was about to happen, it was too late.
The squadrons came in three extended lines and at the full gallop. The first lines hit both flanks of the enemy attack in the same instant, the charging horses smashing men flat with bone-shattering force, ripping at faces with their yellowed teeth and crushing skulls with flying hooves. The elemental power of the charge gave the lances a killing capability that was almost beyond imagination, the long spears punching through a first body as if it were made of silk, then spearing another, then another, before the weight of dying men forced the cavalry trooper to drop the weapon and reach for his sword.
The first lines were followed ten seconds later by the second, with similar devastating effect, but the third rank of each squadron wheeled away to form an unbroken barrier between the attackers and the sanctuary of the tree-lined valley wall.
The Britons were trapped.
A growl of rage went up from the surrounded men. They understood they were defeated, but they were warriors, they knew how to fight and they knew how to die. If they were to go to their gods they would take as many Romans as they could kill with them. The intensity of the fighting in front of the shield wall, already savage, grew to a kind of wild-eyed mindlessness as men tore at each other to reach the hated enemy. Behind them, the heavy cavalry swords rose and fell, hacking at arms and shoulders and heads, until a spray of blood and brains fell like summer raindrops on killer and victim alike. A man screamed from what was once a mouth as he realized he would never see again because his face had been sheared off by a sword blade, the way a slave would peel the skin from a ripe pear. Another sobbed as he watched, stupefied, while his lifeblood drained from the stumps of his forearms. A few had helmets, but that did not save them. The force of the falling swords was enough to crush metal and bone alike.
‘They’re beaten,’ Rufus said, his voice shaking in wonder at the scale of the carnage. ‘Why don’t they give up?’
‘They are barbarians. They don’t surrender, they die.’ The voice was flat, emotionless. Not Narcissus, but a heavy-set man in elaborate, polished armour and a legate’s scarlet cloak. He was accompanied by a staff of a dozen young officers and a twenty-strong bodyguard of cavalry who reined in their nervous horses well upwind of Bersheba.
‘So you were right, Master Narcissus. They came for the elephant.’
‘And you were right, General, to salt the baggage train with a half-cohort of infantry disguised as slaves. The gap in the column was fortuitous, but I don’t believe they would have attacked unless they believed we were weak.’
Rufus studied the commander of the Second Augusta. Titus Flavius Vespasian had a way of holding himself that suggested he had been carved from solid stone. Now in his mid-thirties, he had used his family connections to rise steadily through the ranks of the aristocracy until the only thing standing between him and a consulship was a successful military campaign. He was tough, ambitious and intelligent, but if its owner was undoubtedly noble, the face was that of a provincial butcher, broad and puffy-fleshed, and only saved from being ugly by a rather handsome nose.
Vespasian frowned, as if Narcissus’s attempt at flattery offended him. ‘Nothing is certain in war. If the cavalry had been less timely it would have been hot work for a while.’ He nodded in dismissal and forced his white stallion forward through the crush of the baggage train, to where his legionaries were still sweating to contain the snarling remnants of the British attack in front of their shields.
‘Steady, comrades. You almost have them. A ration of the best wine for the third cohort tonight.’ The encouragement was greeted by a ragged, dry-throated cheer. Then in a quieter voice to the stern-faced officer who commanded the cohort he said, ‘Give them another minute and form wedge. That’ll finish the bastards.’
The surviving warriors were trapped in a blood-slick square perhaps two hundred paces across, hemmed in by cavalry on three sides and the fourth an impenetrable wall of shields. Five hundred men had launched themselves from the forest, confident they would slice through the thin defensive line and destroy the enemy’s talisman. Thirty minutes into the battle less than half of them were left standing, and more fell to join their dead and dying comrades with every swing of the sword.
‘Wedge formation.’ The centurion’s command was obeyed in three well-practised movements which turned the infantry line into four arrowheads. The legionaries used their shields to batter their way deep into the heart of the enemy ranks, destroying any remaining cohesion or illusion of command. Rufus saw the panic spread through the British force like a ripple on the surface of a wind-blown pool. There was no visible evidence of surrender, only a palpable recognition of defeat. It was accompanied by a sound like a snarling dog as the warriors realized they could no longer fight, but only die. Some of them would have given in to despair, but the trap was sealed so tight they did not even have the choice of falling on their swords. Only one among them retained his composure, on the far edge of the slaughter where the cavalry screen was lightest and the trees closest. Somehow he was able to organize a concerted assault against the weak point of the Roman line. Fifty warriors broke through the gap and sprinted for the wooded hillside and safety.
‘Let them go.’ The legate’s roar halted the cavalry pursuit. He turned to the tribune who was his closest aide. ‘You must always leave a few to tell the tale, Geta. They’ll think twice before they try to tickle us again.’