"They're coming! They're coming!"
The sentry's cry of Warning echoed down from the Watchtower high above the city of Rome. The sentry hurried down the staircase to report to the commander of the Roman army, Lucius Junius Brutus.
"A thousand, perhaps fifteen hundred men..." the sentry told Lucius breathlessly. "Spearmen, swordsmen and horsemen. A league away, I should say - perhaps three thousand paces."
Lucius turned to face the rows of soldiers who stood before him, armed, armoured and ready to fight.
"You have heard the news," Lucius told them. "King Tarquinius and his ally, King Porsenna of Clusium, are coming with a great army. Tarquinius wants his throne back - he wants to become King of Rome again and rule us as harshly as he did before! Will we allow him to succeed?"
"No! No!" The soldiers' reply came in a great roaring shout. "We have had enough of kings! We threw Tarquinius out of Rome - he can stay out!"
Lucius smiled. He felt proud to be the leader of an army with such courage and spirit. Lucius knew that his commanders - young men like Horatius and Gaius Mucius - were fine leaders, and the troops they were to lead were great fighters. What more could any leader of an army ask?
'Still,' thought Lucius, 'it will not be easy to defeat Tarquinius and Porsenna. One thing was certain. The enemy must not get across the Sublican Bridge over the River Tiber. If that happened, Rome could be in great danger and its earth ramparts might not be enough to stop Tarquinius from entering the city.
That was why Lucius had ordered Horatius and his men to stand guard on the Sublican. If anyone could keep that bridge safe and secure, it was Horatius. Suddenly, a dreadful howling sound reached Lucius' ears. A moment later, a huge boulder came thudding down to earth and landed about twenty paces outside the ramparts. The attack had begun and the enemy was using stone-throwing and other siege machines.
"To your posts!" Lucius yelled to his army. He drew his short sword from its scabbard and raised it above his head. "Fight to the death for Rome!" he cried
As the soldiers ran to station themselves along the ramparts, Lucius nodded to Horatius and Gaius Mucius. It was the signal the two young Roman commanders had been waiting for. Horatius clasped Gaius by the hand. "Death to Tarquinius!" Horatius said firmly. "The gods preserve you, Gaius, my friend!"
"The gods preserve you, Horatius," Gaius replied. "You greatly need their protection."
Gaius was right, Horatius thought, as he led his fifty men out of the city, and down the Palatine Hill towards the Tiber and the Sublican Bridge. The gods of Rome would have to fight very hard on his side, for defending the bridge was a truly perilous task. It had no proper defences. All Horatius and his men could do were to stand and fight with the River Tiber and the bridge behind them.
The bridge was made of thick, strong wooden planks. Many times since it was first built by Ancius, fourth King of Rome, the bridge had been swept away by floods. This was not one of those times, however. The Sublican stood strong and firm as Horatius marched across, and the river ?owed quietly beneath it.
"Spearmen, over there - swordsmen on this side!" Horatius quickly ordered his men to their positions. He concentrated half his force at the end of the bridge and stationed the rest along the banks of the river on either side. The army of Tarquinius and Porsenna was very close now, so close that Horatius could see the designs emblazoned on their shields. Horatius tried to count the number of enemy soldiers, but there were too many of them.
Suddenly, Horatius heard the whistling sound of a spear slicing through the air towards him. He jumped aside to avoid it and the spearhead struck the bridge and stuck there. A swordsman was making straight for him, yelling fearful war cries and brandishing his sword in the air. Horatius leapt forward, thrusting his own" sword up and the two swords met with a loud metallic clang.
There came a scraping sound as the swordsman whipped his sword away. He wielded it again to strike another blow at Horatius, but before he could do so Horatius lunged forward and plunged his sword into the man's chest. The man gave a horrible gurgling cry and crumpled to the ground.
Quickly, Horatius looked round. Along the bank of the river, fierce struggles were going on, with two enemy soldiers or more lunging at each Roman with swords and spears.
The air was filled with the sounds and the screams of battle, the clash of sword on sword, the whistle of javelins flying through the air and, from some distance in front of Horatius, the heavy clank and thud of the enemy's siege machines. Several times, Horatius saw huge boulders and stones ?ying through the air above his head. The boulders fell into the river behind him, but Horatius realised what the enemy was trying to do.
'They're trying to kill us all quickly - one of those boulders could crush five men,' Horatius thought anxiously.
