[ In the middle of the Arab assault, Vladimir is trying to find the engineers... who are up to their old tricks. This section goes between "...roiling with columns and drifts of smoke." and "By the time that Nick..." ]
Vladimir came to a halt at the base of a great ramp of fitted stone. It rose up above him into the gloom, vaulting up from the twisted narrow street of the decumanus to the looming wall of the Temple Mount. A few torches guttered in the high wind, but most of the entranceway was dark, the columns and soaring walls shadowed. Bronze faced doors sealed the top of the ramp, but the guards that usually stood there were gone. Dust blew in gusts across the road.
“Sextus! Frontius!” The Walach’s voice boomed from the marble statues that guarded the gate of the gods. “It’s Vlad! Where are you?”
The Walach cursed. He had found some of the Roman fabrii at the tetrapylon and had told them to make for the tunnel. Their two cohort leaders were still missing. One of the messenger boys had told him, breathlessly, as he was running from the southern wall to the north, that they had gone into the temple precincts. Vlad jogged up the ramp, turning his head to the north, trying to keep grit out of his eyes. The wind faltered when he came into the archway before the door. He turned, looking back along the length of the central street of the town. The platform of the temples was raised fifty or sixty feet above the rest of the city. He saw that the entire northern wall was afire and wrapped in billowing fumes.
“Damn these engineers! Where are they?”
A flicker of light to the south drew his eye. Even in this poor light, with the air hazed with smoke and dust, he could make out men struggling on the roof of the Dung Gate tower. Torches and spilled oil burned, lighting swarms of warriors in tan and white cloaks pouring over the wall. Vlad snarled, seeing disaster hemming him in on all sides. He checked the presence of his long-bladed axe with a fingertip, then swung his hand hard against the bronze plates.
They boomed, a deep sound, and he howled for the missing fabrii again.
This time a monstrous creaking sound and the rumble of iron wheels on stone answered him. The two bronze doors began to swing outwards, accompanied by a string of curses and the grunts of straining men. Vlad leapt to the opening doors and added his own strength. With the effort of his strong arm, the gates swung wide. A wagon rolled out, creaking under its own weight. Sextus was on one side, pushing with all his might, his face red with effort. Frontius and a dozen of the stonemasons from the cohort were also hauling on the wagon, pushing it across the threshold.
“Gods, what is in this thing?” Vlad was putting his full strength into the wagon, yet it barely moved at all, groaning with the slow screech of tortured wood. Sextus shook his head, unable to speak. At the top of the ramp was a channel that let rainwater spill away to either side. The front wheels of the wagon rolled to it and stopped, stuck. Vlad cursed again, but the lead surveyor let go of the front wheel with a wheeze.
“That’s it! Come on lads, make for the tunnel.”
The stonemasons shook out their arms, grimacing, and then gathered up their kit from the wagon. Vlad watched them run down the ramp with a puzzled eye. Each of them had a heavy bag bouncing at their shoulder, as well as their usual armor, weapons and tools.
“What is this?” Vlad poked at the jumble of statues, pots, baskets and cloth in the back of the wagon. It glittered in the light of the few remaining torches and the ruddy glow in the sky.
“A little delay,” said Frontius, still breathing heavily as he crammed his helmet onto his head. A heavy chain hung around his neck. Sextus was similarly attired, though he was trying to carry a heavy scroll case under one arm. In the bad light, Vlad thought that it was made of ivory. “Are the others in the tunnel?”
“I don’t know,” growled Vladimir, showing long incisors. The two Romans started backwards at the deep sound. “Nick sent me to find the lot of you! I passed some of the carpenters in the tetrapylon, but the rest? Scattered to the wind for all I know. Why weren’t you at your posts?”
Sextus pointed to the north, where the conflagration by the Damascus Gate was raging out of control in the close-packed buildings.
“We saw the boy call up the sun,” he said, raising his voice over the wind that now howled around them. “I guessed it was the big attack, so I knew that the centurion would want us to make a dash for it. I just couldn’t go without this!” He patted the scroll-case.
“He’s a fool,” shouted Frontius, pulling the leather hood of his cape over his head. “We should have all been in the tunnel twenty grains ago! Come on, help me with this.”
Vlad bent down behind the wagon, letting it shelter him from the wind, which was growing sharp, rushing towards the blazing buildings in the north. Sextus scuttled around the wagon and he and Frontius tied a rope to a stay behind the drivers’ seat. With some care they then began to spool out the rope, with Frontius laying on the ramp as they descended towards the town, Sextus walking backwards behind him, playing out the line from a coil around his shoulder. Vlad, mindful of the wind, hurried after them, the heavy ivory case under one arm and his axe free in the other.
At the bottom of the ramp, they ducked into a building beside the road. The stonemasons had already entered it and had climbed down through a hole in the floor of one of the rooms. The hidden street lay just below. Vlad peered out of the shutters, seeing the sky slowly light with a spreading red light.
Beside him, Sextus yanked hard on the rope and there was a crack and then a dissonant rattle of metal and crockery on the long ramp. Coins bounced past, spinning into the dirt of the street.
Nick staggered into the four-square space of the tetrapylon. The domed roof above his head was lit by flickering light from a bonfire that had been set in the center of the crossroads. The building was not large, barely twenty feet across, but it was crowded with militiamen. They were staring out into the night in fear, looking up the roads to the south and the west. Nick schooled his face to calm and shouldered his way through them. The townsmen were milling about, panic rising in their voices. Most had little more than a hunting spear or a light bow in their hands.
“Where is your captain?” Nick shouted as he reached the eastern archway of the building. Some of the nearest men turned to him, their faces lighting with recognition.
“The centurion! The Centurion’s here!”
“We’ve no captain,” they shouted. More men turned towards him, eager for news.
“The northern way is closed,” he said, pitching his voice to carry over the heads of the crowd. “Half of you go to the gate at the Praetorium and defend that place. The Armenian mercenaries are there, find them and follow their orders. The rest of you, go south, to the Dung Gate, and help the engineers.”
There was confused shouting as men tried to sort themselves out. Nick slid towards the darkness in the eastern doorway, Dwyrin’s weight on his shoulders slowing his steps. Somehow, the boy had gained weight! He could hear some of the older men berating their neighbors.
“The southern gate has fallen!” A man ran into the tetrapylon from the southern road. “The Arabs are over the wall!”
A groan of fear rose from the men in the plaza. Nick cursed to himself and jogged down the eastern road, Dwyrin heavy on his shoulders. A dozen paces past the arch and the tall pillars that flanked it, he turned sharply into a rug shop. The doorway stood open, the proprietor fled. Nick turned sideways, fitting the boy through a low archway in the back of the shop. It was dark, but he welcomed the shadows. Outside in the street men were running past, overtaken by panic. A wailing rose up, all too familiar to the northerner. The villagers in the coastal towns often made that sound, when the men of the Dannmark came upon them in the night.
He stepped carefully down the steps in the little stairway. In his haste, he failed to close the curtain behind him. At the bottom of the steps was the hidden street. Careful examination by Sextus had found more than one hidden doorway that opened from the underground way into the basements or stairwells of the buildings above. A tiny oil lamp sat on the dirt at the base of the stairs. Nick kicked it over as he turned right and began jogging heavily down the hidden way to the east.