XXIV

Valerius looked out from the cliff top into the black void below. A ring of Dacian fires blazed around the hill where the Tungrians were trapped, but they shed no light on the perilous descent he was about to attempt. He’d studied the cliff face while there was still daylight and thought he’d chosen the safest route, but now, seventy feet above the sheer drop, he was almost unnerved by niggling uncertainty. What if he reached a point where there were no holds? What if he became trapped until the power in his fingers faded and he plunged on to the rocks below? But there was no point in delaying. He allowed himself to slip backwards over the cliff edge, his feet searching for the first toehold. He was barefoot, the better to find the tiny cracks and hollows that would support him on the descent. The face of the cliff was composed of curious honeycombed rock which provided plenty in the way of hand- and footholds, but the stone was soft so he had to test each one to ensure it would take his weight. There would be no second chances. Just one mistake and he’d end up smeared over the valley floor and that wouldn’t do the auxiliaries any good at all.

When he’d explained his plan Marcus had stared at him as if he had lost his mind. ‘A one-handed man climbing down a sheer cliff in pitch darkness? It is beyond foolishness. You are committing suicide. Let me try.’

Valerius shook his head and continued unbuckling his armour with Serpentius’s help. ‘How many cliffs did you climb in all your years in Rome, old man?’ He saw Marcus flinch at the reference to his age and smiled to take the edge off the jibe. ‘You could do it, Marcus, so could Serpentius, but only I can do what needs to be done when I reach the bottom. They are soldiers, and they will only be led by another soldier.’

‘But your hand…’

‘When I searched the cliffs on my father’s estate for pigeon eggs, I often had to climb down single-handed. If anything this is simpler.’

Which was easy to say, but, now that he put it into practice, not so easy to do. It was true that he’d climbed one-handed, but he’d always carried the eggs in his left hand and he’d had the option of dropping them if he got into trouble. Now, he edged his way downwards in the certain knowledge that if the fingers of his left hand lost their grip nothing would save him. He was sweating heavily, and not because of the warmth of the night. Yet the further he descended, the more confident he became. He might only have a single hand, but it had gripped a sword every day for the past six years. The skin had the texture of part-cured leather and the fingers the strength of an iron claw. The walnut fist of his right hand could be used to jam into cracks in the rock, and, even where there were none, to steady and balance himself. At first he clung close to the surface, but gradually he became more confident as his bare feet unerringly found one toehold after another.

He was a third of the way down when his boldness betrayed him.

Valerius knew he’d made a mistake the moment he allowed his weight to settle on the outcrop beneath his left foot. The soft rock crumbled just as his left hand loosed the grip that anchored him to the face. He felt himself falling away and flailed desperately at the rock for some kind of hold. The cliff flashed past his face and he knew he was dead.

He would never understand how he did it. As he fell, his momentum took him in a half-turn away from the wall of rock, which was now out of reach of his left hand. Yet, somehow, he managed to lunge forward with his right. A jagged slash of pain tore at him as the walnut fist jammed into a narrow cleft and the leather strings binding the socket sliced into his flesh, driven by the entire weight of his body. A heartbeat later even that agony was overwhelmed by a sickening jerk that threatened to pull his arm from its socket. He bit his lip to stop himself from crying out and for a few awful moments hung suspended, praying the cowhide would hold him. Gradually, panic receded and he was able to reach out with his sound hand and pull himself back to the rock face. Once there, he drew himself upwards to take the weight off his arm and managed to unjam the wooden hand from the fissure. He spent the next minute clinging to the face, frozen by a combination of shock and pain, but eventually he willed himself to resume the descent.

When he reached the base of the cliff he crouched for a few moments in the darkness, attempting to get a sense of his surroundings. Ahead, he could see the hilltop silhouetted in the glow of the Dacian fires. The soft snicker of a cavalry mount confirmed that the horses were picketed somewhere to his right. But had the Tungrians set a guard? That was the next hurdle. To make himself known without getting a spear in the throat. He ghosted his way past the tethered horses. If they were watched, the sentry must be asleep because he saw no sign of him. On the brow of the hill prone figures lay scattered like odd-shaped rocks, the only sign of life the almost imperceptible movement of their breathing and the occasional animal whimper. He chose a shape on the outer edge of the group and drew the dagger he’d carried at his belt.

‘Careful, soldier,’ he whispered as he placed the point beneath the sleeping auxiliary’s chin. A pair of dark eyes flicked open and the man’s mouth gaped, before immediately closing as Valerius increased the pressure. Valerius nodded slowly and allowed himself a smile. ‘I want you to call whoever is in command. Do it in a normal voice and ask him to come over. Nod if you understand.’ Valerius lifted the knife point and the Tungrian complied. By now puzzlement had replaced the fear in his eyes. ‘Good. Now say it.’

