The story so far...It is 50 AD, 5
years after the Roman invasion of Britannia. Tribune Marcus Vinicius
Spatula of the XX Legion has been dispatched by the Governor of Britannia,
Ostorius Scapula, to secure the salt workings at Salinae (Droitwich)
and a nearby ford on the river Sabrina (the Severn) called Canabac's
Crossing (Worcester). Having reached the crossing, renaming it Vertis
in the interests of Roman Geographical Correctness (to mark the ford's
position on a broad bend in the river), Spatula ponders his next move...
Marcus's decision about Salinae
had indeed been wise. Next day, before dawn, the men were as busy
as they had been with the bridge, their energy attesting to the magic
of a good rest. Moving among them, conferring with Currerus and Firmus
- and, yet again, admiring the bridge at Vectis's behest - he found
his thoughts turning to his Governor, Ostorius Scapula. Under his
command, the main force of the XX Legion were fighting deep in Cambria.
On his arrival in Britannia, Marcus had himself spent time there,
in the campaign against the North Cambrian Deceangli. A hard and exhausting
campaign it had been, too. Indeed, it would have gone swiftly and
decisively in Rome's favour. But another tribe - the Brigantes, in
North Anglia - decided, through revolt, to show an errant disregard
for the Empire. Their decision was sheer treachery: the Brigantes
were among the first of Rome's client tribes in Britannia. By this
time Scapula was a few paltry leagues from the Hibernian Sea, with
Marcus not far behind him. But what could the Governor do now, except
wheel to the north and settle the hash of the ungrateful Brigantes?
Marcus was all set to follow him into the plains beyond Cambria; but
Scapula had ordered him to Glevum, to help oversee the build-up of
Roman troops in the border region. Since then, of course, Scapula
had returned to Cambria, leaving the Brigantes suitably chastened
behind him. Now, through a series of major campaigns, he was looking
to draw Chief Caratacus into a direct confrontation.
Marcus knew that it was his retreat to Glevum (as he termed it) which
had given his thoughts their unusually melancholy shade. He had felt
sidelined. He would have loved more than anything to wade into the
Brigantes - either that or finish off the Deceangli. But he had made
the most of Glevum, finally convincing himself that what he was doing
there was every bit as important (and dangerous) as the Cambrian campaign.
Then this business of Vertis and Salinae had come up, and he had felt
sidelined all over again. Credit where it was due, though: a runner
had brought a message from Scapula on their first day by the river:
'Never forget the details, Tribune,' it had read. 'The bridge
and Salinae may seem like small fish to you. But these are still early
days in Britannia. How do we know which parts of the land will be
the big fish, ultimately? One of them may be the place where you ford
that river. Remember, Marcus, it's the small triumphs that usher in
the grand ones. And we must control the salt in these islands, wherever
it may be.'
Marcus had read the message several times. It didn't sound like
flannel: he knew that Ostorius was well disposed towards him. Still,
if his father wanted a good politician to come back and shake up the
Senate, Ostorius was the man. Eloquence itself, he was; if the worst
came to the worst in Cambria, he'd no doubt sit Caratacus down and
talk him to death. He was a fine leader, though. And, in one important
sense, he and Marcus were on the same kind of adventure. They both
had their eye to the mineral riches of the land. There was more than
a rumour that Wales had gold seams, at Dolauchothi and perhaps elsewhere.
Ostorius was not one for dismissing rumours out of hand. In fact,
he seemed to have a cohort's worth of engineers with him. With Caratacus
disposed of, they could start mining. Marcus smiled wryly; that was
one signal difference, he supposed, between a Governor and a callow
Tribune: Scapula was allowed to tease out the luxuries of the earth;
he himself had to provide muscle at a salt-mine. But he was only twenty-six,
years younger than the Governor. His gold-prospecting days would surely
come. And Ostorius surely deserved any good fortune that came his
way (alongside the conquest of Caratacus): the messenger had also
implied that the Governor's present health was not of the best.
'Ready when you are, Tribune.' Marcus was startled for a second to
find Firmus at his side. Offering a brief prayer to the gods for the
Governor's well-being, he turned again to the business in hand. 'I've
picked a goodly team to guard the shop here,' the centurion continued.
'They've got enough supplies, and they don't mind roughing it.'
'How much roughing will they take?' asked Marcus.
