Four miles downstream from where the Batavians were forming their line and a mile beyond the left flank of Caratacus’s position, Ballan’s heart thundered so hard he wondered it didn’t burst from his ribs. He was looking at an army of ghosts.
‘Esus save us,’ he whispered. His eyes told him he was seeing what he was seeing, but the impossibility of it overwhelmed his mind and the thin fabric of his sanity threatened to tear apart inside his head. Every instinct told him to run. To get away from this haunted place to somewhere, anywhere, he would be safe. Most men would have fled — the frightened shouts and the sound of horses charging through the riverside scrub told him his scouts already had — but he was Ballan. Ballan of a hundred battles. Ballan of a dozen secret missions. And some power within that Ballan forced him to face his fears and stay. He closed his eyes and shook his head, but when he opened them again the only thing that had changed was that the ghost-soldiers were closer to the north bank. He could see now that the spirit-general leading them through the swirling vortexes of the mist wore a plumed helmet and was mounted upon a magnificent white horse. A cloak of scarlet covered his burnished armour. The pale horse pranced and high-stepped as if it was on parade, and, as the mist cleared for a fragmentary second, Ballan could see it was splashing through water that only just reached its fetlocks, water that could only be a few inches in depth, but he knew — knew — was a dozen feet deep at the very least. Behind the phantom general came his phantom legion, only their helmeted heads and the points of their throwing spears showing above the mist. Close-ranked, disciplined sections eighty men strong, each separated by a few feet and kept in position by a centurion. Slowly Ballan’s brain came to terms with what he was witnessing. Surely it was only the setting that filled him with dread? Everything else was familiar, almost comfortingly so. He had watched the Romans for weeks now and the only thing different about these men was that they were doing the impossible. If anything, the ranks were a little tighter. They were marching so close together they were almost getting in each other’s way.
His fear evaporated, the way the mist on the water would evaporate with the first rays of the morning sun, and that same mist drifted slightly once more, allowing him to see the little poles rising out of the water. The poles that showed the Roman legion where to march. The poles that marked the underwater bridge they had constructed beneath the very noses of Caratacus’s army. The singing — that was it! Each night the voices of a thousand men had masked the sound of construction. How had they managed to build a bridge below the water? He didn’t know, but if anyone could do it, the Romans could. He shuddered as he realized the full implications of what he was seeing. This was a full legion, perhaps five thousand strong. Once they completed the crossing they would wheel and take Caratacus’s army in the flank. He concentrated, trying to remember who had the left flank of the British force. Togodumnus was on the right, furthest upriver; Caratacus in the centre with his Catuvellauni and Trinovantes, the Iceni and Scarach’s Durotriges. That meant it would be Epedos and the Atrebates, and Bodvoc and his Regni who faced the flank attack. Could they hold the fighting power of a full legion? Yes, if they had time to prepare for the attack. But not if they were caught by surprise. He hauled on his pony’s reins and dug his heels into her flanks. He had seen enough. He galloped through the sand-blown scrub in the wake of his fleeing men. Caratacus must know.
It was thirty minutes before he was able to round up the rest of the scouts and gather them shamefaced on their blown horses. He didn’t blame them for running. There were some things it was sensible to run from. He had seen exactly what they had and he’d been close to running himself. But there were also some things that had to be said.
‘You think you ran from ghosts?’ he sneered. ‘You didn’t. You ran from a few Romans — the same Romans you’ve been laughing at for the last four weeks because they couldn’t find their cock under a blanket. Who’s laughing now?’ He flayed them one by one until he saw the expressions on their faces turn from shame and defeat to hate. All right, it wasn’t the Romans they hated, but it would do. ‘Those Romans you ran from are the doom of your army, understand that? The death of those sluts you call wives and the worm-ridden brats you call children. They’ll spit your babies on their spears and laugh while they’re doing it. But that doesn’t matter. No, what matters is that if Caratacus doesn’t know about them they’ll defeat him. He’ll die cursing my name, but that doesn’t matter either. What matters is that Caratacus is the hope of Britain. Without Caratacus we’ll all be slaves or we’ll be dead. And that’s why we’re going to get through to him or die trying.’ The heads came up then, and the hatred was replaced by pride and he loved them for it. ‘Every minute we’ve sat here on these spavined wrecks, the Romans have been marching to cut us off from Caratacus. But if we ride as though Taranis is behind us and use every trick we know one of us might just make it. If one man gets through he will restore the honour of us all.’ He saw that the ponies were almost fully recovered, and his words became brisk. ‘We head north and then west. Once we’re sure we’re clear of their patrols we’ll split into pairs. All Caratacus needs to know is that there’s a Roman legion on his left flank. Understand? His left flank.’ Eight heads nodded in unison. ‘Ride!’
How long did he have? Two hours, maybe less, for the Romans to get into position to attack. Riding hard and taking a direct route it would take at least an hour to reach the British camp where Caratacus waited for the enemy, never suspecting that his carefully baited trap was about to turn into an ambush. But there was no question of taking the direct route. They would have to ride in a wide circle away from the river, and they would have to take risks.
But Ballan didn’t have two hours, not even one. It was well done, he had to give them that; just what he should have expected of them. They came from a fold between two flat-topped hills. A thunder of hooves masked, until the last second, by the thunder of his own. A death scream he recognized with a sundered heart, followed in quick succession by a second, louder still, as lances wielded by troops who knew how to use them twisted and bit into the spines of the last two men of his little column.