‘Lucca?’ The call was hesitant, but loud enough to elicit an ill-tempered response.

‘What the fuck do you want, Fabius? If you haven’t thought of a way to get us out of here go back to sleep.’

‘Please, I need to talk to you.’

‘I hope it’s not what I think it is,’ the auxiliary grumbled. ‘Bad enough we’re all going to die tomorrow without you suddenly deciding you’re in fucking love with me.’ A dark figure rose from the ground a dozen paces away and scratched energetically before walking stiff-legged to where Valerius crouched beside Fabius.

Valerius stood as Lucca approached. He heard a sharp hiss of indrawn breath and the sound of a sword being drawn. ‘I’d have thought you’d lost too many men to go around killing your only reinforcement, friend.’

The man’s face was lost in the darkness but Valerius sensed him relax. ‘You’re supposed to be dead. Festus said-’

‘Festus is the one who’s dead,’ Valerius said brutally. ‘But we can discuss that later. For the moment let’s talk about our position. How many men do you have left?’

Lucca hesitated, but only for a moment. ‘Fifteen… no, fourteen… Brigio died after we got here. Three of the others are too badly injured to fight, but they can still ride.’

‘Horses?’

‘Enough for everyone and two spares, but we only have fodder for another day and the water won’t last till noon.’

Valerius accompanied the auxiliary while he outlined the position. As they walked in the darkness, Lucca’s manner transformed from belligerent suspicion to a subordinate’s wary respect.

‘I’d have ridden for it, but we’d lost two men among the trees and Festus ordered us to hole up while he went back for them. An idiot, but a brave idiot. He never came back, but we heard him screaming. At least I think it was him. By then we were already in the shit. Hundreds of vermin crawling among the trees and no way out.’

‘And now?’

‘We were due back before dark. I thought maybe they’d send someone out after us.’ Valerius laughed and Lucca joined him. ‘I know, but… ah, shit!’ His shoulders slumped, an admission of defeat. ‘How did you get here? We all thought you’d been killed. Festus said…’

‘What did Festus say?’

‘He said you were here to arrest the legate and return him to Rome and we couldn’t let that happen. We were to take you out in the woods and lose you. The Dacians would do the rest. There’d been some kind of arrangement, and we were to ride away, free and clear. Only it looks like nobody told the Gets.’

‘The Gets?’

‘Getae. The Dacians. Anyway, the bastards ambushed us about half an hour after we left you.’

Valerius considered the story. It made sense, in a perverse, soldierly sort of way. If someone had convinced the Tungrians their respected general was under threat they wouldn’t take much persuading to mislay four of the despised Praetorian Guard and hope nobody back in Rome noticed. An unfortunate accident on the frontier. By the time any investigation was launched, the evidence would be a pile of wolf-gnawed bones, if the Dacians left any evidence. It also reinforced his suspicions: someone had known in advance where they were coming and why. They’d tried to stop him on the way east, and now they’d tried again. But Gaius Valerius Verrens was not going to be stopped. Publius had unwittingly given him another piece of the puzzle but he needed to get back to Rome if he was going to use it.

‘What happens now?’ the cavalryman asked.

Valerius’s eyes glinted in the darkness. ‘I suppose I could arrest you and your men and when we get back to the fort I can have you roasted over an open fire…’

‘Only there are fifteen of us and one of you, and we’re all going to be dead in the morning anyway.’

‘Exactly. Or I can get us out of here and we can forget this ever happened.’

The auxiliary’s teeth shone in the darkness. ‘I don’t know how you’re going to do it, but I like the second option a lot better.’

Valerius looked out beyond the fires and tried to imagine the Dacian positions as he’d seen them from the top of the ridge. They surrounded the approaches to the hill, but the keys to this trap were two slight gaps in the trees that potentially provided an escape route for the horsemen. An organized force would have barricaded the openings, but from what he’d seen the Dacians were happy to fill them with warriors and invite the Tungrians to try their luck. What he needed was to draw the Dacian warriors away from one of those gaps.

He’d outlined his plan to Marcus before he’d set out on the treacherous climb. ‘The signal will be a burning brand waved three times from the top of the hill. Count slowly to one hundred then create the diversion.’

To Lucca he said, ‘Get your men ready, in the saddle and prepared to fight in five minutes. Assign one trooper to each of the wounded. Fabius!’

‘Sir!’