'Well, sir, they've got tents, of course. But Currerus has been looking
about; he tells me there are defensive circuits here and there. Iron
Age efforts. One of Vectis's main sappers is in the crew. They could
find a strategic section, dig in, make themselves--well, not snug,
exactly . . . .'
'But safe? Good scheme, centurion. But I don't want them exhausting
themselves altogether. And they'll be relieved soon enough.'
Firmus saluted and went to pass on Marcus's words to the contingent.
A short while later, the rest of the cohort, flanked by the cavalry,
were on the road to Salinae. Marcus couldn't help turning again and
again to view the hills, which were just retrieving their colour and
form from the night: 'You'll see them again, sir,' said Vectis, who
had ridden up beside him. 'We can probably see them from Salinae.'
The thought cheered the Tribune; and it seemed to him, as they rode
on, that the warmth and light of Cremona were gathering around them.
To their relief, the men found that conditions at the salt-mines were
no worse than the scouts had reported. Evidence of marauding activity
was clear enough. The small Roman force stationed there had been surprised
by the Silurian visitors--but not injured. As for the theft of the
salt--well, thought Marcus, they would have to live with that.
'They've taken implements, too, sir,' said Currerus, joining Marcus
and Vectis as they inspected the mine. 'Brine pans and such. The gods
alone know how they managed that.'
Vectis stroked his chin: 'Don't tell me there's a secret saltworks
in their neck of the woods.'
'Don't tell me,' said Currerus, 'that they're planning on taking over
'We can't let them,' responded Marcus abruptly. More and more it was
dawning on him how crucial this commission was. 'Control of the salt-mines
is an imperial priority. I should give the soldiers already here a
dressing-down. But it's hardly their fault that they were left as
a weak link.'
Vectis licked his lips: already plans for a state-of-the-Empire fort
were taking shape in his mind. Nothing flashy, of course, but compact,
solid, impregnable. His rich imagination saw his hand being warmly
shaken by the Emperor himself, on a special visit to Britannia to
inspect the Vectis fort and garrison range, the toast of imperial
engineers worldwide. Marcus watched him closely; he knew the engineer
'We must talk tonight, Vectis,' he said, knowing even then that he
himself would doubtless do little of the talking. Then he hailed Firmus
and ordered him to make camp. By the time the Marcus and Vectis met
that evening, the engineer's plans were well advanced--impressive,
too, despite his own tentative descriptions: 'Well, they don't look
provisional to me,' said Marcus, surveying the sheets. 'Classic design,
sensible access and link routes--I'd say its occupants would have
little to complain of.'
'Most appreciated, Tribune,' said Vectis; Marcus returned his smile:
'Perhaps I should turn engineer myself,' he added.
'You could do worse, sir. The sapper, the engineer, the builder--they're
the ones who've put Rome's mark on other lands. In fact, it's always
struck me--' But Marcus, sensing one of Vectis's enthusiastic digressions
on the horizon, tapped a corner of one sheet:
'Garrison numbers. That's the next thing to address. Determinant of
'Indeed, sir--that's what I meant when I said the plans were provisional.'
'Of course, Vectis. I'll have to consult with Firmus about all that.'
Vectis pressed the tips of his fingers together, making a sloped roof
of his hands: a familiar gesture, indicating that he was about to
seek pardon for overstepping some mark: 'I took the liberty, Tribune,
of speaking with him earlier,' he began. I'll bet he loved that, thought
Marcus; but he assumed his best tribunal air--mixed with a little
amusement--and said, 'What was our good centurion's response?'
But it was some time before he was able learn it. First, the engineer
had to expound at exhaustive length on all the factors requiring consideration.
Marcus knew when he was beaten. He let the engineer have his head,
while silently acknowledging that he couldn't have bettered the list
himself. Outside the tent, darkness erased all colour, while throwing
the moonscape of the mines into eerie relief.
Over the following months, the detachment based themselves at Salinae.
And Marcus did become an engineer, after a fashion. He pored over
Vectis's plans for the Salinae fort, as well as his sketches for smaller-scale
building work back at Vertis. Occasionally, he would proffer some
advice about dimensions or the location of specific facilities. Vectis
would listen, but insisted that Marcus sketch them out before he mulled
them over. His insistence was, at heart, good-natured; even so, the
craftsman in him felt thwarted by the Tribune's decision not to build
a fort at Vertis.
'Vectis, Salinae is our main focus,' Marcus pointed out. 'We'll keep
a presence in Vertis, of course. I didn't watch that bridge being
built--that fine bridge--just to let it go warped and splintered.
