Serge's remarks, based upon old experience, proved to be pretty correct, for the troubles of the little force began to come thick and fast. Up to the time of that last halt the attacks had been made by the little parties, each under its own leader, and they came from front, rear, and flanks, in all directions, for the rush made by one portion of a tribe would act as the signal for others to follow suit, and it frequently happened that the Roman soldiers were completely surrounded. But now as they moved on towards the north and west, the pass they had entered and which wound or zig-zagged its way more into the mountain chain which divided the land of the Gauls from the Roman dominions, closed in more and more, beginning as a beautiful open valley and gradually changing its nature as it rose till it assumed the nature of a gorge or rift. The sides were no longer soft grassy slopes broken by little vales which afforded shelter for the enemy, and from which they made their fiercest rushes, coming down like furious torrents from the hills and often in company with the streams by whose sides they made their way, but hour by hour grew steeper till they assumed the nature of rugged walls, impassable to any but climbers or the goats that browsed their sterile paths in herds. The mountains here towered up higher and higher in their stern frowning majesty, scantily furnished with growth, save here and there the earth that had been washed down from above afforded sustenance to a patch of spear-like pines with their dark, sombre, blackish green needles. The roughest of rough stony tracks was now the detachment's path, and it became hard work, approaching to climbing, for the heavily-armed foot soldiers, difficult for the cavalry—whose horses needed the sure-footedness of mules to get along, their riders having to dismount and lead their steeds—while for the little train of chariots the difficulties were almost insurmountable. The pony-like pairs that drew them were safer footed and got on better than the heavier animals that bore the Roman mounted men, but the chariots were always in need of help. Sometimes one wheel would be high in the air, sometimes the other, while often the drivers and riders had to make a rush to help drag or push the low, heavy vehicles over some more rugged spot.
For there was no regular road now that they were beyond the Roman dominions, where directly a country was conquered the new owners set themselves to form a level military road, but simply a rough, rock-encumbered track.
"Yes, it's bad going," Serge said, "but it would want a far worse way than this to keep back a Roman army. Our men with all their baggage have been along here, as you see, so of course we can follow; and it's splendid for us in the way of safety."
"Yes," agreed Marcus; "every attack must come now from the front or rear. These mountain walls make splendid allies to guard our flanks."
"Front—rear—flanks! Well done!" cried Serge. "I like that. You're getting quite the soldier, my boy."
Matters proved to be better still as they moved higher up the pass, not in the way of the road improving, but respecting the difficulties with the enemy, for after the latter had made a brave stand in one spot where the pass widened out for a space, and fought stubbornly for a while, the little Roman force cut their way through and into the narrow portion where the walls of the gorge closed quite up on either side, leaving only room for the grey muddy stream and the road track along which Marcus and his friends made their way, completely freed from all attack save from the rear, where a fierce pursuit was kept up, fresh parties of the enemy giving up and retreating after delivering their attack and being rolled back.
The fighting was sharp, the brunt of it being borne by the foot soldiers, who protected the rear, while the chariots were forced over the many difficulties and the horses helped along, a portion of the foot being far in advance, ready for any body of the enemy which might be blocking their way in ambush.
It had been rough work that day, and the men, after the amount of fighting they had gone through, were beginning to look dispirited and feel disheartened, for in addition to the length of the struggle, the supplies had run short, and everyone knew that no more food could be obtained until they had forced their way through the desolate pass, over the summit, and down the other side to the cultivated and inhabited regions below.
But their leader was well suited to his task, and he seemed to be everywhere, with a word or two of encouragement and praise, stopping to help the men with the baggage animals, heading a party sent forward to lever the great blocks of stone that impeded progress, and ready directly after to urge his trembling horse back among the rocks the moment the echoes of the shouts behind warned him that there was a fresh attack in the rear. There were two of these, one directly after the start at sunrise, and a second high up the pass at mid-day, when as he bade the horsemen and the chariots pass on, he laughingly in Marcus' hearing told his soldiery to make use of the loose rocks to form a rough breastwork behind which they could fight, and all the better for the cavalry being out of their way.
That fight was bitter and long sustained, and as the turmoil came echoing up the gorge to where Marcus and Serge were striving hard to master the difficulties before them and urge their willing little chariot horses on, the latter frowned as he rubbed his blue nose and responded to something Marcus had said.
"No, my lad," he replied; "they're not getting the better of our men, and they will not. We hear so much of what is going on because the sound comes up as if through a trumpet."
"Comes up, Serge?"
"Yes, my lad; we're a couple of thousand feet higher than they are below yonder, and the reason the fight lasts so long is because the enemy keep on bringing up fresh men."
"Think so?" said Marcus.
"I'm sure of it, my lad. Yesterday and before there were thousands of them scattered in droves all about us; now the pass is so narrow that they are all squeezed up together; and so much the better for us."
"Why?" asked Marcus.
"Because we've got such a narrow front to defend. Why, you know what a scrap of road there was where the captain halted his men."
"Yes," said Marcus; "just like a gash cut through the rock."
"That's right," said the old soldier. "Well, a line of twenty men would have been sufficient to guard that bit."
"More than enough," said Marcus.
"Right, boy. Well, he has got six or seven hundred there, and no army that the enemy can bring up can drive our men from that stronghold. There are only two things that can master them."
"What are they?" said Marcus, anxiously.
"Cold and hunger."
"Ah!" sighed Marcus.
"There, don't groan like that, boy," cried the old soldier, sharply. "It sounded as if you hadn't had anything to eat for a week, and I'm sure you're not cold."
"Then you're wrong," cried Marcus, "for I am bitterly cold."
"That shows you haven't worked hard enough. Come on and let's get behind the chariot and help the horses with a push."
"Yes, presently," said Marcus, as he glanced at the brave little beasts, which looked hot in spite of the fact that a chilly wind was blowing down the gorge, and that they were standing up to their knees in snow. "I'm a bit out of breath too."
"Don't talk, then, boy," growled Serge. "Save your wind."
"But I want to talk," continued Marcus. "You've been over this pass before?"
"Nay, not this one, boy, but one like it farther east."
"Like this? But was it so strange?"
"What do you mean by strange, my lad?"
"Why, for us to be going to rest last night with the country all round seeming to be in summer, while as we've come along to-day we've got into autumn, and now we're going right into the depth of winter."
"Yes, my lad, but it's summer all the same. It's only because we're so high up, same as you used to see it at home when you looked up towards the mountains and saw them covered with snow."
"But this doesn't look like snow, Serge," said the boy, kicking up the icy particles. "It is more like piled-up heaps of hail after a heavy storm. Ugh! It does look winterly! Ice and snow everywhere, and not a green thing to be seen."
"All the more reason, boy, why we should push on, get over the highest bit, and then every step we take will be for the better."
"Shall we be out of this cutting icy wind that comes roaring up between these two great walls of rock?"
"To be sure we shall," said Serge, cheerfully; "and it'll be something to talk about when we've done it and are down below in the warm sunshine to-morrow morning, eating new bread and drinking milk."
"I don't want to talk about it, Serge," said Marcus, beginning to talk in a dull, drowsy way. "I shall want to sleep and rest. I feel as if I could do so now."
"Do you? Then you mustn't; and we must stop anyone who tries to. Why, it reminds me, boy, of old times when we crossed that other pass. Some of our men would lie down to sleep, but they never got up again."
"Why?" cried Marcus, in a horrified tone.
"Frozen stiff, boy. Once you're up amongst the snow you can't stop, only to get breath; you must push on; and I wish someone would give me orders to go on now."
Marcus was silent for a few moments, as if thinking deeply.
"Don't feel more sleepy, boy, do you?" said Serge, sharply.
"No; that seems to have woke me up," was the reply; and taking a few steps forward with difficulty, for his feet sank right in at every step, Marcus leaned over into the car and caught Lupe by the ear where he lay curled up with his rough coat on end.
The boy's movement was quickly and excitedly performed, a feeling of dread having attacked him that the dog might have been frozen stiff; but at the touch the animal gave a cheery bark, bounded out of the car, and began to plough his way through the snow, at first after the fashion of a pig, and then by throwing himself down first on one side and then upon the other.
"I was half afraid, Serge," said Marcus.
"You needn't have been, boy," replied the old soldier. "You see, Nature's given him a warm, thick coat, and he makes it thicker whenever he likes by setting his bristles up on end."
"But that would make it more open and thinner, Serge."
"Nay, but it don't, boy. Somehow it keeps warm all inside between the hairs, and the cold can't get through."
"I don't understand why that should be, Serge," said Marcus, thoughtfully.
"I don't neither," said the man, "but it is so. It's one of those funny things in Nature. Why, look at the birds. What do they do when a snow storm comes down from the mountains in winter? They don't squeeze their feathers down tight, do they?"
"No," said Marcus, thoughtfully; "they seem to set them all up on end, just as they do when they go to roost, and they look twice as big."
"To be sure they do, boy. You don't feel sleepy now?"
"No, not a bit. But I say, Serge, will there be more snow higher up the pass?"
"Most likely, boy; and I want to get at the job of fighting our way through it. We ought to be going on. Hallo! Hear that?"
"Yes. What does it mean?"
"It's the reason why we with the horses are not pushed on. That's what I was afraid of."
