PART II - 'The
The days of military monotony come to an end--along
with much that is precious and good.
'Rattling about in Rome,
so it's said. Spotted on the Via Triumphalis, the Via Ostiensis
. . . .' Firmus broke off with a throaty laugh. 'Poor old Spesis,
eh? Canters along sure-footed through half the Empire's territories
. . . then can't make up his mind which way to enter our jewel of
Marcus hugged himself against the biting wind, then screwed up his
face as more sand blew into it. Maius already, nearly the middle
of the month, and still winter hung about like a rank smell. There
had been some half-decent days, making the humdrum work of Empire
more tolerable--almost appealing, at times. But if 67 was going
to redeem itself, the warming sun and gentle breezes would have
to get a move on. Even Solatius was dismayed; so far, he constantly
told anyone in earshot, the year had been no friend of foliage.
'So how reliable are these reports, centurion?'
Firmus shrugged: 'About as reliable as you can expect when there's
a thousand-odd miles involved. Whispers and winks, sir--stretching,
you might say, from a Germanic encampment to a Gallic dockside and
on to some geezer lounging on his spear in a doorway at Dubri. That's
just my theory, mind.'
'And very lyrically put, Firmus. Sounds like his exploits are on
everyone's lips. No doubt we'll have a rebellion in his name any
'Oh, I don't know about that, sir. Any rebellion here will come
because everyone's had it with twiddling their thumbs. Maximus has
got to start campaigning, and soon. Actually, I doubt whether half
of them believe Spesis actually exists. He's a man of thin air to
them, sir--a bloke out of a play, set to tweak the Emperor's nose.
Or a sort of wronged god. The men love an underdog, sir.'
'Don't we all,' muttered Marcus, as an image of a fish on broken
stone flashed unbidden into his mind. He'd had no news from Cremona
for a while now. And he'd long since given up wondering why it was
that regular legionaries could get hold of news--about Spesis, about
anything exciting--while official channels told him nothing. He
considered sending a message to Maximus: tell your messengers to
spare their sandals, stop. Can find out all I need by dropping into
chat with a passing standard-bearer, stop.
'Just about there,' a voice yelled at them. They stared down the
beach to the water's edge. Scapha was making the final preparations
for the Mona crossing.
'We could have stayed in the warm while he's been mucking about,'
muttered Firmus. 'And I really don't see why you've got to drag
yourself across there again, sir. What's that make it--three trips
in two weeks?'
Marcus tilted his head: 'Well,' he said, wiping more sand away,
'Currerus has got the patrols running like clockwork. The Ordovices
and Deceangli have gone quiet. Probably as bored as our men with
the lack of battle--and perhaps too enervated to start anything
themselves. The Cornovii have been disrupting traffic near Salinae,
damaging the odd stretch of road--but what else is new? Could all
change at any time, of course. But for now I thought I'd take advantage
of a few free boat trips and badger Vectis.'
Firmus smiled: 'A noble occupation, sir. Well, at least the wind's
dropping a little. The crossing should be--hallo, who's that?'
Shading his eyes, Marcus looked back up the beach. A figure, half-obscured
by a bluff, was craning over, scanning the shoreline. He seemed
to scuttle back, then reappeared further down, directly above Scapha,
his helpers and the boat. It looked for all the world as though
he'd lost something on the beach but didn't want to draw attention
to his search.
'Messenger?' wondered Firmus.
Marcus stared hard as the man now advanced to the shingle: 'Uniform
looks about right,' he said. 'He's probably looking for me.' He
started towards the shingle, but the man, apparently unaware of
his approach, retreated again.
'New boy,' suggested Firmus, coming up beside him. 'Bit unsure of
protocol. Fancy helmet--did you see the doings round the sides?
Dark blue trim, or black or something.'
It occurred to Marcus that he might have seen the man before, that
very morning. He'd gone out for an early ride, partly because he
hadn't been on horseback for days--and partly because, wearied by
Solatius's lamentations over the poor showing of flora so far, he'd
absently agreed to scout around for any promising clumps of greenery.
He'd passed someone on the track, bundled up in a drab grey cloak
against the cold; but, as the encounter occurred some way from the
garrison, he couldn't tell whether the traveller was heading for
it. The man's face had been clear enough. There was something Germanic
about the set of his features. Even though the man above the beach
had been some distance off, Marcus had glimpsed enough to suggest
that he and the dawn rider were one and the same. Naturally, Marcus
had hailed the rider, who had immediately begun to shiver and cough
into his cloak, as though his stomach had just rejected something
rotten or undercooked. Thus distressed, he had spurred on his horse,
leaving Marcus--after a moment or two--to inspect the grasses and
mounds in deep perplexity.
