Without any apparent command, the barbarians who lived at the fort began moving out. The animals inside were forced into the open, while those on pasture were driven deeper into the hills. Some, such as the milk cows, were herded along the narrow track that led to the northwest. Carts and oxen followed, then a long, straggling column of bundle laden tribesmen, mixed in with the bellowing farm animals. Marcus bit his lip. The exodus could mean only one thing. If the barbarian was abandoning his hill fort, then a Roman army was surely on its way.
A figure crept silently up beside him and he whirled, startled. It was Urs.
“Your friends are coming,” the slave murmured.
“I think you have the right of it,” Marcus whispered, hardly daring to believe.
“You may smell the chicken, but it’s not yet on your plate.”
“Smell it? I can taste it, feathers and all,” Marcus said, then glanced at the slave. “So are you staying, or running?”
“One year has passed, there are two to go.” Urs smiled without humour, and grunted. “I can taste that, too.”
“But your chicken is not yet on the....” Marcus began, then broke off with a curse. A troop of barbarian cavalry galloped through the gate, along with several rider-less horses and a single chariot. Two broke away, riding straight toward Marcus. He recognized both.
“No one has taken you from here?” Dermat shouted, his voice angry. “Stupid fools…”
Cethen sat his horse fighting to maintain control. The animal’s blood was hot and it circled, fighting the bit. Pulling at the reins and cursing, Cethen’s eye caught that of the man on the chariot. “Dag, get rid of that useless pair of wheels. We want one of your ponies.”
“Look, you great fat fool, your middle animal’s leaking blood like a headless chicken. It’s going to drop dead any moment.”
“What’ll I do, then?” Dag wailed.
“Ebric,” Dermat yelled. “Catch one of those strays for Dag, and bring it here.”
Dag hurried down from the chariot and unhitched the offside pony, quickly passing the reins to Ebric in exchange for those of the stray horse.
"What do I do with these?” Ebric demanded, staring in disgust at the long strips of leather and the scrawny pony standing at the other end.
“Just hold them,” Cethen yelled, then pointed to Marcus. “Get on that. Now!”
“And you,” Dermat tossed a knife into the dirt at Urs’s feet, and pointed to where the bleeding pony sagged in its harness. “Cut the reins off the crow fodder, and tie the Roman to the other one. Feet under its belly, and bind him tight. His hands too.”
“To what?” Urs asked, glancing at the animal’s bare back.
“Tie them to each other, idiot.” Dermat whirled on Marcus. “I said get on!”
Marcus took one look into Dermat’s eyes, and decided it was no time to argue; the man was at the end of his tether. He mounted the pony. Great tufts of the animal’s winter coat clung to its back and belly, falling away by the handful as he steadied himself. The pony’s rib cage felt like bare bones between his knees. Urs crouched down alongside, and Marcus felt the leather loop around his ankles, pulling them together.
“Tight. The knots will be tested, and you’re a dead man if they’re not tight,” Dermat growled.
Marcus winced as both ankles scrunched painfully together, and the leather bit deep into his flesh. A second piece quickly gripped both wrists, and he found himself helpless on the pony’s back as Cethen took the long reins.
“You,” Dermat pointed once more to Urs. “Keep up with him, or it’s at your own peril.”
Marcus glanced around. The hill fort was almost empty. Cethen started toward the open gate, but the pounding of more hooves sounded beyond. The barbarians tensed and readied their weapons. Marcus felt a flame of hope touch his heart, but a second troop rode through the entrance. Several were hurt and one of them, a man who looked hardly older than Marcus, rode his lathered horse alongside Cethen. The youth wore a sword at his belt, but both shield and spear were gone. A patch of blood glistened around a dark hole in the shoulder of his leather tunic.
“They must have seen the fort,” he said, gamely fighting the reins with only one hand. “They’ve sent a large force of cavalry forward.”
“I thought we had more time.” Cethen glanced anxiously at the gate, then down at the pony’s reins as if seeing them for the first time. “Here, Ligan, take these, and tie them to your saddle.”
“Hang on to him, we have to go back,” Dermat called out, even as he urged his horse through the gate. “In the long term, he may prove of more value than a small army.”