"There, don't take a man up short that way," growled Serge. "I didn't mean afraid; I meant expected. The enemy have attacked our men right up yonder in the front, and they've got us between them. Well, all the better. Something for us to do, and keep us warm."
"But I was hoping that we might be pushed on now."
"So was I, boy, but it won't be yet," growled Serge. "I say, don't let your mouth get watering for the new bread and warm milk just yet."
"No," groaned Marcus, rather piteously.
"But it will be all the nicer and sweeter when it comes, boy. I say, there was only one thing that could possibly have happened to make us worse off."
"What, having to fight in this snow, Serge?"
"Nay, that would have warmed us, lad. I meant, come on to snow."
"Snow at this time of year?" cried Marcus.
"It snows up in the mountains at all times of the year, boy," growled Serge. "Down below in the plains it only rains, but up here it snows; and here it comes, and someone else too. I expect things are going wrong in the rear, or else he has heard the attack in front, and has come to see."
For a blinding and dense squall of snow came raging through the pass, leaving horsemen and chariots as white as their chief, whose horse came churning its way through the hail-like coating that stood half way up the wheels, close to which its rider reined in.
"Find it cold, my lads?" he cried cheerily, and was answered by a chorus of assent.
"Well, I've brought you up news to warm you. The men below are holding the enemy in check, and they have begun to retire, which means to support us and drive those back who are trying to stop us at the head of the pass. Make ready. Ah, my boy, you there? Well, are you tired of seeking your father?"
Marcus shook his head.
"Well," said the captain, "tired or not there is no going back, for you could not cut through two or three thousand of the enemy alone. There, we shall soon be through this frozen pass, and making our way down into the sunny plains. Winter now, and summer this time to-morrow. Ready there, advance!"
As their chief spoke loudly, Marcus caught sight through the haze of snow which seemed to hold the darkness of night above, the head of a column of the foot soldiers making a steady advance, looking as if they were wearing a fresh form of decoration, every man's helmet plume being increased in size by a trimming of the purest, whitest swans-down or filmy, flocculent silver itself.
But there was no time for studying appearances; all now was stern, earnest work. At the first order given by the chief, Lupe seemed to take it that he was concerned, and set up a hoarse barking, which seemed to animate the chariot horses, notably his friends attached to Marcus' chariot, which began to stamp and paw up the snow beneath their feet, while when their driver took his place by their heads they plunged forward, tugging the heavy vehicle out of the ruts into which the wheels had cut for themselves. Then with the snow squall driving on before them leaving the trampled snow ahead freshly smoothed, and lighting the darkness of the night, there was a dull, grinding, creaking sound of wheels and yielding snow as it was trampled down into a better road, and good progress was made, for the slope in advance was more gradual, and the hollows and pitfalls between the rugged stones that strewed the way were levelled down.
It was a strange and weird procession, as Marcus tramped on step by step with Serge, behind the chariot, into which Lupe had suddenly leaped to stand with his paws planted upon the front of the vehicle, which now looked as if it had been turned into silver. And there were moments when the boy felt that it must all be part of a dream.
But there was nothing dream-like in the sounds that came downward between the great snowy walls, for they were those of desperate fighting—the shouts of defiance of the Roman soldiers mingled with the barbarous cries of the Gauls, who had gathered together again in the great gateway from which they had been driven by the troops of Caius Julius, and were now striving to prevent the descent of the Roman rear-guard into their fruitful plains, and if possible entrap these new troops between their own forces, which were holding them shut in the deep, long, wintry gorge.
CHAPTER TWENTY ONE.
A GOOD COMPANION.
It was a curious sound, that made by the snow which lay so thickly beneath sandal, hoof and wheel. As it was pressed together it literally squeaked as if it possessed feeling and remonstrated at being crushed down from light feathery snow into solid ice.
The sounds it gave forth were at times quite loud, and were repeated back from the towering rocks on either side. Farther on it would be a soft crunch, crunch, mingled with the bumping of wheels and the plunging of a horse as it struggled to drag its hoofs out of some depression into which they had sunk, while, animated by the presence of their leader, the horsemen cheered on the animals they led, and the charioteers helped their pairs to drag the heavy cars over the snow-covered track.
The pass grew more and more like some huge rift in the mountain which seemed to have been split open by lightning, whose form the deep way had in some degree assumed.
For a few hundred yards the train would be going straight, till an acute angle was reached, when for a distance the line would be forced to almost double back to another point and double back again. It was a savage kind of zig-zag which always led higher and higher, while as they neared the top, the snow grew deeper and the walls on either side closer, while these were not only perpendicular but in many cases actually overhanging.
The horses' hoofs and the chariot wheels at last sank in so far, in spite of their being unburdened, that the leader commanded a halt for rest, and as this order was obeyed, Marcus, from where he stood panting, with one hand that had been used to push forward the chariot resting now upon its back, felt awe-stricken at the strange silence that for a moment or two dwelt deep down in the jagged furrow, before it was broken by the peculiar panting of exhausted men and steeds who were striving to regain their wind, while a mist formed by the breath rendered everything indistinct along the line, as it rose visibly on high.
For plainly now from the front came the sound of contending warriors, apparently close at hand, though far enough away as yet, but increased in power by being condensed into a narrow space, as it reverberated along the pass from wall to wall.
But not alone from the front; fainter, but minute by minute gathering strength, similar sounds came from the rear, telling plainly enough of the fight that was going on where the foot-men were holding back the advancing enemy during a steady retiring movement that could hardly be called a retreat.
"I don't like this, boy," whispered Serge, who was resting against the other side of the chariot.
"Are we being beaten, Serge?" asked Marcus.
"Oh, no, boy; they can't beat us. But they have got us in this narrow gully where only a few men back and front can fight at once. Why, you know for yourself here are all our mounted troops and us with the chariots doing nothing but struggle through the snow, and never getting a spear thrust at anyone. That's why I say I don't like it. I want to be doing something, and when I say that it's just what everyone feels as it makes his blood hot. I say, boy, you don't feel cold now?"
"Cold?" cried Marcus. "Oh, no; I only want to keep going on."
"Wait a bit, boy, and you shall have enough of that. Our captain isn't letting us rest just to amuse ourselves. It will be forward directly, and quite soon enough for the horses, for it's hard work for them; and I say," continued the old soldier, jocosely, "this is a bit of a change for you, my boy. You never thought there was a place like this so near to Rome, where the people are lying grumbling now because it is so hot that they cannot sleep, and panting just like old Lupe there."
For the dog was just between them, sitting up in the back of the car, sometimes turning his head towards one, sometimes towards the other, lolling out his vibrating tongue and sending out puffs of visible vapour-like steam from Vesuvius.
"He's making believe that he's been working very hard," said Marcus, laughing, "when he's been riding all the time. But all this does seem very strange, Serge. I couldn't have believed this was possible at the end of summer."
"Suppose not," growled the old soldier. "You see, you don't know everything yet, my boy. There's a deal to learn, as I found out years ago when I first went to the war with the master. But it's all doing you good, and you will like it by-and-by when you look back and think of it all, for there isn't much time to think just now. I say, have you got your wind again?"
"Oh, yes, I am ready, and the horses are beginning to leave off panting. I shall be glad when we make a fresh start. I want to get to the top."
"That's what we all want, boy—to get to the top of everything—but the sooner we get to the end of this narrow crack and can expect that it will begin to open out and give us room to swing our arms, the better we shall all like it. The chief ought to be thinking of starting up afresh, for there's a deal of fighting going on back and front."
The sounds that came floating to their ears, echoed from the snowy walls, made this all plain enough, while the shouting from the rear grew nearer and nearer; and then it seemed that the rear-guard was coming more rapidly on, just as the order to move forward came from the front and passed along the line.
With a couple of halts for rest the troops plodded on and the horses struggled for another hour, and then, to the great delight of all, the word came back from the front that the height of the pass had been reached, that the head of the column was beginning to descend, and that not far in front their comrades were holding the enemy in check.
This intelligence was like an invigorating breath of air to the little force. The men stepped out and dragged and pushed, and the cries of the drivers had a cheering sound, as they called upon their horses in a tone of voice which made the struggling beasts exert themselves more than ever.
It was still terribly hard work, but there was no upward drag; the great strain was gone, for the descent was steep, and a great portion of the weight the chariot horses had to draw seemed to have been taken off.
The pass was still walled in by towering heights, but it was rapidly opening out, and at the end of another hour the advance force, which had contented themselves with holding one of the narrowest portions of the way, had been strengthened, and pressed back the enemy.
There was another halt of the chariots, to enable a portion of the troops from the rear to close up and pass through to the front to join the advance, a manoeuvre which the panting men, as they struggled over the beaten snow, obeyed with alacrity, eager to get into action and bring to an end the hours of suspense through which they had passed in comparative inaction while listening to the echoes of the fighting going on in front and rear.
"There, boy," said Serge, cheerfully, as they found time now to talk as well as rest; "this don't look like being beaten, does it?"
"I don't know," said Marcus, dubiously. "We seem as much shut up as ever."
"Nay, not us! Why, the walls are ever so much farther back, and we have got more room to breathe."
"But it's horribly dark still," said Marcus, rather wearily, "and the snow seems as deep."
