Tales of Ancient Rome

By: S. J. A. Turney


“Finn and Saturninus: you take the corners. Artorio, you’re in the middle with me. Anyone got any plumbata left?”

The men shook their heads. The last of the heavy, iron darts had been used hours ago, but he had to be sure. The small piles of rocks and bricks they had gathered desperately this morning as additional missiles was all but depleted too. The stones they would be able to throw now were little more than pebbles; nothing but an irritation to the attackers.

He glanced over the parapet, being careful not to lean too heavily. The battlements were less than secure. The mortar was ancient and crumbling and the stones often loosely stacked atop one another. The last repair work on the wall had been done before Forgais had been born, and even that had been done by a unit of Syrian boatmen who had as much knowledge of construction and engineering as they did of weapon-smithing or property law. This was not like the ancient days when well-paid and heavily-armoured men learned a craft and fought in drilled precision to expand the borders of the Empire.

The nearest of the old legions was half a world away in Deva, and even they were poorly-paid and equipped these days, with priority given instead to the field army of the Dux Britannicus. Forgais tapped the laminated plates of his armour, an antique he had purchased at great expense in the forum at Isurium on his last visit. It really was in excellent condition given its age. Apart from Saturninus with his chain shirt, he was the only one with any kind of armour.

His wandering attention was brought sharply back to the present as a thrown axe smashed into the wall two feet below where he stood, sending shards of facing stone out into the mist and releasing a cloud of desiccated mortar that resembled the mist into which it flew.

The axe fell from the wall into the mass of twisted corpses below. How many there were could no longer be counted, as they were stacked at least three or four deep, much more in places. Twenty defenders had killed more than five or six times that number. It was something to be proud of, but somehow it still wasn’t deterring the regular assaults.

“Spears!” he bellowed as the enemy began to climb the mound of bodies in dribs and drabs. Their dead were making a very effective siege ramp. Even if the five limitanei could hold for another day, the enemy bodies would be piled so deep they could simply walk up to the parapet.

A snarling man, his beard matted with spittle and blood, threw himself against the gate of the milecastle below and the wooden door shuddered.

“Carro?”

“It’s holding” the strained reply came from below.

Suddenly a man appeared from the mist with a long spear, leaping up the mound of the dead. There was so little warning that Forgais barely ducked to the side as the nicked blade glanced off his shoulder plate, close to his cheek.

Changing his grip, he leaned against the parapet, hoping it was still strong enough, and jabbed down with his own spear. Other indistinct shapes moved behind the spearman. The mist suddenly flurried and Forgais had no idea where he was striking, but a yelp of pain confirmed his success.

An arrow zinged from the stonework close to his arm and a second buried itself with a thud in the ‘P’ of the Chi-Rho painted on his shield.

“Cover!”

A hail of arrows began as the four defenders on the wall ducked behind the stonework, their shields raised. A hundred or more arrows hissed past them, falling into the yard below and peppering the dead; others bounced from the wall below the battlements, disappearing back down into the white.

Forgais gritted his teeth and took a deep breath. He knew very well what a cloud of arrows meant. This would be perhaps the tenth time the manoeuvre had been tried in the past two days. As the last arrow fell, he stood again, dropping his shield to the walkway.

“Defend!” he bellowed, and lunged to the parapet, his spear reversed in his grasp again, the point facing down.

Below the battlements the defenders had used the cover of the arrows to rush roughly-constructed ladders to the wall and raise them. The hail of missiles had now halted to allow their own men to climb safely.

With a shout of rage, the commander leaned over the parapet and thrust down, the spear’s leaf-blade stabbing into the man climbing the ladder between his neck and shoulder and sliding deep into his chest cavity, impaling organs on its journey. The man grunted, dead before he even had time to scream, and fell into the white.