Part I - Chapter X 'The Devils of Mona'
Scapha was surprisingly chipper next morning.
He strolled about as though he were a freed man who'd made a packet,
bought Canovium and was now eyeing up the rest of northern Cambria
as a themed resort for jaded senators. As he approached the main
storehouse at Canovium, he espied Vectis and Firmus busy with an
inventory; he started whistling in a manner that was almost offensive
in its tunelessness: 'Morning, gents,' he called. 'I trust I didn't
spoil your beauty sleep with my chat about the Druids.' His last
words were directed at Vectis, whose pallor he'd obviously spotted
the previous evening.
'Not at all,' said the engineer, stonily. 'Just let us at them,
'Master shipwright, if you don't mind, sir. Or, to give my truly
official title, he on whom your lives will depend when you're sent
over there'--and he gestured vaguely towards the Druid-island. Firmus
tensed, but Vectis nudged him, silently advising calm: 'My apologies
for the oversight. I'll know next time, carpenter.'
Scapha started: 'He did say "next time,"' added Firmus.
Vectis stood to one side, nodded to the storehouse and made to usher
Scapha forward. The man recovered some of his cockiness: 'Hope you're
not thinking of taking all the best wood for landing gear, Vectis,'
he said, insolently emphasising the engineer's name. Vectis said
nothing and, after an awkward moment, Scapha left them, resuming
his hideous whistle.
'Pathetic,' muttered Vectis.
'Us or him?'
'Well, we behaved like street urchins squaring up to a rich kid.
But I must have a word with Marcus about him. I don't like the idea
of entrusting our destinies to a goon like that.'
'I was talking to some of the other chippies earlier,' said Firmus.
'He's not a firm favourite with them, either. Not only that--none
of them can explain when and where he got so close to a Druid.'
'Ah, a hot-air merchant, eh?' Vectis shook his head, as if in debate
with himself. 'No, centurion, it doesn't do to judge prematurely.
Benefit of the doubt, always the benefit of the doubt. Things can
be arranged, I'm sure, for when the time comes.'
Firmus caught his drift: 'His know-how would be invaluable on the
'Exactly my thinking. Wouldn't want him to feel left out of the
feast, here on boring, peaceful dry land.'
'And since he's met a Druid or two . . . .'
'In hand-to-hand combat, no doubt, centurion . . . .'
'He can talk us through it all . . . .'
'Set us right on rules of engagement . . . .'
'Leaving him here at Canovium . . . waste of good military skill,
pure and simple.' At this moment, Scapha emerged from the storehouse
and eyed them warily: 'Good morning again, master shipwright,' chorused
the centurion and engineer.
The weeks passed. No official decision materialised about Mona,
but by now everyone knew it would come, and preparations went forward
accordingly. A fleet of flat-bottomed transports, capable of withstanding
the treacherous Straits of Mona, began to take glorious shape along
the coast of Canovium As for Scapha, he became more insufferable
with every triumph of sea-going design. No-one could dispute his
skills as a craftsman and overseer, though all would have liked
to--especially Vectis, who had to stop himself from indulging in
bouts of childish fault-finding. Currerus observed that they had
to hand it to 'the Valiant Chippy,' as Firmus had acidly dubbed
the man: 'Quite right,' said Firmus. 'And we'll have other things
to hand him just now. Oh gods, I wish Paullinus would hurry up and
give us the word.'
'I wish he'd send us back to Collis,' said Tignum. 'We never quite
got the stables right. I don't want to take my new ideas to the
But Collis had to remain a pleasant memory for him and all the others.
In spring of 60AD, Paullinus sent his decisive despatch. All was
rapidly made ready for the Mona assault. Scapha, under the illusion
that his fellow builders esteemed him more highly than the emperor,
spread word among them that 'that engineer toff' was to be denied
the best wood for his harebrained landing gubbins. They ignored
him and continued to call him 'the Valiant Chippy,' much to the
gratification of his uncomplicated mind.