"Not it," cried Serge. "And see how it's trampled down. Then it isn't so cold."
"Not so cold!" cried Marcus. "Why, it's terrible!"
"Not it! Why, since we have been coming down a bit we have got more into shelter, and that cutting wind that came up the pass isn't whistling about one's ears."
"Well, no," said Marcus. "That is better."
"Better, yes; and so's everything else. It won't be long now before the pass widens ever so much, and we shall begin to leave the snow behind; and then as soon as we get on to level ground the captain will get his horse to work to drive the barbarians back towards the plains below, and then—you'll see that our turn will come."
"To fight, Serge?"
"Yes, boy. He'll be letting loose his chariots then, and when he does, the fighting will be over for to-day."
"For to-day!" said Marcus, with a faint laugh.
"Well, yes, it must be getting towards morning, and before many hours we shall be seeing the sun again, and if we are lucky have made a jump out of winter into spring. But there, keep up your spirits, boy. I can see a good breakfast ahead, and a long sleep in the sunshine waiting for us down below when we have cleared these flies out of our path. They are a worry now, but you'll see before long."
Marcus was destined to see more than his old companion anticipated during the next few hours, and events began to crowd rapidly one upon another's heels.
Their advance was no sooner strengthened by the foot-men who had been so long inactive while crossing the pass, than changes began to occur, foremost among which was the progress forward, the little force now pressing steadily on downward.
It was wintry and dark and the fighting was still going on with the enemy, who were slowly giving way, while to balance this the attack on the rear was still kept up. But the pass was opening more and more, and during the next few hours the progress of the little force had been slow but steady, the first rays of the sun shining upon the jaded men and horses halted in a sterile amphitheatre surrounded by rocks which afforded a fair amount of protection, Nature having formed the hollow with but one entrance and one exit, her instrument for carving out the depression having probably been a huge river of ice descending from the heights behind towards the plains below, of which glimpses now began to appear.
Rest was imperative, and evidently feeling that his position was far from safe, their leader had set a portion of his men to strengthen the opening front and rear by means of the ample supply of scattered rocks, many of which only needed a few well-directed thrusts to partly block up the rugged track and form an adequate defence.
This done and his foot-men disposed to the best advantage for the protection of the still crippled mounted force, it was expected by all that a few hours' rest might be obtained.
The position was bad, and their leader had intended to have pressed on downward to the plains; but the enemy in the rear had advanced so swiftly, their allies given way so stubbornly, that he was forced to seize upon the hollow which offered itself as being a natural stronghold, here to breathe his men and recruit for a few hours before making a final dash.
CHAPTER TWENTY TWO.
Marcus woke up that same evening to find himself lying back in the chariot with Lupe sitting watching him intently.
"Hallo, Lupe," said the boy, thickly; "what's the matter?"
The dog's answer was given with his tail—just one sharp rap on the floor of the vehicle, nothing more. So Marcus looked round him, feeling confused, and wondering what it all meant, for after so much exertion and excitement his brain had taken a thorough rest from which the boy's body was now awakened, but not his thinking powers.
"I don't quite understand it," he said to himself, as he caught sight of clusters of armed men, whose spears glittered in the evening sunshine, gathered together upon the mountain slopes around, and he soon satisfied himself that they were not Romans or any of the mercenaries whose appearance he knew.
It was easy to see, for nearer to him were his own people, one here and there perched upon some eminence, evidently on the look-out, and by running his eye along the edge of the rough amphitheatre he could trace nearly all the sentries, and at the same time note that beyond them in every ravine running downward there were hundreds of those who he at once concluded were the enemy.
"There are a great many of them," said Marcus to himself coolly, for he was not yet fully awake to his position, "and they seem to be very near; but our men appear to be ready for them, and the cavalry are standing with their horses waiting, I suppose, for orders, while—yes, the chariots! The horses are harnessed in. Are mine? Yes, and the driver ready."
Marcus had raised himself to look over the front of his chariot—a movement which excited the dog, who began to whine, and then watched his master eagerly as if to see what he would do next.
"It looks as if we are going to make a fresh start," thought Marcus; "and a good thing too, for it is chilly and cheerless; but we can't get away from here without fighting."
This last thought came with a look of excitement, for the boy's brain was growing clearer and he was rapidly grasping the fact that they were surrounded by a vast number of the enemy.
"What has become of Serge?" he said, half aloud.
The old soldier came into sight almost as he asked the question, carrying a vessel of water in one hand and something that looked like a cake of bread in the other.
"Awake, boy?" he said, as he came out. "I thought you'd be hungry when you did open your eyes, and so I managed to get this, but I've nigh had it snatched away three times as I came back, for our fellows are getting savage for want of food. Not that it matters much, for they'll fight all the better to get down to the plains and plunder."
"Then we're going to fight, Serge?" cried Marcus, eagerly.
"Not much doubt about that, boy."
"And start downward for the plains?"
"Ah, there's a deal of doubt about that, my lad. I dare say the chief would like to, but we're regularly shut up in this rocky hole."
"But he ought not to have let the enemy shut us up, ought he?"
"It was a case of can't help it, my boy," growled Serge. "From the time we halted this morning the barbarians have been gathering round and streaming down from the mountains, till there they are, thousands upon thousands of them, hanging on the hills and running down the hollows till they look like human rivers. We were obliged to have a rest and refresh, for a man can't go on fighting and marching for ever, even if he be a Roman; and ever since we've been resting the enemy has been collecting, till they are like you see. Well, why don't you look round?"
"I did," cried Marcus, "and saw all this before you came. Then we're in a sore strait, Serge?"
"Yes, a very sore one, boy; but eat your bread."
"Not now," said Marcus, quickly. "Let me have a drink of water."
He took hold of the vessel and had a long, deep draught, one which seemed to clear away the last mental cobweb from his brain.
"Now eat a bit," said Serge, offering the cake; but the boy shook his head and swept the surroundings with anxious eyes.
"Very well," said the old soldier. "You'll be hungry by-and-by." And slipping the cake into his wallet, he looked sternly at the boy, who turned to him directly.
"Then you think that we shall not be able to cut our way out, Serge?" he said.
"Sure of it, boy. They're too many for us."
"Then what is to be done?"
"What the chief likes, boy; but if I were he I should stand fast and let the enemy hammer at us till he grows tired of losing men."
"Then you think we can beat them off?"
"Yes, boy, for a time; but we've got no stores to speak of, and even Romans can't, as I said before, or something like it, go on fighting for ever. But we shall do our best."
"Yes," said Marcus, with a sigh, as he looked thoughtfully round, unconsciously playing with the dog's ears the while, to that animal's great satisfaction. "But I don't like it, Serge."
"You don't? Well, you're a queer sort of a boy, then," growled the old soldier. "I never met a boy before who said that he didn't like fighting."
"I did not say so," cried Marcus, sharply. "I was talking about our position here."
"Oh, I see!" growled Serge. "What about it? Strong enough for anything."
"Perhaps so, but here we are shut in amongst all these rocks, with no room for the horsemen or the chariots to be of any use. How could we gallop along here, or how could the cavalry attack?"
Serge took off his great helmet, wiped his brow with the back of his hand, and stared hard at his young companion for some moments, till the boy noticed the heavy, fierce look, and coloured.
"Why do you look at me like that?" he asked.
"Cause you make me, boy?"
"How? What do you mean?"
"Who taught you to talk like that, boy? Anyone would think you were a young general."
"Nonsense, Serge!" cried Marcus, with the tint upon his face growing deeper. "I spoke like that because you taught me and made me understand about the uses and movements of horse and foot. I'm sorry I was not right, but you need not laugh at me."
"What, boy?" cried the old soldier, warmly. "Laugh at you! Why, if I grinned it was because I was pleased and proud to see what a clever fellow you are growing up to be. Why, a well-trained old soldier could not have spoken better. You're as right as right, and it is unfortunate that our chief should be surrounded here in a place where he can't use the best part of his troops. But there, we won't argue about it. 'Tarn't a common soldier's duty to talk over what his general does. What he, a fighting man, has to do is to fight and do in all things what he is told. Do you see?"
"Yes, Serge, I see, but—"
Marcus ended by making a sign intended to mean, Hold your tongue.
But Serge did not interpret it rightly.
"Yes, I see what you mean, and it's of no use to say 'but' to me. Our chief is a thoroughly good commander of men, and if he has got us into this hole of a place, where we are all shut up tightly without a chance to get out, why it's—"
Serge stopped short, to draw himself up tightly, for all at once he understood the true meaning of Marcus' sign, having suddenly become aware of the fact that their captain had in going from post to post stopped close to his elbow, and had heard nearly every word that had been spoken, while it was evident that he was thinking of something else at the same time, for he finished the old soldier's sentence for him in the way he interpreted it.
"Why, it is his duty to get us out of it, eh, my man? That is what you were going to say, is it not?"
"Well, something like it, captain," faltered the veteran; "but I didn't mean no harm."
"Of course you did not, but you were teaching this boy to criticise his superiors. Well, my man, you as an old soldier can see that we are in a very dangerous position."
"And that if I try to cut my way out with the force I have at my command I may succeed."
"You will succeed, captain."
"Well, yes, I believe I should," said the captain, quickly; "but it would only be with the loss of a great number of men that could not be spared, and my division would afterwards be of little value to the main force."