Hearing all of this, Firmus now nodded: 'Greenhorn. I'm sure of
it. He's probably been skulking around the garrison for ages, wondering
how best to approach the great Tribune.'
'He didn't look that young,' said Marcus. 'Ah, well, I'd better
go after him, relieve him of his worrisome charge.'
As they reached the spot where the man had been, however, he suddenly
sprang into sight again, shooting and slithering down a sandy gully
far to their right. Across the shingle he ran, staggering a little
when his sandal caught the side of a large stone, making straight
for the boat. Scapha and the others, noisily busy at the prow, paid
'Look at him,' said Firmus. 'I'd say someone had a rough night.'
This was a strong possibility: cloak flying, the messenger hit the
stern at some speed and buckled over as if about to vomit, or spring
up and clamber in, or both.
'Hi!' yelled Scapha, spotting him; as with Marcus, however, the
messenger was disinclined to talk. Instead, he spun round and made
his stone-spraying way back up to the gulley, which he cleared in
a stride or two. Before anyone could recover their wits, the sound
of hooves beat upon the air and faded off.
'One of the lads, Firmus?' inquired Scapha loudly. 'Playing tag
with my boat?' He was holding a large sack which he'd removed from
the forward deck. About to place it where the messenger had been,
he froze at Marcus's call.
The Tribune ran forward: 'We've no idea who he was,' he said, 'unless
he's thrown something on board to tell us. I couldn't really see
what he was about.'
Firmus nodded agreement: 'That cloak of his was flapping like a
Scapha set down his burden and rummaged about in the stern: 'It's
possible he left something,' he called up. 'She's pretty low down
here. We'll need to haul hard to get her clear.' Moments passed:
'Can't see anything, sir,' he said at last, appearing at the rail.
'We've packed all sorts here, mind. How about we take a proper look
on the other side?'
Now there were more feet thudding towards them: legionaries with
haulage ropes, detailed to get the boat atop her tide. Marcus let
them stream round him, then turned back to the bluff.
'Really, sir, they shouldn't send messengers if they're going to
be that timid,' said Firmus. His words were intended to console,
even amuse. The effect was lost on the Tribune. For a several minutes
he was caught in a whirl of thoughts, none of which he could capture
and understand. A hand clapped hard on his shoulder made him jump:
'Ready for the off, sir,' said Scapha. 'On board, please, all that's
going.' Hands and arms swung in a steady rhythm.
In short order, the boat was cleared of its cargo: 'Just this bread,
then,' said Scapha, hauling up the bundle he'd stowed in the stern.
Then he dropped to his knees. There followed such a sound of banging
and scrabbling that Marcus, sinking in muddy sand at the prow, thought
he would be showered in a mighty arc of wood chippings.
Then the boatwright's head appeared at the port rail: 'Thought it
was this boat,' he said. 'Bowed planking. One of my apprentices
is due for a thick ear--should have fixed it a week ago. Anyway,
sir, I'm sure we didn't pack this--must've got wedged.' A waxed
and ribboned scroll came sailing at the Tribune, who nearly lost
it in the shallows. Hauling his mudshod feet onto drier land, he
scanned the inscription: for the esteemed attention of Vectis. A
second later, he heard the recipient's cry from way beyond the shore.
Turning, he craned his head round the bands of legionaries wrestling
the cargo away from the boat. The engineer was waving and jumping,
like a child who has discovered the secret of balancing an egg.
Clearly something momentous had been discovered or perfected in
the short time since the Tribune was last there.
Marcus waved back and fell into step with the last of the carriers,
one of whom was Firmus: 'Look at it,' Firmus said, nodding at the
engineer's animated form. 'Probably built a full-scale sacred temple
out of twigs.'
'Zinc!' cried Vectis as they approached him. 'At Mons Parynsis.
Marvellous! We knew she was bountiful with copper but we hadn't
dared hope for anything else. It'll mean doubling operations, Tribune.
I may need another contingent from the mainland.' His eyes gleamed
'Won't be anything left of that mountain when you've done,' said
Firmus. 'Looks half-shattered already.'