There'll be military traffic between here and Glevum--supplies coming
in to us, salt going out for whoever orders it, this and that in each
direction. And anyway'--he sought in his mind for Ostorius's words--
'these are still early days in Britannia. How do we know which parts
of the land will be the big fish, ultimately?'
The engineer raised his head from the designs and stared ahead, brow
furrowed, the image of bewilderment. 'No, what I mean is,' said Marcus,
'we need the Salinae fort now. But who knows what we'll need at Vertis
. . . .' His voice trailed off: Ostorius's words obviously lent themselves
to all situations; his own ineptitude was the problem. Where on earth
had his father got the idea that he could be a Senate orator?
'What we'll need at Vertis then?' completed Vectis, gamely willing
to make sense of what he was hearing.
'Yes, then--whenever then is. Meantime, of course, we can't have the
men down there loafing about in tents or ad hoc redoubts, can we?
So these'--and Marcus tapped the sketches for the Vertis buildings--
'can become your river fort, if you like. For now.'
Vectis eyed him steadily: 'Small fish waiting for the big fish, you
mean.' Marcus clouted him with a sheet of plans for the Salinae toilet
Whatever the engineer truly felt about Marcus's decision--and the
lost chance to turn Vertis into a military marvel--no resentment coloured
his work on the fort at Salinae. It was agreed that it should be cohort-sized,
with an extension on the sleeping quarters to accommodate forces passing
through between larger forts. As it took shape, it did indeed prove
to be all that Marcus had detected in Vectis's drawings. But though
it was compact, it bore the Vectis hallmark: walking round the site
as it acquired buildings, short streets and a snug villa, Marcus sensed
that it was pretending to be twice its size. He and Currerus also
accompanied the engineer back to Vertis, where plans for a small military
enclave went similarly forward. Vectis inspected a number of sites
near the new bridge, under the watchful--and grateful--eyes of the
latest contingent to be posted there. He was drawn in particular to
an small, abandoned Dobunnic settlement, about third of a league from
the soldiers' temporary dug-out and rather woebegone tent:
'Well, we can put something here,' he said. 'Makes strategic sense
. . . .' Marcus could tell that something else was pressing on his
mind. 'Honestly!' he exploded all of a sudden. 'Look at the state
of it!' And he gestured at the flimsy, ruinous buildings around him.
'How can these folk expect us to take them seriously?'
Currerus frowned: 'Nobody lives here, Vectis. Did you think some vagrant
household gods were going to keep them in shape?'
'Not the point, not the point,' muttered Vectis, striding about and
batting his hand at tufts of thatch.
'How d'you think a deserted fort would look when it had been empty
for a year?' enquired Marcus with mock sobriety. Vectis wheeled round
and faced him squarely: 'A deserted fort?' He drew the words out slowly,
as if to point up the insanity of yoking them together. 'Do you like
dallying with treason, Tribune?'
'Well,' Currerus cut in quickly, rising to the jokery in the air,
'Canabac takes us seriously--'
'Canabacus, Scout. Let's keep it Roman,' said Vectis, drawing himself
up in a manner which made the other two burst out laughing.
'Whatever name you wish to give him,' continued Currerus, wiping his
eyes, 'he deals fairly with us, and this is his birthplace.'
'Indeed he does,' said Marcus; against his native inclinations, he
was developing respect for the tribal chief. 'It can't be easy for
him being leader in some eyes, traitor in others.'
'I'm sure I agree, Tribune. But if the noble Canabacus had insisted
on half decent constructions around and about him . . . .' He broke
off and waved a hand at the sorry huddle of roofs. 'I mean, we could
have done something with these if they'd got anything to offer. What
the feckless builder never realizes--and mark me! this is the whole
world over!--is that in order . . . .'
'Actually, they look fine to me,' Currerus broke in cheerily. Vectis
made as if to faint: 'Amateurs! My life is plagued with amateurs!
Now, listen--your sub-average builder never realises that the character
of any house, humble or grand, lies in the unique---'. Unlike at Salinae,
Marcus was relieved of the need to silence his digressing engineer.
A cavalryman from Salinae came crashing into their midst. News from
Ostorius Scapula and the Cambrian Front.
End of Chapter II
I - II -
III - IV - V
- VI - VII - VIII
- IX - X - XI
- XII - Part II
- Part II