"Yes, captain; that's right," growled Serge.
"Spoken like a good old fighting man," said the chief. "Now, then, speaking with your experience, what is best for me to do?"
"Set the men to build up rough walls with the stones, twice as strong as you have already."
"Good! Go on," cried the chief, while Marcus stood listening with his lips apart, and quivering with excitement the while.
"Then sit fast and wait."
"Plenty of water from the spring yonder," growled Serge.
"Food?" said the chief, sharply.
"Foraging parties," continued Serge.
"Not to be depended upon in this high desert, man."
"Capture the enemy's provisions," said Serge.
"Doubtful, my man," cried the captain. "Can you propose nothing else?"
"Send off messenger at once on to the generals in front, telling how you are fixed, and asking for help at once."
"Hah!" cried the captain. "That is what I was waiting for you to say. Now for the messenger I must send to Julius and Cracis."
"Someone who knows the country."
"There is no one," said the captain, sharply. "Whoever goes must find his way by the traces left by the generals."
"Yes, that's right, captain," said Serge.
"Well, man, whom am I to send?"
"Me!" cried Marcus, excitedly. "I'll find my father and take your message."
"You shall, boy," said the captain, catching Marcus by the arm. "It is what I planned, for I am going to send to Cracis, who will be directing the forces and the arrangements of the campaign, while Caius Julius leads the men. You, boy, have one of the best chariots and the swiftest horses in the force. There is no need for me to write if you tell your father that you come from me. Tell him everything you know, and that I am going to hold out to the last, even if I have to butcher the horses that the men may live. Tell him I am in a perilous strait, and that help must come to save me and give the enemy a lesson that they will not forget."
"Yes—yes," cried Marcus; "and I start at once?"
"Not yet, only be quite ready to dash off yonder by the lower track which you can see leading downward through those hills. I say dash off, but only if the enemy make for you. If you are not followed hasten slowly for your horses' sake. Remember that he who goes softly goes far, and I want sureness more than speed."
"But he can't get out yonder, captain," growled Serge, fiercely. "You are going to kill the boy."
"Well," said the captain, with a peculiar smile, "could I honour the son of great Cracis more than by letting him die for the sake of his country?"
"That's all very grand in sound, captain," cried Serge, grasping Marcus' other arm, "but he's my boy as much as his father's, and I won't stand by and see him go alone to sudden death."
"Serge!" cried Marcus, fiercely. "How dare you! Captain, don't heed him; I am ready to go the moment you say the word, and—and—"
"If I am killed," continued Marcus, struggling hard with his emotion, "and you ever see my father again, tell him, sir, that I went to my death doing my duty, as he taught me, and praying that he will forgive me for disobeying his commands."
"I will, boy," cried the chief, warmly; "but it shall not come to that, for you will reach your father, I feel sure, and bring me the help I need."
"He can't, captain, I tell you," cried Serge, fiercely. "Yes, you may punish me, a common soldier, for speaking as I do, but I tell you once again that I will not stand by and see my dear old master's son butchered, for it's nothing else. A boy like him, brave as he is, ought not to be sent, even if it is for his country's sake, when there are plenty of stout, strong men who could do the work as well or better, because they are hard and tough."
"Be silent, Serge," cried Marcus, passionately. "Don't punish him, captain; he means well, but he is half mad to speak to you like that."
"You need not appeal, my boy," said the captain, smiling. "I should punish no man for being brave and true to those he has served."
"But I tell you, captain," raged out Serge, "that it would be like murder to send the boy like that."
"Silence, old madman," cried the captain. "Why, I should be as mad as you even to think of doing such a thing. Listen, boy; be ready, and when the rest of the chariots are moved off towards the upper part of the track along with the rest of the force, you will keep back amongst the rocks. I shall lead the men myself and make a feigned attack as if I were going to retreat back by the way we came; and in the excitement and confusion, when the enemy yonder have drawn off to go to their companions' assistance and take me in the rear, you will watch your chance and escape."
"Yes, I see," cried Marcus, excitedly; and the captain went on:
"The chances are that if you are noticed no one will try to stop you. It will be thought that you are deserting and seeking your safety in flight."
"Yes, yes," cried Marcus; "and now I shall be sure to succeed."
"Yes, captain, that's better," growled Serge, in his deepest tones. "I like that."
"Then take good heed to his safety, man," cried the captain, warmly, "and die for him if there is need, for I would rather lose a hundred men such as you than one like him."
"But—but—" stammered Serge, "you don't mean—"
"I don't mean!" cried the captain. "Why, the boy is right: you are an old madman to think that I would send that brave boy alone when he has such a faithful old follower as you at his side. No, no; go with him, and bring him back safely to me, along with the help I ask, or never see my face again."
Before he had finished, rough old Serge, with the big tears standing in his eyes, was down upon one knee catching at the leader's hand and carrying it to his lips.
"There, there, there," cried the captain, "time is precious. No more of this. Boy, you have the safety of this force in your hands. Old veteran, I give you charge as bodyguard of this, my young despatch bearer. I do not tell you to do your duty, both of you; I only say, remember Rome. Farewell."
The captain turned quickly away to join a knot of his chiefs who were anxiously awaiting his return, and the next minute, fixed in their positions, neither feeling as if he had the power to stir, Marcus and Serge were alone.
CHAPTER TWENTY THREE.
THE FIGHT BEGUN.
Marcus was the first to break the silence.
"Serge," he panted, "isn't he grand!"
"Grand!" cried the old soldier, excitedly. "Grand arn't half big enough. He's a hero, that's what he is; and only think of me with a head like the old bull at home. Just as thick and stupid. Why, if he hadn't been such a great, wise, clever general as he is, he'd have knocked me down with the hilt of his sword. But it's all right after all, and look here, boy, you've got to do it."
"We've got to do it, Serge," cried Marcus. "Why, the idea is splendid; but I say—Lupe?"
"What about him?"
"What are we to do with him?"
"Nothing," said Serge, promptly; "he'll do for himself. Why, if you made up your mind to leave him behind he'd come."
"I suppose so, Serge. There's no press-house here in which to shut him up."
"No, and there's no other way of getting rid of him but cutting off his head," said the old soldier, grimly; "and you wouldn't like to do that."
"Serge!" cried Marcus, taking for the moment his companion's words as being meant seriously.
"Ah, I thought you wouldn't, boy," said the old fellow, smiling. "He'll hop into the chariot, of course, and when the way's clear we can let him down for a run, and do him good. But no more talking; we've got to get ready."
"No," said Marcus; "we're soldiers, and all ready now. I can see nothing to do but wait till we see that it is time to go."
"And that isn't far away," said Serge, "for here comes back one of the captains. Why, Marcus, boy, I feel happy enough to begin to dance. Just think of it: here we are off on quite a holiday, straight away for the Roman camp, to get to your father at once, and—Oh, my thick head! I never thought of that!"
"Thought of what?" said Marcus.
"What we're going to do: both of us going straight to face the lion and put our heads into his mouth."
"You mean my father?"
"Nonsense! He will have no time to think of punishing us."
"Won't he?" growled Serge. "Trust the master for ever forgetting anything. We shall have it, and sharply too, after him and Julius have come and done what they've got to do in the way they know how."
"Pst! Don't talk," whispered Marcus. "Look, this officer is giving his orders to the leaders of the chariots, and here he comes to us."
The boy was right, for a few minutes later the officer came quickly to him, and his words were very short.
"You have your orders from the chief, young man?" he said. "Stand fast there among these rocks till the line of chariots has moved off, and then go down to the lower camp where the foot soldiers are as soon as they have changed their station."
He turned away directly, and as their driver sprang up, quite on the alert as he saw that something was on the way, Marcus went to one pony, Serge to the other, to see that every portion of the harness was in proper trim; and Lupe leaped out of the chariot and then back to the front, to raise himself upon his hind legs and plant his paws on the front as if he were in command and issuing his orders, which took the form of a deep bay.
Directly after a sub-officer, who was in command of the line, gave an order, each chariot was manned, and following one another in file they began rattling and bumping in and out amongst the rocks and hollows, slowly and noisily in the direction of the highest point of the pass from which the way had been fought so short a time before.
"Look yonder, Serge," cried Marcus, as he gazed beyond the outposts in the direction of the hills that were dotted with the enemy.
"Was looking, boy," growled the old soldier, "It's running all round us wherever the enemy can see. Why, it's like putting a stick into a wasp's nest and giving it a stir round."
"Yes, look, look, look!" cried Marcus. "What an excitement! Does it mean that they are going to attack at once? Because if they are we shan't get off."
"Nay, they are only getting ready. You'll see them settle down again directly to watch our men and make sure what we are going to do."
The chariots moved on, one following the other till the rough line was all in motion, only one standing fast, and that one calling for the help of both Marcus and Serge, who at a word from the driver ran to the heads of the ponies to assist in controlling them. For as the last chariot started off they made a desperate plunge forward to follow, so taking the driver by surprise that the pair went on a few yards before they were stopped by Marcus and Serge hanging on to their bits and backing them to the place from which they had started.
"Don't like being left behind," growled Serge.