'Centurion, as you well know, my methods are beyond reproach,' retorted
Vectis. 'I ease minerals from Nature's grasp without her feeling
a thing.' Firmus snorted and made a yapping gesture with his free
'Come on, then,' said Marcus. 'Let us trek.' The centurion left
the last burden with his fellow carriers; once they'd stumbled ahead,
he nudged Marcus and nodded at the scroll. Marcus sighed sharply
at his own forgetfulness and handed it over: 'You're lucky to get
this,' he said. 'I nearly dropped it in the drink.'
'We're lucky to get it!' added Firmus. 'Nearly dropped clean into
'"Esteemed attention,"' quoted Vectis. 'One of father's little whimsies,
no doubt. Might be something in here about Cremona.' As he undid
the seal, the centurion recounted the strange manner of the scroll's
delivery that morning. Obligingly, he and Marcus slowed down to
allow Vectis leisure for perusal; but Firmus prattled on, embroidering
the tale of the bashful messenger so that he and Marcus were soon
chortling to the Mona skies.
Suddenly, the Tribune and the centurion found themselves walking
alone, the last band of cargo-bearers now far ahead of them, slogging
towards headquarters. Together they turned: the engineer was on
his knees, hardly able to breathe, the scroll all but crushed in
'Vectis!' Marcus cried. 'Not something about Spesis?' wondered Firmus.
They hastened back. As they reached Vectis, he collapsed and rolled
on one side, letting the scroll blow from his fingers towards the
stirring tideline. Firmus overtook it and snatched it up. He handed
it to Marcus, who read aloud. The words were spare and unemotional.
They could have formed an order for another journey down to Glevum,
or a reminder that the Salinae contingent need auxiliaries. They
were as unconcerned about the business they had to bear as the gulls
which, true to form, wheeled about the boat for pickings. The house
of Vectis was no more; all had been murdered on suspicion of treason.
From what followed, a detached reader might have teased out some
suggestion of hierarchy among the wealthy families of the Empire.
The house of Spatula had not been murdered. Instead, charged with
treason also, they had been left to commit suicide--first Gravis,
who expelled his own spirit while under arrest, and then Fovera,
Lenita and Venia--appallingly faithful to him in death as they had
been dutiful in life. There was a postscript, in which the scribe
revealed his identity: one Caligus, the former partner who had met
Vectis's father at the Livorno docks and spoken of unexpected bounties.
Underneath was the unmistakeable mark of Nero Claudius Caesar Drusus
Marcus tilted his head and howled long and high, so that the gulls
scattered from the boat and the last legionaries, just clambering
from the beach, dropped their cargo and spun round. Marcus's howl
died to a croak, punctuated by a child's whimpering from the prone
Now Firmus roared: 'Scapha!! Get Scapha!!' The legionaries obediently
vanished. Then the centurion half-knelt, an arm round the Tribune's
waist, a hand on the engineer's heaving shoulder. He thought of
the almost crazed messenger at Canovium that morning: 'I'd've been
the same,' he thought, 'if I'd know what--' But his own tears and
rib-straining sobs prevented more reflection.
On the homeward journey, Scapha and Firmus felt that they had charge
of two shivering infants. Under their direction, the Tribune and
engineer were carried to headquarters, where Currerus and Solatius
were immediately on hand, each scarcely less distraught than the
centurion had been. Messengers were dispatched to Varis and Rutunium:
Benevolus and Decurio arrived two days later. Tignum returned from
Mona, declaring that the news had left him fit for nothing. No-one
challenged or despised him. Before long, every soldier--in northern
Cambria and beyond--knew what had happened, and sensed some hideous
injustice at the heart of it.
In the end, however, there was nothing anyone could do--though Solatius
prayed nightly that he would discover some magical herb to release
the two men from their limbos. But no herb revealed itself, and
they remained conscious but unconscious, seeing but not comprehending.