For the moment, the aim of the men working the siege machines was not accurate. All their missiles fell into the Tiber or on to the opposite bank of the river.
If they shortened their range a bit or pulled their siege machines back a little...
Then it happened. A great boulder came whistling over and hit its target - half a dozen of Horatius's spearmen who were holding a group of enemy soldiers at bay with their javelins. There was a dreadful crash and terrible screams as the spearmen were crushed down to the ground by the enormous weight.
Suddenly, Horatius smelled burning. He looked quickly along the river bank. Several Romans, their clothing ablaze, were leaping into the Water in an attempt to put out the ?ames. It was obvious what had happened. The siege machines were now being used to ?ing burning torches.
Then Horatius saw something even more horrifying. Not one of his fifty men was left standing. Their bodies were strewn on the ground or ?oating in the river or sprawled out on the banks sloping down to the water.
Horatius was alone - the only man left out of his entire force!
"Very well, then!" Horatius cried. "If that's how the gods have decreed, I'll defend the bridge alone!"
Horatius snatched up a javelin lying nearby and leapt a few paces back along the bridge. There he stood, sword in one hand, javelin in the other, with his shield looped firmly around one arm. Horatius snarled at the crowd of enemy soldiers in front of him. "But that one man is a Roman! You shall not cross this bridge, I swear it!"
The enemy soldiers were so startled that for a moment they did not move.
Then one of them began to laugh.
"He's mad!" he yelled. "Imagine one man against all of us!"
Other soldiers took up the cry and started to yell insults at Horatius. "You're a lunatic!" they shouted. "You'd best jump in the river and cool your crazy head!"
Horatius stood his ground, his eyes dark with fury and determination. "You shall not cross!" he growled. He lunged at one enemy soldier who was just about to jump onto the bridge in front of him. The enemy retreated hastily, back to the safety of the crowd at the end of the bridge.
Horatius realised that the soldiers were afraid of him. They thought he was out of his mind, and feared to fight against a madman. It could not go on for much longer though. Someone would throw a spear or a sword, and that would be the end.
Fortunately, Gaius Mucius had seen what was happening from the ramparts above. He ordered his men to open the gates so that they could go to Horatius'aid.
"Fetch some axes!" Gaius ordered. "There's only one-way to save Horatius - and Rome. We've got to chop that bridge down."
Horatius'position was getting very dangerous now. As Gaius and his men rushed out of the gates and started running down towards the bridge, one of the enemy soldiers lunged at Horatius with his sword. Horatius managed to twist the sword out of the man's hand and throw him back. Gaius knew it would take only seconds for Horatius to be overwhelmed if the enemy came at him in force.
Reaching the bridge, Gaius started to hack away at the planks that held it to the river bank. Four or five others were doing the same. Gradually, the planks were cracking and splitting apart. Horatius felt the bridge vibrate and as the first four planks were chopped through, the whole bridge began to sway.
The enemy soldiers saw what was happening and drew back from their end of the bridge, fearful of being thrown into the water when it collapsed.
Gaius and his men kept chopping away at the planks, turning the blades of the axes to split the wood, until only one plank was left. By now, the bridge was swaying alarmingly. Gaius gave a terrific swipe with his axe and as the blade chopped through the last plank, the bridge suddenly tipped sideways.
With a great creaking, groaning and splintering it toppled down towards the river. Horatius was ?ung off. He plunged into the water and disappeared, weighed down by his heavy armour. For one dreadful moment, Gaius thought Horatius had drowned. Then suddenly, there he was, up on the surface again and swimming strongly towards the river bank. Gaius rushed forward and grabbing Horatius' hand, hauled him out of the water.
"There," Horatius told Gaius, pointing to the confused horde of enemy soldiers who were staring at the wrecked bridge. "I told them they wouldn't get across."
All along the ramparts, the Romans were cheering and shouting out Horatius' name. When he came back into the city, Lucius Junius Brutus was there to congratulate him for his magnificent deed. Lucius placed a laurel wreath on Horatius' head and told him, "This is the mark of a hero of Rome.
You will be among Rome's greatest heroes, Horatius. Tarquinius will never come back now that he has Romans like you to contend with."
Lucius was right. After seeing what had happened at the Sublican Bridge, King Porsenna, Tarquinius' ally, became afraid to fight against the Romans.
Porsenna went home to Clusium, leaving Tarquinius with no soldiers to fight for him.
Tarquinius had lost his throne for ever, and never again were the Romans ruled by Kings.