"Steady, boy, steady!" said Marcus, caressingly, as he patted the arching neck and smoothed down the wild, thick mane of the fiery little steed he held. "Wait a bit and we won't check you. You shall go, and as fast as you like, if we can only get clear ground."
The swarthy little driver grasped the boy's words, and nodded and showed his teeth, while in a few minutes the spirited animals were quieted down where they stood now with their heads turned from the slowly advancing line.
"He ought to have been on the look-out," growled Serge. "Hullo! How the chief must have been arranging all this!" And then he stood silently with his young companion, watching the changes that were beginning to take place in their little force.
The spot on which they stood was sufficiently elevated to give the pair of spectators a pretty good view of the little beleaguered camp. All at once the line of chariots was halted, while a fresh agitation commenced where the cavalry had been posted. There was a quick change where horses and men were massed together, and the light played and flashed from helmet and shield, while the men's spears glittered like so many points of light, as they sprang on to the backs of their horses and soon after were in motion, forming into another line which moved to the front of the chariots and were stopped in due time a little in advance.
"Why, he's making quite a show of it," growled Serge, "and the little army looks as if it were slowly going into action just for us to see."
"Yes," said Marcus, eagerly, "but look out yonder too. The enemy are advancing. They are gradually coming down that deep little valley, trickling like a stream."
"To be sure they are," said Serge, "and they are doing the same over yonder too."
"Well, doesn't that mean that they are going to attack at once?"
"No, boy; I fancy it only means to close us in and sweep us before them right up into the narrow of the pass again. They are beginning to take it."
"Take what? Why, what our general means. I am not going to call him a captain any more. He's acting like a general, and a good one too. The enemy don't mean to attack—not yet, because you see they have got no head man to make a big plan for them all to work together. You see, they are all little bodies and tribes and bits of tribes, each under its own leader, and everyone thinks himself a general and acts just as he likes, and that's where they often get in a muddle, good fighters as they are. Look at them now. There's another lot yonder going slowly down from that hill into the hollow and coming creeping towards us."
"Yes, and right away from that opposite hill there's another tribe coming down," cried Marcus, whose voice was husky with excitement.
"That's right," growled Serge, "and don't you see, not one lot has moved towards the upper pass. Why have they left that way open?"
"I don't know," said Marcus. "Perhaps some of the enemy will move towards it soon."
"Not they," growled Serge, with a deep, low chuckle. "Our general's laid a trap for them, and they are walking in. They know that we must be running short of provisions, and they think that we are going to retreat. It looks like it, don't it? There goes an advance guard of the foot, marching to the front of the horse. Well done, brave boys! There are some fine men amongst them to step together like that! Yes, there they go, about a third of them straight for the upper pass, and the whole of our little army will soon be under weigh as if in full retreat."
"And then the enemy will attack," cried Marcus.
"Perhaps not yet. They know what it's like up yonder amongst the snows, and they think that, tired and half starved, our poor fellows will be marching to their death, leaving their enemies very little work to do beside cutting down the stragglers. Ah, depend upon it, all these little petty generals think they have a great victory within their hands without any cost to themselves, and that none of our poor fellows will get across the pass alive."
"Oh, don't talk, Serge," cried Marcus, excitedly. "Look at the enemy! There's more and more of them getting into motion. They are beginning to come from all round."
"Yes, as I said before, like a nest of stingers stirred up with a stick; but we are getting all in motion too," continued Serge. "Every captain has had his orders, and he's beginning to head his men as it comes to his turn. Look how the infantry are tramping along to lead the way! Now the horse are getting ready to start! Take it coolly, my lads. You ought to be leading those horses over that stony ground; but I suppose the general wants to make a show and let it seem as if we were in full retreat."
"Will the chariots go next?" asked Marcus.
"Yes, boy, of course, with the baggage behind them, and all the strength of the infantry to form the rear-guard. You can see that for yourself, for the foot-men haven't moved."
"No," said Marcus, "but the enemy are moving more and more into two great parties, advancing so as to meet where the pass begins to narrow. Why, Serge, if they get there first they'll cut our retreating line in two."
"They would," said the old soldier, with a chuckle, "if they could, but our general will be too smart for that. He's got it all carefully planned out, and when those two great streams of men come together out yonder they will be well in the rear. But now look at them. You can see right round the camp from here. What are the enemy doing? Trying to surround us?"
"No," said Marcus, after a long inspection; "they are all gradually turning in the same direction and getting into motion, as if to drive us back into the pass."
"Yes, and it looks pretty and bright up yonder with the sun shining on the snow. To see it from here, boy, no one would think it meant bitter winds and a cold that cuts through you and turns men drowsy so that they want to lie down and die."
"No," said Marcus, with a slight shudder. "Ah!" he added, excitedly. "Our big rear-guard is beginning to stir, and the enemy are still moving on. Why, in a short time the lower part of the camp will have none of them beyond it."
"That's right," cried Serge, as he shaded his eyes and gazed long and fixedly towards the lower part of the amphitheatre far beyond which, looking green and beautiful, stretched away the sunny plains of Gaul; "and that means, boy, that things will be just as our general intended that they should, clear of the enemy and ready for us to creep cautiously down like a pack of deserters trying to save our skins."
"Yes, but I want to be moving," cried Marcus, who was ready to stamp with impatience. "I want to be leading the horses down through this wilderness of rocks so as to get away to the open land, where we can send them off at a gallop with the wind whistling about their ears. I want to see their manes and tails flying, Serge, and feel the chariot rock as the wheels spin round and bump over the hillocks and stones. Then on and on as fast as we can go, straight for the main army, to tear up to the guards with my message and bring them back. Oh, how slowly they move! Why doesn't the chief hurry the men, and why doesn't the enemy follow them at a rush? I want to be stirring; I want to go."
"Well done, young hurry-me-up!" chuckled Serge. "That's all very pretty. You want this and you want that, and you want to be racing the ponies along and making the chariot rock and the wheels spin round, till bump, crash, one of the wheels flies off or drops to pieces, over goes the car, sending you yesterday and me to-morrow, and the driving boy with his head knocked off, while the poor ponies stand staring and broken-winded, and no message taken to the master."
"What are you talking about, Serge?" cried Marcus, angrily.
"You, boy, and what you want to do," growled the old man. "That's not the way to carry a despatch, and if we are going to get where we want, it will have to be slow and sure. It will be all very well going to the heads of the ponies as soon as the way's clear and leading them in and out amongst the rocks, so that if any of the enemy sees us he'll think we are sneaking away; but when that's done and we are clear of the enemy, what then?"
"Why, we must gallop off," cried Marcus, excitedly. "This is not a time for your slow and sure."
"Oh, arn't it?" grumbled Serge. "Then you want to gallop right away at once, do you?"
"Which way? What way? And how?"
"What are you talking about?" cried Marcus.
"You know, and yet you don't know. Where's our army? Haven't we got to find the track they left?"
"Yes, of course, boy, but where's the beginning of it?" growled Serge, as he made a comprehensive motion, sweeping round one hand. "There will be no one to ask, for the country will be cleared—all the fighting men gone to the wars, all the women and children and old folk hiding among the mountains. Our army will have made a clean sweep of everything, and we have got to eat. It all sounds very nice, my boy, but to go off at a gallop such as you speak of means riding to nowhere, and the army never found."
"Oh, Serge, don't talk like that."
"Must, boy. We will gallop when we can, but lots of the time we shall pretty well have to crawl."
"Oh!" groaned Marcus, as he felt the truth of the old soldier's words.
"There, don't make a noise like that, but look round here and see what's going on. It's a sight, boy, such as you may never see again."
"I can't stand and look at sights," cried the boy, angrily.
"But you must. It's part of the work you have on hand. You must watch for the time that is best for our start. You can't say anything to that."
"No," sighed Marcus, "that's right; but see what a time we have been waiting now. It must be hours since the general came and gave me his command."
"Well, not hours, but it's a long time, boy, and it will be longer yet before we shall dare to stir. Why, there are thousands of men below there, and hundreds more coming into sight just along the part we shall have to go, and we must wait till they have all marched off right and left to join the rest before we shall dare to start."
"But you are making the worst of it, Serge," cried Marcus, eagerly, as he glanced round from his post of observation at the magnificent sight of men in motion, glittering arms, trampling horse, and all framed in by the sterile rocks, the snow-capped hills, and the dazzling blue sky above.
"Perhaps I am, boy, and all the better for us; but it's much the best to look troubles straight in the face and not to come to grief from being too hopeful."
And as to time, so it proved, for after about another two hours had elapsed, with the boy bubbling over with impatience, they were able to feel that they might venture downward through the lower part of the amphitheatre, where they would be getting more into the shelter of rock and valley, and beyond the ken of the two trampling multitudes urging their way on after the little army now in full motion higher up the pass, the leading foot showing still clearly and nearly as distinctly as if close at hand, though quite a couple of miles from where the chariot stood.
"Ah," cried Serge, at last, "now I think we will start."
"Yes, come on," cried Marcus. "But why did you say that?" he added, hastily.
"Because the fight's begun, boy."
"Where? How?" cried Marcus.
"Look yonder towards that patch of grey rock which glitters in the sun. That's where our stout rear-guard is. If you look hard you will be just able to see something moving slowly and something like a dark cloud just behind. That's the enemy's, front just coming into action, driving our men on. Hark! Do you hear how the hum of the enemy's troops' sounds changed?"