Meanwhile, the world rolled on, shaking Canovium with events both
grim and shocking. AD68 saw Nero's departure to join the ranks of
the more dubious immortals: 'Gods above,' confided Firmus to Currerus,
'it's an insult to Gravis. Gives suicide a bad name.' Rumour had
it that the Emperor had been desolated by turmoil on the Eastern
fronts, particularly in Parthia; at Canovium, however, another rumour
found greater favour--that the tireless Spesis had penetrated the
Imperial circle and somehow managed to nudge Rome's ruler in the
desired direction. The news that Caligus the merchant had also perished
guaranteed the rumour's appeal. That same year, the long-awaited
mutiny erupted in Britannia, stemmed only by the departure of Maximus
and the desperate hope that his successor, Vettius Bolanus, might
shape up as a half-decent governor. Strange news reached the Cambrian
shores: the heart of Empire was convulsed, with a rash of contenders
for the throne of Rome. The name of Galba was on one messenger's
lips; Otho on another's; Vitellius on a third's. At last, Titus
Flavius Sabinus Vespasianus stilled the imperial storms, becoming
the Emperor Vespasian; but his good fortune did not rub off on his
Britannic representative, and Bolanus had to deal with further revolt
by the once biddable legionaries.
On a mild autumn day in 69, a lone messenger arrived at Canovium.
His news was brief: both Spesis and Balatrus offered their profoundest
sympathies to the fort's blighted commander and chief engineer;
they would all meet again, but on a brighter, warmer, more joyful
day. Currerus, who became acting commander whenever Benevolus returned
to Varis, pressed the man for more details. Who actually gave him
the message? Had he seen Spesis or Balatrus? If so, how were they--and
where? But the messenger knew nothing besides the words that had
kept him company on a long, perilous ride.
At last, Marcus and Vectis shook off their shared darkness altogether.
No longer did they talk without understanding their own words; no
longer did the words of others baffle and terrify them. They emerged,
slowly and gingerly, into a new world. Vitellius Bolanus went the
way of his predecessor, his reputation equally tattered. Soon there
was a new governor, Quintus Petrillius Cerialis--and a new cause
for campaigning, thanks yet again to the unpredictable, treacherous
Brigantes in the north: 'Yes, them again,' Marcus informed the others
at the final briefing of 71, a few days before Saturnalia commenced.
He spoke more softly now, and there was a look of particular concentration
in his eyes, as though he were willing himself to live moment to
moment and keep the past at bay. 'No more cause for mutiny, gentlemen--though
I understand that the unrest didn't reach Canovium while Vectis
and I were . . . .' He let the sentence evaporate.
'What's the betting they find another Caratacus and sell him down
the river?' demanded Firmus.
'Messenger, sir,' announced Currerus, limping up the steps of headquarters.
No-one took the centurion up on his bet.
That evening, Marcus suddenly arranged a special feast for Vectis,
Currerus, Firmus, Scapha, Tignum and Solatius: a decision that was
met with pleasant bewilderment by his guests of honour and consternation
in the kitchens.
'Hardly Saturnalia yet,' said Currerus. 'I think the old man's getting
But whimsy played no part in the event. Everyone ate, drank and
talked as they had on a score of such occasions. When night was
far advanced, however, Marcus bade them charge their goblets--and
announced that this was the last feast he would hold in Cambria.
'I have a choice,' he told them, then corrected himself: 'Had a
choice. It's made. I shall entrust Benevolus and Decurio with the
business of tackling the Ordovices, the Demetae, the Deceangli--'
He paused: 'My apologies for those I've omitted.'
'You off to bloody the Brigantes' noses, sir?' asked Firmus.
'I'll bet it's a plum post in Antiochus,' Scapha declared, to general
mirth. Vectis, whose recovery had in truth faltered of late, eyed
the Tribune nervously.
Yes,' said Marcus, 'the Brigantes. That's what the messenger had
to tell me. Dispatch from Cerialis himself.' There was general silence:
'So you're summoned to the hostile north, sir?' asked Tignum at
'I'm summoned . . . to grow grapes,' said Marcus simply. For a moment
Vectis was all perplexity. Then he rose up and clapped the Tribune
on the back, realising in a flash all that his words meant: the
end of blind service to an Empire whose reward was the erasure of
his kin; open solidarity with the courageous rebel-commander of
Viriconium, the hooded escapee and scourge of demonic emperors;
and profound, unending love for an old fool who had joked in the
face of calamity, and whose nose for a grape had been the best in
By the time the torches were extinguished, all of the others had
pledged themselves to join their Tribune in his new adventure. The
prospect contented Marcus greatly. So, too, did the only thought
that had shone, small but clear, during his nightmare months. The
scroll had mentioned nothing of Vinitor--or, more important, his
brother, Alacer. Both may yet be alive.
End of Chapter XXI and Part
II - XIII - XIV
- XV - XVI - XVII
- XVIII - XIX -
XX - XXI
Worcester City Museums