Finally, on a blustery morning, the fleet set off. Scapha had decided
to play Emperor himself and give a gracious send-off from the shore:
'Don't get them scratched,' he was yelling, when Firmus took his
arm and marched him aboard the flagship: 'Did Marcus Vinicius Spatula
not tell you, carpenter?' demanded Vectis as he and the centurion
bundled the man onto the deck, the latter keeping a watchful eye
on Marcus's back in the prow. By the time the shock had left him,
they were well away from the shore. Marcus, preoccupied with the
horizon, had caught nothing of the commotion; only when Currerus
tapped him on the shoulder, eager to clarify a point about Mona's
shoreline, did he turn round, blink and rub his eyes:
'What's that Scapha doing here?' he demanded.
'Wouldn't have missed it for the world, sir,' the scout replied.
'Begged and pleaded, he did. Wouldn't listen to reason.'
Marcus regarded the man's ghostly face and shivering form. He had
learnt something of the animosity towards Scapha. But he, Spesis
and Benevolus had had much else to think about since gathering together
at Canovium. The interpersonal skills of the average boat-builder
had not entered their reflections. Marcus pursed his lips: 'I'm
not overly keen on having extra personnel sprung on me, scout.'
He studied the abject form more closely: 'He looks like he'll start
howling his lungs out at any minute.'
'Good scare tactic, sir?' asked Currerus, realising as he spoke
that the suggestion might compound rather than prevent the disgrace
he was risking.
Marcus sighed: 'I really can't have you bunch acting like Appian
drunkards, whatever your grievance towards him might be. Well, we
can't pitch him overboard. Just see that he doesn't get in the way--and
that he can still speak: we may need his help.'
When Marcus resumed his watch, however, he wondered whether any
help would be needed. The boat, pushing and rearing through the
choppy waters, was now nearing the Mona shoreline. It was deserted.
He looked right round to port, at the sister ship under Spesis'
command, and then to starboard, where Benevolus stood at a third
prow: 'Signals!' he called, and a sailor came running:
'Ask my fellow commanders if they think this really is Mona.' A
while later, the signaller returned: 'With respect, sir,' he said,
'they're as flummoxed as you. But it is Mona, sir. Can't be anything
but. Landfall east of Segontium, as planned.'
Firmus approached, somewhat sheepishly, Currerus having informed
him of what had passed between himself and the Tribune: 'Bad sign,
this, sir,' he said, nodding towards the shore.
'Yes, well, centurion, if you're thinking of making it worse by
hollering out and swinging Scapha round your head, think again.
He builds boats, you know. Do you?' Before Firmus could either defend
himself or apologise, there was a cry from the port side: Spesis
had tacked in close and was in hailing distance:
'Keeping to their lairs, Marcus,' he called. 'Looks like we'll have
to seek them out inland.'
'Yes,' called Marcus. 'Have to play by their rules, deep in their
terrain. The old story.'
'Not this time, Tribune,' came Vectis's voice from behind him, and
at the same moment Scapha sent up an unholy shriek. For a second,
Firmus's stunned mind could only tell him that the shipwright was
in league with the enemy and had given a signal. Then he told himself
not to be so stupid. That was his last thought. Like everyone else,
he was transfixed by the massed howl that rang out from the shore,
by the multitude of figures that seemed to bubble up from the very
'Caratacus's ghost walks again,' muttered Vectis, and Marcus could
see what he meant: every tribesman in Cambria seemed to be running
to the shoreline, as if driven on by the spirit of their betrayed
champion. Diabolus, too, had apparently fielded support. The shingle
and sand were thick with roaring men and black-clad women, waving
torches and spitting venomous defiance. All wore long, matted hair,
so that they were well nigh indistinguishable. As they spread out
along the tideline, it looked as though one sea had met another,
and that battle would erupt between the elements of hell.
'So what do we do now, scourge of the Druids?' called Firmus, turning
back to where Scapula was slowly, quiveringly gaining his feet:
'I'm sorry,' croaked the shipwright, staring aghast at the throng,
which seemed to double and treble itself out of thin air. 'Sorry.'
'Who d'you mean? Them or me?' demanded Firmus, but a gasp and a
pointed finger were Scapha's only response. Firmus turned to look
beyond the prow; everyone did. There they were, standing on gaunt
rocks above their frenzied congregation: the priests themselves,
arms aloft, damning the Roman eagle to every kind of torment--all
abhorrent, most inconceivable.