"Yes, I think so. It comes echoing along the rocks."
"Well, that's the barbarians cheering the others on."
"Oh," cried Marcus, "the attack begun, when we haven't even stirred to fetch the help! Serge, shall we reach the army to-night?"
"Nay, nor to-morrow night either, boy."
"And the fight begun!" cried Marcus. "Why, before we can get to my father and Caius Julius our little force will be destroyed."
"Bah! Don't you get setting up for a prophet like that. Do you think our men are going to sit down and let themselves be swallowed up without striking a blow? What are you thinking of, boy? Isn't our general marching his men into the narrow gorge again where he will be safely walled in, with only a little front to defend? You let him alone. He will stop and turn as soon as he has found a spot he likes, one that he can easily hold; and there he'll be with his rear open for men to go over the pass and forage for food. He knows what he's about, and we know what we have got to do."
"Yes," said Marcus, with a sigh; "we know, but—"
"But you needn't watch the going on of the fight, boy, for at this distance it's nearly all guess work and little see, and here as far as I can make out no one can notice us if we begin to move, so now's the time to start."
"Ah!" cried Marcus, triumphantly, as he turned to the horse's head on his side.
Serge made for the other, and the great dog reared himself up with his paws upon the front of the chariot and his jaws parted, to send forth one of his deep, barking volleys.
But at a cry from Marcus he sank down as if abashed, and the only sounds that were heard above the deep, low hum of the trampling army of barbarians, were the soft rattling of the chariot wheels, and the beat of the horses' hoofs upon the stony ground, as they began cautiously to make for the end of the amphitheatre and its labyrinth of rocks.
CHAPTER TWENTY FOUR.
It was a glorious change from the terrible inactivity of waiting to energetic action, and the feeling was shared by all.
Lupe leaped out of the chariot, the driver involuntarily shook the reins to urge the ponies forward forgetful of the fact that they were held on either side, and the beautiful little animals tried to plunge onward, but feeling the check upon their bits, snorted and began to rear while both Marcus and Serge had to make a struggle to control the desire within their breasts which urged them to break forward into a run.
But the knowledge of the need of caution prevailed, and glancing to right and left in search of watching enemies, they had the satisfaction of seeing the chaos of rocks rising above their heads and quite concealing them, though on the other hand their progress became more painful, their way more burdened with stones.
But it was glorious work to Marcus. These masses of rock were only difficulties in the way waiting to be mastered. It was quite refreshing to leave the leading of the horses to the driver and add their strength in pulling, pushing, and now and then seizing the spokes to hoist a wheel over some stony bar.
Their progress was slow towards the far end of the amphitheatre, but every score of yards was something gained, and all worked eagerly till at last the lower end of the amphitheatre was reached, where the rocks closed in again and a small ravine was before them, whose bottom was the bed of a mountain torrent along which a shallow stream hurried, hardly above the soles of the adventurers' sandals, though the smooth rocks of the bed and sides showed plainly enough that there were times when a furious flood dashed along, laden with smaller stones and gravel, whose effects were to polish the bigger rocks in their way.
"Better not talk," growled Serge, as they began to make quicker progress. "I don't suppose anyone is here; they'll all have gone to the front; but you never know, and every bad word is picked up by the rocks and sent flying far away till it drops plump into somebody's ear. Steady's the word, boy. Keep your little chap still. I don't suppose this bit of a streamlet keeps like this. I expect the narrow bed opens out soon, for the hills seem to grow smaller and smaller here, and I am hoping that we shall come upon level ground so that we may get a gallop to stretch the ponies' legs."
"Ah, I hope so," cried Marcus, eagerly. "Now you are beginning to talk, Serge, like a man."
"And that means, boy, that I was talking a bit ago like some old woman, I suppose. Well, part of a soldier's duty is to take care. Steady you, sir, and don't splash the water up like that," the old soldier continued softly to the pony whose head he held. "It's all very nice for you, and I dare say the water feels nice and pleasant to your hoofs; but keep quiet. You don't have to polish the rust off your armour—I do. I wish to goodness we could get on good dry ground."
Like the rest of mountain torrents, the one whose bed they were following zig-zagged in all directions, so that even from their old point of vantage they had been able to see but a very little way along, and were quite content with the knowledge that the rocks rose up some fifteen or twenty feet above their heads, amply sufficient to shelter them from the sight of the enemy who lay away on either side, while now as they journeyed along the rocky bed, with the rattle of the wheels multiplied by the echoes, nothing was visible a hundred yards ahead, and as fast as one angle was turned there lay another a short distance in front.
But they were descending towards the plains; the plashing stream as it hurried along taught them that, and at the end of about a quarter of a mile of little interrupted progress they were cheered on by the fact that the rocks on either side grew lower, rapidly ceasing to afford them protection, and before long hardly rising to their shoulders.
There was another turn, and then another, and then Marcus cried eagerly:
"The hills are seeming to get farther away, Serge, and we must soon be out in the plain. I wonder what's beyond that turning."
"Open ground, I should say, my lad," said the old soldier, gravely; "but we must take care. We want the open ground for the horses, but not for ourselves."
"I don't understand you," cried Marcus, sharply.
"I spoke plainly enough, boy. I meant this: no shelter for us, don't you see, and if the enemy look back some of them may turn and come in pursuit."
"Ah, of course," cried Marcus. "Well, if they do, and catch us, you will have to fight, Serge, and drive them back."
"That's right, my boy, and I'll do my best: but if I do, and get the worst of it, you never mind but go right on."
"Yes," said Marcus, drily, "when you are ready to come too."
Serge grunted with satisfaction, and then, possibly from the solemnity of the desolate place along which they travelled, they tramped silently along over the rocky bed, their footsteps and those of the horses being the only sounds as they neared the sharp angle where the stream bed seemed to open out.
Marcus said afterwards that Serge should have been more cautious, and Serge retorted that Marcus was captain and ought to have sent on a scout in front. But as it was, the scout who acted, sent on himself, and that scout was Lupe, who, attracted by the openness of the rocks in front, suddenly bounded forward with a cheery bark, sending the water flying, and exciting the ponies into starting forward at a canter.
Almost involuntarily the holders of their reins let go and, acting as if on one impulse, caught at the sides of the chariot and sprang in, steadying themselves in their position as the heavy vehicle dashed on along the shallow bed, which was now wonderfully free of stones, while the driver participating in the dog's excitement, uttered a low cry and shook his reins, so that a minute later the chariot swung round the angle into where the ravine suddenly came to an end and a low level valley opened out. Right at the edge of the stream, and not far in front, a cluster of rough camp shelters seemed to spring up before them, and from out of the huts where they had been sheltering from the sun, a body of about two score spear-armed men suddenly appeared.
CHAPTER TWENTY FIVE.
A NARROW ESCAPE.
To have the horses turned, and gallop back along the narrow river bed for their lives, was Marcus' first thought. His second, braver and better, was to shout to the driver at his elbow to urge the horses on at their greatest speed.
The man hardly needed telling, for as the first words of command were buzzing in his ear he was shaking the reins and calling upon the brave little beasts to exert themselves to the utmost.
"Forward, my beauties," he yelled, "or the barbarians will have you, and before to-morrow you will be roasted and eaten. Gallop—gallop away!"
There was no time for Serge to talk, but he acted, and acted well. Picking up instantly two of the spears which hung at the chariot side in loops, he thrust one into Marcus' hand, retained the other, and stood ready to thrust. Marcus followed his example. Neither thought of using their shields, but stood fierce and staring of aspect, watching the party of men barring their way and shouting to them to stop.
It seemed like the next moment that the enemy, who fully expected the strangers in the chariot to surrender, found that to give up was the last thought in their expected prisoners' breasts, and thereupon some dropped their spears, others were in the act of turning to fly, when with a dull, strange sound the chariot horses were upon them. Literally upon them, for the gallant little beasts obeyed their natural instinct, as they galloped and rose to leap the pale of human obstacles and spears in front, but only to come down quite short, trampling and spurning down the enemy, over whom the chariot rolled, bumping, leaping and splashing, and directly after, untouched by the long spears held by the uninjured, the driver turned the horses slightly, and their next bounds were upon dry land, rough and rugged enough, but free from any great impediments. Then away and away as hard as they could go, while the more active of those who were not hurt, recovering themselves a little from the shock and scare, came after the charioteers in chase with levelled spears.
"Splendid, Marcus, boy!" cried Serge. "Bah! You need not look back; they'll give up running directly. You did not think they would catch us up?"
"No," replied Marcus, breathing hard, "but stop! Stop! Lupe is fighting with them, and they'll spear him if we don't go to his help."
"Eh? Go back, boy? To certain death!" cried the old soldier, fiercely. "It couldn't be done if it was to save the finest dog in the world."
"Oh, Serge!" cried Marcus, wildly.
"The message to Julius and your father, boy. We must not think of either ourselves or the dog at a time like this."
"You are right, Serge," said Marcus, bitterly. "But poor old Lupe!" he continued, as he held on to the side of the chariot with his left hand and gazed back. "He'll kill no more wolves when they come down from the mountains over the wintry snow."
"Why not?" growled Serge.