‘I want a small fire on the rear of the hill where the enemy can’t see it, and prepare a torch.’

As he waited for the flames to take hold, a young trooper approached with a saddled horse and Valerius ordered him to hold it until he was ready. He ran to the fire, picked up the torch Fabius had laid beside it and thrust it deep into the flames. The dried grass and twigs caught immediately and he carried the flaming brand to the top of the hill and arced it three times above his head in a blazing rainbow.

‘All mounted,’ Lucca called. ‘Now?’ he asked as Valerius leapt into the saddle.

Valerius shook his head. ‘Wait.’

It seemed to take an eternity, but it must have been less than two minutes.

‘There,’ one of the troopers behind him hissed.

‘Quiet. Do nothing that might alert them.’

A tree exploded into flame two hundred paces away on the far side of the Dacian ring. Marcus and Serpentius had done their job well. The blaze began in the lower branches, but quickly spread to the dry leaves in the canopy and jumped to its neighbour, which instantly added to the fiery spectacle.

‘Wait!’ Valerius ordered. The burning trees were close to the further gap and he was gambling that the diversion would draw the Dacian blockaders to it. But he had to give them time to react. He could hear the tension in his own voice. ‘Wait. Remember, follow me straight to the trees and once we’re through turn along the line of the hills. We stop for nothing or nobody. Slaughter anything that gets in your way. Now!’

The horses had been sawing at the bit for minutes and the moment their riders gave them their heads they lumbered into motion across the upper slope, picking up speed with every stride. The Tungrians plucked their long spears from the makeshift palisade as they crossed the bank and ditch, instantly bringing them to the ready. Valerius felt the ground falling away beneath him. No question of worrying about fox or rabbit holes. Just pray. The trot swiftly developed into a headlong gallop. He could hear the thunder of hooves all around him, but he focused every ounce of his concentration on finding the gap. It was out there somewhere in the darkness beyond the Dacian fires. If he had his directions wrong by even a few yards his men would ride straight into the trees where they’d be swept from the saddle and butchered. But the fires would be his guide. From the top of the hill he’d noted that the near gap lined up with a large boulder at the base of the hill and the midpoint between the second and third pyres. The pale blur of the boulder swept by on his right and he set his horse for the narrow opening between the fires. With unnerving timing the wind came up, flames and sparks shooting high in the air before they swept across the space he was aiming for. But Valerius dared not check. His life and those of the Tungrians depended on this mad dash through the fires. Like his own mount, the animal beneath him had been bred for battle and trained for war; flame, smoke and noise held no fears for her. Shouts of alarm came from his left front and in the fiery light he saw a small army of Dacians racing to cut the riders off. It would be very close but there could be no stopping now. He dug in his heels and pushed the mare to her limit, feeling her surge beneath him. All around him the Tungrians did the same. By now the space between the fires was filled by a wall of flame and it passed in an explosion of yellow and red, a blast of heat and the stink of smoke and singed horse hair. They were through and if he’d calculated correctly the gap in the trees and the relative safety of the forest should be fifty paces ahead. The Dacian warriors had lost the race and they howled in frustration as the riders galloped past. But they had bows and spears and the air swiftly filled with flying missiles. A spear hurtled across Valerius’s front a foot from his nose. He heard a sharp cry accompanied by a sickening thud as a body hit the earth at high speed, but he had no time to think of reining in. The dark line of the forest was only half a dozen strides away.

He almost shouted in relief as he realized he’d struck the treeline exactly where he’d planned. In the same instant he saw shadowy figures moving hurriedly among the trees and as he charged through into the deeper darkness his horse smashed into one, hurtling a Dacian warrior aside with the sickening crunch of broken bone and a shrill scream of pain. The impact knocked the mare off her stride, allowing the surviving cavalrymen to pass them. An agile, clawing savage with a knife between his teeth scrambled at Valerius’s legs and hauled himself half into the saddle behind him. Valerius knew he was dead the instant the warrior retrieved the knife, and using all his strength he smashed back with elbows and skull in an attempt to knock the Dacian clear, at the same time knowing that to lose control of the horse would be just as fatal. But nothing would shift his assailant. Valerius heard a cry of triumph as the man hooked an arm around his throat, and screamed in impotent fury as he anticipated the deadly sting of the knife point in his exposed back.

With a crack like a branch snapping, the grip on his neck weakened. He darted a glance back just as the Dacian tumbled clear with the shaft of an arrow buried deep in his skull. At the same time a welcome presence loomed out of the darkness and Serpentius appeared grinning at his side, the Thracian bow in his right hand, his horse matching stride with Valerius’s own.

They were clear.

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