A cry rang out from starboard: 'Blast you! Blast every last yellow
cur of you!' Marcus and the others turned to see Benevolus gripping
the prow as though about to vomit. He wasn't yelling at the Druids;
nor was it nausea that possessed him--not in the strict physical
sense. Mutiny was upon him: his transport was going hard about;
moments later, Spesis was at his prow, going through the same motions
of incredulity as his boat swung round. Back across the waves, the
rest of the fleet--in the absence of any official signal--assumed
that the invasion had been aborted and were preparing to follow
Suddenly, Scapha leaped so high that he almost sundered his own
planks on landing. He sprang amidships and cried out so long and
hard that a stunned Marcus feared for his lungs and bones: 'Restrain
that man!' he called, but already the shipwright was running the
length of the vessel, tumbling over bodies and tackle. Terrified,
the crew were on the point of letting the boat drift where it would.
'That lot have done something to him,' said Firmus, pointing toward
the priestly forms in the distance. 'They've scented his fear and
put a devil in his heart.' And he scrambled after him.
But fear had nothing to do with it. Once the bruised and tattered
Scapha had reached the stern, he flung his arms wide in a gesture
of exhortation to the whole fleet: 'Charging speed,' he yelled,
jabbing his hand at this boat and that--especially the two commanders'
ships, which by now were setting their prows for Canovium. 'We need
charging speed.' Whatever he was about--and later, he would claim
all ignorance of it--his warlike pantomime worked. Oarsmen on all
hands were sure that Paullinus, even Nero, was among them, urging
them to cast away their treacherous cowardice and confront these
Mona hobgoblins full-on. All of the boats swung back into formation,
reached charging speed and crested the last waves before the shore
like giant javelins. Infantry and cavalry charged ashore (almost
exclusively without the aid of Vectis's landing-gear) and the campaign
sprang to life.
In the hours that followed, all was frenzy, scything weapons, whoops
of triumph and rattles of death. The Druids' hortatory powers worked
their miracles, forcing the Romans to go beyond risk into a trancelike
carelessness, in which they relied like children on the gods, their
Emperor and the muscles they'd been gifted. It was as though the
tribes people were fighting for the whole of Cambria--and indeed,
given Mona's status as last bastion, this was surely true. Marcus,
Firmus and Currerus worked ferociously in the thick of battle; Tignum
forgot about the stables at Collis, trading wound for wound; Vectis
swore victory for Livorno first and last (something which Spesis
would later remind him of, asking mischievously why 'Rome' and 'Nero'
had not come to his lips); and Scapha at last earned the credit
which he had claimed in his boastful talk: wading in amongst the
Druids themselves, he whirled like a demon--in fact, like the man
who had rallied Britannia's finest from the stern of Marcus's flagship.
No less a warrior than Firmus would ensure that the shipwright's
name was honoured, and honoured again, in all his subsequent accounts
of the rout on Mona.
Twilight brought the fleet back across the water. All was calmer,
but those who had escaped injury wished it were otherwise, the better
to hide the groans of their mutilated or dying brothers. Marcus
and the others gave thanks aplenty: parti-coloured bruises were
all they had sustained, except for Currerus, who had suffered a
swingeing blow to the base of the spine and now sat stonelike aft
of the flagship, tended by Vectis and Tignum. Nearby, Firmus and
Scapha watched the retreating island:
'We never got any fishing after all,' murmured the centurion.
Scapha smiled: 'Another time, Firmus. I'll build us something special--something
that can whip into those coves like a gladiator servicing the wife
'How are we doing?' asked Marcus, sitting down beside them. 'A brave
show, shipwright. On land and on this boat. We shouldn't have done
it without your . . . well . . . oration, you'd have to call it.'
'On this boat? What did I do?'
'Scared the daylights out of us and put a double dose of courage
in their place,' said Firmus.
'You mean you don't remember?' asked Marcus.
'I remember acting the great 'I Am' in Canovium,' said Scapha reflectively.
'Well,' said Firmus, 'we can put up with a touch of that in future.
But only a touch, mind. And the whistling's got to go.'
At this, all three chuckled. But their mirth was properly muted,
as befitted a homeward journey after battle, with death as well
as victory aboard.
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