"Because the enemy are spearing him."
"I haven't heard him yelp," cried the old soldier, "but I can hear somebody shouting as if Lupe was spearing him."
"Do you think so?" cried Marcus.
"Ay, that I do, boy. It wouldn't be an easy job to stick a long-handled spear into old Lupe when he is bounding about attacking legs, and waiting his chance to tackle throats. Like as not we shall find him coming after us, scratched and bleeding perhaps, but not hurt more than I can doctor him and set him right again, same as I've done more than once when he has had a turn with the wolves."
"Ah, look, look!" shouted Marcus, joyously. "Why, here he comes!"
For all at once Lupe, who had been lost to sight, hidden as he was by those of the enemy who had not taken up the pursuit, and who had resented the dog's attacks by endeavouring to pin him to the earth with their long spears, now dashed into sight, proving that he was uninjured by the bounds and springs he kept on making, barking furiously the while at those who were keeping up their pursuit of the chariot, but whose attention was now diverted so that they turned the points of their spears to repulse the dog's attack.
"Yah! Just like him!" cried Serge, angrily. "You ugly old idiot, you! Whether it's men or wolves, you always would have the last bite. Come away, stupid! Come here!" he roared again, quite oblivious of the fact that even if the distance had not prevented the dog from hearing, the noise of the horses' beating hoofs would have effectually drowned Serge's voice.
"Ought we not to stop and help him, Serge?" cried Marcus.
"No, boy; you know we ought not. We've got to get on with that message, and we must think of nothing else now we are clear. We must not even slacken while the path is so good; so keep on. You wanted a big gallop, so take it and be content, for the horses are going fast enough to satisfy anyone."
"Yes," sighed Marcus. "But poor old Lupe!"
"He must take care of himself, boy," growled Serge. "Look at him, charging at the enemy as he is, when he is doing no good and running the risks for nothing."
"He has stopped the pursuit," said Marcus.
"Yes; but why can't he be content now he has done it, and come on, instead of asking them as plainly as a dog can speak, to thrust a spear through his ribs?"
"But he knows no better," pleaded Marcus, who was watching all that was going on, and feeling proud of the dog's bravery in charging the enemy furiously from time to time, and escaping every thrust as if by a miracle. "I don't want to lose time, Serge," cried Marcus, raising his voice so that his companion could hear, "but I am going to check the horses for a few moments so that I can shout to Lupe. If he hears my voice calling him he will come."
"He's coming without, boy," cried Serge, angrily. "Oh! Poor old fellow! But it's his own fault. I knew he'd get it at last, and he has. That thrust has been too much for him. Look!"
Marcus was already looking sharply enough to have seen, at the same moment as his companion, Lupe make a rush at the halting enemy, whose spears flashed in the bright light; and then the dog rushed away again, to stand apparently barking furiously at his enemies, before dashing off after the chariot for about a hundred yards, and then stopping short to roll over and over.
"Killed!" cried Marcus, in a voice full of anguish.
"No," said Serge, hoarsely; "he's up again and tearing after us."
But the next minute the dog had dropped again, and as far as those in the chariot could make out in the increasing distance, was busily engaged in licking his flank, and Marcus said so.
"Not sure," cried Serge, "but I'm afraid he has got an ugly dig. Is he going to lie down and die?"
"Surely not!" cried Marcus, excitedly. "No, he is up again, and here he comes."
"Then perhaps it is not so bad as I thought, boy. Yes, here he comes as hard as he can pelt. He can't be very bad, unless this is his last struggle to get to your side."
"And yours, Serge," said Marcus, mournfully.
"No, boy; it's you that he wants to reach," said the old soldier, with a grim smile. "He likes me, but you need not talk—he loves you; and if he's very badly hurt he is putting all the strength he has left in him to get here to you."
"Oh, Serge," cried Marcus, as the ponies tore on, with the dog in full pursuit, "it can't be so bad as you think!"
"Well, boy, I'm beginning to think you're right. He can't be so very bad, or he wouldn't be able to stretch himself out like that and come over the ground faster than the horses are going, and that isn't slow. Look at the brave old fellow; that's just the stride he takes—"
"Stride!" cried Marcus, proudly. "He's coming on in bounds."
"So he is, boy, and as I was going to say, that's just his way when he wants to overtake a pack of ravaging wolves who have been after our sheep. Well done, dog! Talk about muscles in his legs! I don't call them muscles; he has legs like springs."
The chariot horses still tore on at a fast gallop, the sturdy little driver guiding them with admirable skill as they neared obstructions; but fast as they swept over the open ground, with the heavy chariot leaping and bounding behind, their speed was far out-paced by the great dog which stretched out like a greyhound of modern times, and lessened the distance between them more and more, till he was so near that Marcus uttered a cry of horror upon making out as he did that the dog's flank was marked by a great patch of blood.
"Yes," said Serge, gravely, "I see, boy, and I could find it in my heart to stop the ponies and take him into the chariot; but there is no need for it. Can't be a serious wound, and he'll be close up to us in another minute."
"To reach us exhausted," cried Marcus, bitterly; "and I shall always feel that we might have saved his life."
Serge made no reply, but, frowning heavily, he watched the final efforts the gallant animal was making. For gathering himself together for every spring and putting all his strength in his efforts, Lupe bounded on till he was close behind the chariot, and Marcus uttered an encouraging shout as he went down on one knee, while the next minute Lupe made a tremendous spring, from which he landed in the middle of the rapidly-going vehicle, and then couched down, bent his head over as he let himself fall over on his left side, and began licking his wound as calmly as if nothing had happened more than the receiving of a big scratch.
"Why, Lupe, Lupe, old dog!" cried Marcus, as he knelt beside the wounded animal hard at work over his natural surgery.
Upon hearing the boy's voice the dog ceased his task, looked up in Marcus' face with his big intelligent eyes, beat the floor of the chariot a few times heavily with his tail, and then went on again with his dressing of his wound.
"There," cried Serge, after looking back at the distant Gauls, "they're not likely to pursue us, so make him ease the ponies down a little. We must not wear them out at the start. That's better," he continued, as Marcus touched the driver on the shoulder and signed to him to moderate their speed.
This done, Serge placed his spear in the loops and Marcus' beside it, before sinking down upon his knees on the other side of the wounded dog.
"Now then," he said, "let's see whether it's very bad or not," and he laid his great hand upon the dog's head.
Lupe ceased the licking upon the instant, and raised his head to gaze intelligently in the old soldier's eyes.
"Good dog!" said the latter, speaking with gruff gentleness. "I won't hurt you more than I can help."
As if he comprehended the old soldier's words and placed full confidence in his knowledge and power, Lupe stretched himself out fully upon his left side, extended his head, and, half closing his eyes, lay perfectly still as if dead.
"Poor old Lupe!" said Marcus, softly, and he took hold of the dog's right forepaw, with the result that the poor animal winced, but only whined a little and did not try to withdraw his leg, but at the same time began again to beat the floor of the chariot with his tail, keeping up the latter, as Serge carefully examined the injury.
"Nasty place!" growled Serge.
"Not dangerous?" cried Marcus, anxiously.
"Dangerous? No, not it. He had got himself into the right position when the spear thrust was made. It's bad enough, of course—"
"Oh, Serge!" cried Marcus.
"But there's no likelihood of its being dangerous. The spear caught him on the flank and went right in alongside his ribs, from the thick hair above his shoulder right away to the front of his hind jumper."
"Deep in the flesh, Serge?"
"No, no; only just under the loose skin."
"Has it bled much?" said Marcus, anxiously.
"Plenty, my lad, but he won't die of it. Do you hear, Lupe, old boy? Your doctor says he is not going to do anything in the way of tying you up, for this is the sort of wound that has done bleeding and will heal up without any more help than you can give it with your tongue; so go on and do what you like to it, just the same as you began when you were stopped."
The dog ceased beating the floor of the chariot as Serge went on talking to him, and as soon as the old soldier had given him a final pat or two he resumed the application of Nature's remedy, paying no heed to those in the chariot, which was now rolling steadily on and leaving the scene of the late encounter farther and farther behind.
CHAPTER TWENTY SIX.
IN THE TRACK OF AN ARMY.
It was not easy to quiet down the half wild steeds. They had been going through a long period of inaction since the fierce charge made on the night of the encounter before crossing the snowy pass, and once their driver had, to use the horsey phrase, given them their heads, and urged them on to their top speed, their hot, wild blood had been bubbling through their veins, making them snort and tear along heedless of rock, rut, and the roughest ground. Marcus had told the driver to check them twice over, but as soon as Lupe was in the chariot and both Marcus and Serge busy seeing to his wound, the speed began to increase, till the chariot was bumping over the open plain faster than ever; and though the charioteer strove his best it was some time before he managed to get his little pair into hand again so that the pace grew moderate and the progress was made at a gentle canter, instead of a wild gallop which threatened wreck over some projecting stone.
"They were half mad with excitement," cried Marcus, who was breathing hard.
"Yes," grunted Serge. "I thought we were going to be upset over and over again. Feel a bit frightened, boy?"
"Frightened?" said Marcus, looking wonderingly at his companion. "No! I liked it. Why, it was glorious to rush over the plain like that."