‘Turn and fight,’ he yelled, not knowing how many of them there were. It didn’t matter: the little British ponies could never outrun Roman stock. He and his scouts had survived this far by stealth. Now they would have to survive by their skill as warriors. But as soon as he hauled his pony round to face the enemy he knew no amount of skill would save them. There were twenty attackers, probably more. It was difficult to distinguish friend from foe as the melee surged and whirled around him, shouts and cries and the clash of iron echoing in the semi-darkness. A horse flashed past close on his left side and he recognized in the faint moonlight the livery of the Gaulish auxiliaries who had annihilated the foolish British attack on the Roman column.
Something twitched at the corner of his eye and he turned his pony instinctively to meet the cavalryman who had singled him out. He was coming at the charge, crouched down in the wooden saddle the Romans used. Everything about the way he rode said he was certain of an easy victory. Blond curls spilled out from beneath the sideplates of a pot-shaped helmet and Ballan could see the glint of eyes beneath the curved brim. His own gaze never deviated from the lance point. The weapon was held low and loose in the rider’s right fist, but Ballan knew that when the iron tip swept up to rip his throat or blind him the grip would tighten and the arm tense to take the shock of the blow. He counted the seconds in his head, matched time to the strides of the galloping cavalry horse and calculated the closing speed of his pony. Now! The little mare danced right, taking them down the German’s left flank, and he felt the wind as the killing blow swept over his left shoulder, the strike made awkward by the split-second change of course. As they passed, he attempted to bring his own spear across to rake the exposed flesh of the Roman’s thigh or his mount’s haunches, but the horse was gone in an instant and he was in the open again on the verge of the vicious little battle.
He circled, man and pony breathing hard. His scouts were hard-pressed. Another two were down, at least, and more wounded. He knew to return to the fight was death. But he still had his spear, and the long sword at his waist, and what was death to Ballan of the Iceni? A passing shock, a grunt of pain? Then the Otherworld. He laughed, a laugh of the pure joy of battle, and prepared to kick the pony forward.
‘Ballan!’ The shrill cry came from Cerda, the youngest of his scouts. A spear or a sword had scored the boy’s forehead and his face was a mask of blood. He was using his pony’s manoeuvrability to dodge a big trooper who was trying to finish the job. Well, there were worse ways to die than aiding a friend. He started to turn the pony. Cerda saw the movement and understood that his leader was about to ride to help him. ‘No!’ he called and his words came clear over the sound of the fighting. ‘Our honour, lord. One man can restore our honour. Ride. We will hold them. We will buy you time. Ride, to Caratacus.’
Mentally, Ballan shook his head. No. He would not do it. He would not abandon these men he had ridden with and fought beside for so long. But, in the real world, he knew Cerda was right. Caratacus must be told. He whirled the pony and galloped towards the shelter of a nearby forest. Before the trees closed in around him he turned and looked back at the little drama being played out in the silver shadow-light of a broken moon. One of the big Roman horses smashed into the flank of Cerda’s pony, pitching the boy to the ground. A spear shaft quivered as the point flashed down into the helpless body on the bloody meadow grass.
Of course, they hunted him. Hunted him and found him. The cavalrymen flushed the wood as if they were beaters flighting a covey of partridge, and this time the Gaulish troopers had been joined by the strange, green-clad archers he had noted guarding the flanks of the Roman legionary columns. He had gone less than a quarter of a mile when the arrow thudded into his back just below the left shoulder. It struck with enough force to knock the breath from him and he knew he was sore hit, perhaps even mortally. He never understood how he stayed in the saddle, but somehow he did, just long enough to force his pony through a deep thicket that let him roll from its back as the animal galloped on. He hit the ground with his right shoulder and his momentum carried him through the leaf-mould for a few feet. Heart pounding, he lay motionless for less than a second before an unthinking instinct for survival made him scramble for the concealment of the dry watercourse that split the thicket. The shaft of the arrow was still protruding from his back and he closed his eyes and reached for it, fearful of what he would find — then froze. A horse’s hooves padded by inches from his head. The low branches that concealed the rider also concealed him from his enemy. He allowed his hand to creep towards the dagger at his belt. If the horseman stopped, he would take him, whatever the risk. He held his breath and tensed, ready to make the leap, but the seconds passed and the beast continued placidly on its way.
He allowed himself to breathe, a function that caused a streak of raw pain to split his back and chest. Tentatively he reached backwards for the arrow once more. If it was buried deep, he would have to leave it. If the wound was superficial he would haul it clear. The sweat stung his eyes and he felt a wave of nausea. He knew that if he pulled the arrow from his skin and it was buried deeper than he realized there was a chance he’d bleed to death. But it was a gamble he had to take. He gripped the shaft as firmly as he was able with his hand twisted awkwardly up his back and his body pushed forward to make the arrow more accessible. One, two… three. He almost fainted with relief. The arrowhead had been fired from relatively short range with enough force to pierce the tough, half-inch-thick leather of his outer tunic, but it had barely penetrated the mail shirt he had looted from a dead Roman auxiliary. Only the point had reached his skin and the wound was barely a scratch. The pain came from his ribs, where the missile had struck with the power of a charging bullock. He winced as another bolt of pain tore his chest. One rib was broken, maybe even two, but he would live with that. If he lived at all.