"Wouldn't have been very glorious if one wheel had come bump against a stone, flown all to pieces, and we two had gone flying one way and the chariot the other."
"No," said Marcus, laughing; "but that wheel did not, and we are all as right as can be, with the enemy left behind."
"Yes, that's all very true, boy," said Serge, who was pressing his helmet a little farther back and holding it there so that he could get a good uninterrupted look all round.
"You didn't like it, then?" said Marcus, smiling at his companion's perplexed expression.
"Course I didn't," growled Serge.
"Lupe did. Just look at him. He has curled himself up to go to sleep. That's a good sign, isn't it, that he is not badly hurt?"
"Yes, he's not going to be bad," said Serge, without so much as a glance at the sleeping animal. "Dogs always do curl up when they are hurt;" and he kept on staring anxiously ahead.
"What are you looking for, Serge? More enemies?" asked Marcus.
"No," replied the old soldier, though it was more like a grunt than a reply.
"What are you watching for, then? Not stones? It's getting smoother, and we're going on at a nice steady rate now."
"Yes, boy, we're going along at a nice steady rate, but I want to know where to?"
"Where to?" cried Marcus, quickly. "Why, to find the main army, and deliver the message."
"Yes, boy," growled the old soldier; "but where is the main army?"
Marcus stared at his companion for a few moments in complete astonishment, before gazing straight in front between the tossing manes of the cantering ponies, and then looked to right and left.
"I don't know," he said, at last. "Somewhere in front, I suppose."
"Somewhere in front, you suppose!" grumbled Serge. "But where's that? Nowhere, I say. We shall never come up with them if we go on like this. We may be getting farther away at every stride."
"Oh, Serge!" cried the boy, excitedly.
"And it's O, Marcus!" growled the old fellow, sourly.
"What's to be done Serge?" cried the boy, despairingly. "Why, we may be losing time."
"Most likely," said Serge.
"And I was thinking that in flying along as we have been we were getting nearer and nearer to the army. Now, then, what is to be done?"
Serge was silent for a few moments, and then said slowly:
"Well, boy, it seems to me that the best thing we can do is to bear off to the right."
"But that may take us wrong," said Marcus, excitedly. "Why not go to the left?"
"Humph!" grunted Serge. "Because that may take us wrong, boy. You see, there's a lot of chance in it, and we must use our brains."
"Of course. That's what I'm trying to do, Serge."
"Don't seem like it, boy. We've got to track the army, haven't we?"
"Yes," cried Marcus, "but they've left no traces."
"Not that we have found as yet, boy, but they must have left some wounded men, or sick, belonging to the army or the enemy. If they're fighting their way, as is most likely, we may be sure that a good many men have fallen."
"Yes, that's reasonable enough, Serge, but we have seen no signs of one."
"Not one," said the old soldier. "So as there have been no traces, we must go by guesswork, mustn't we?"
"Yes, of course," cried Marcus. "Well, you guessed and I guessed, and I think my guess will be the better one."
"I know you do; but I don't, boy."
"Because there's no reason in yours and there is in mine."
"I can't see that," said Marcus, stubbornly. "Show me how your way can be better than mine."
"That's soon done, boy," said Serge. "Caius Julius will have a big army with him, won't he?"
"Yes, of course; a very large one."
"With plenty of mounted soldiers and chariots."
"Yes," said Marcus.
"Well, would he pick out the roughest part of the country all among the rocks, like you have, or the lower and more even way like mine?"
"You are right and I'm wrong, Serge," cried Marcus, frankly. "Let's go your way."
The old soldier nodded, the order was given, and the driver turned his horses' heads more to the right; but before they had gone far Marcus caught his companion by the arm.
"But suppose, Serge, that the army did not come this way at all? We do not know that it did."
"How's that?" asked the old soldier.
"Why, it might have gone by some other way."
"Which?" growled Serge.
"Oh, I don't know," replied the boy. "There must be plenty of ways through the mountains by which an army could go."
"No, there mustn't, and there arn't, without you go a long journey round, and that a general is not likely to do. Passes through the mountains are a long way apart; and besides, of course our new captain knew the way that Caius Julius was going, and this is the way he meant to follow if he had come on."
"Are you sure?" said the boy, doubtingly.
"Certain, my lad, or I wouldn't go this way."
Serge had struck for the right, and he proved to be right indeed, for before an hour had passed the adventurers had good proof, the old soldier suddenly giving vent to a grunt of satisfaction.
"What is it, Serge?" cried Marcus, eagerly, seeing that the old man was smiling.
"I'm right," he said.
"What! Can you see anything?"
"Yes; look yonder, boy."
Marcus gazed in the direction the old man pointed, carefully scanning the distance, but seeing nothing save the undulating stony plain with here and there a stunted tree, and in one part a depression like an old river bed.
"Well," he said; at last; "I can see nothing."
"Not looking right," said Serge.
"I've looked right and left, and down that hollow too," said Marcus.
"That's what I say. You haven't looked right up. Look up."
"Up?" cried Marcus, who felt puzzled. "I do wish you would speak. There is nothing to see there but those crows circling slowly round and round."
"That's right," grunted Serge; "you have seen what I mean."
"What, the crows?"
Serge grunted, and Marcus stared.
"I don't know a bit what you mean," said Marcus, irritably. "Don't, pray don't, waste time."
"I'm not wasting time. I say we're on the right track, boy. Look at the crows."
"What for?" cried Marcus, angrily.
"What for?" growled Serge. "S'pose you and me was at home and were out among the pastures and up the lowest slopes of the mountains where we drive the goats."
"Well, what then?" cried Marcus, impatiently.
"And suppose we saw crows flying round and round. What would you say then?"
"That there was a dead lamb or a kid lying somewhere about, or that the wolves had been down and killed a sheep."
"Well?" said Serge, with a dry look on his wrinkled face.
Marcus was silent for a few moments, and then, "Oh, Serge," he cried, with a look of horror, "you don't think—"
"Yes, I do, boy. Nay, I feel sure. There's been a big fight yonder where those crows are flying about."
"Yes: I see," cried Marcus. "But—but which side has won?"
"Ah, that we are going to see, my boy, and before long too. Turn a bit more to the right, my man," he continued, laying his hand upon the driver's shoulder, and their direction was a trifle altered, with the result that before long they were passing by the side of a portion of the plain where it was evident that a desperate encounter had taken place from the large number of ghastly relics of the engagement that lay scattered about, spread over the space of quite a mile.
The scene was passed in silence, Marcus pressing their driver to urge on the ponies till they were well ahead, after grasping the fact that a stubborn stand must have been made, and that the action had been continued onward to where they stood.
"Well," said Serge, "you see all clearly enough now, don't you, boy?"
"I'm not quite sure," said Marcus, thoughtfully, "though I think our army must have won the day."
"There's no doubt about that, boy, and in such a fight as it has been they could not help losing heavily; but I haven't seen the body and arms of a single Roman soldier, and that is a sure sign that they won the day, and then stopped to carry away their wounded and bury their dead."
Marcus shuddered, and they rode on for a time in silence, passing here and there a little mound, and as soon as they had cleared one the old soldier swept the distance with his eyes in search of another.
Marcus looked at him questioningly.
"Yes, boy," said the old fellow, softly; "an ugly way of tracking our road, but a sure. Those hillocks show where they've laid some of our poor fellows who fell out to lie down and die, and there their comrades found them."
"War is very horrible," said Marcus, after a pause.
"Well, yes," replied Serge, "I suppose it is; but soldiers think it's very glorious, and as a man's officers say it is, why, I suppose they're right. But there; that's not for us to think about. It's not horrible for our Roman soldiers to stop and bury their slain, and their doing this has made it easy for us to follow the track of the army."
"Yes," said Marcus, who was gazing straight before him; "and look there."
Serge shaded his eyes, and gazed in the direction pointed out.
"Yes," he said, "that's another sign-post to show us our way, and I dare say we shall come upon some more, ready to prove that we are on the right track. The crows seem to have been pretty busy there, boy."
"The crows and the ants," said Marcus.
"Yes, and maybe the wolves have been down from the mountains to have their turn."
"Whoever would think, Serge, that those scattered white bones had once formed a beautiful horse, just such a one as these we have in the chariot?"
"Ah, who indeed?" replied the old soldier. "But I don't know that we want to think about it, boy. Let's think about your message and getting on to deliver it. We must make the best of our way while the light lasts, so as to get on as far as we can, as we know now that we're going right. I should like to get down to some hilly or mountainous hit."
"What for, Serge?"
"To climb up when it's dark."
"Because you think it will be safe to sleep there?"
"No, boy; I was not thinking of sleeping till we get our message delivered. I was wondering whether we should be lucky enough to get so far that after dark, if we climbed up high enough, we might be able to see our people's watch fires twinkling like stars in the distance."
"Oh, Serge, that would be capital!" cried Marcus, excitedly. "Do you think we shall be so fortunate?"
"Don't know, boy," growled the old soldier; "but hurry the ponies along while we can see that we are on the right track. There's no reason why we shouldn't be fortunate."
"Oh, we must be, Serge," cried Marcus. "It's horrible to think of our general and all his men shut up in that bitter snowy pass, fighting hard for life, and always watching for the help that does not come. Forward!" shouted the boy, and at his word the driver seemed to make the horses fly.