Michael Wyndham Thomas
The story so far... It is 51 AD, 6 years
after the Roman invasion of Britannia, and Tribune Marcus Vinicius
Spatula of the XX Legion has been securing the salt workings at
Salinae (Droitwich) and the bridge on the river Sabrina (the Severn)
at Vertis (Worcester). Having run into strong resistance from the
tribes living west of the Sabrina, Governor Ostorius Scapula has
decided to consolidate the Roman advance along the line of the river.
Temporarily without his chief engineer Firmus, Spatula has depended
on Firmus's deputy, Tignum, to complete the works at Salinae and
Vertis and to begin construction of a road linking the legionary
forts at Virconium (Wroxeter), to the north, and Glevum (Gloucester),
to the south. Despite hit and run attacks from across the river,
and by locals loyal to Caratacus and the British resistance, Spatula
and his command make swift progress building the road....
Firmus saw but did not see the team of workers--a
relief force from Salinae--busy at ditching. He would shake his
head, shield his eyes against the unseasonal sun, then shake his
head again: 'They'd sell their unborn children, those Brigantes,'
he muttered. 'I simply can't believe it.'
Nobody could believe it. For all that the road workers had talked
of nothing else for days--and for all that the messages had been
a long time coming--it was still hot news. At a critical moment
in the Cambrian campaign, Caratacus had played the predicted card,
escaping northward to what he doubtless hoped would be the protection
and support of the Brigantes. But their Queen, Cartimandua, had
obviously decided that being a client of Rome was a sweeter proposition
than acting as Caratacus' helpmeet, and she betrayed the fugitive
chief to the Empire. For weeks past, messengers had been rushing
to the toilers on the ever-lengthening road, adding new details
to the story as though it were a Virgilian epic. There was, it seemed,
no question of executing Caratacus. Instead, there was talk that
he was to be taken to Rome, where his presence, a symbol of recklessness
quashed, would add lustre to the triumphal procession of Claudius.
Now Firmus shook himself out of his reverie, reminding himself of
his duties (albeit reluctantly: telling folk to dig ditches was
as nothing compared to watching the latest roof beam rising in the
middle of a new fort--but alas! they were between forts at present).
He couldn't help wondering what would happen to Caratacus. He'd
been courageous, no doubt of it: a born strategist, too, by all
accounts. Rome could have done with someone like that on her side.
The centurion found himself hoping that the chief would be treated
well in Rome; he was surprised by the fervour of his hopes.
Just then a load of earth spattered over his sandals. He'd practically
walked into the ditch without knowing it, and a legionary had slung
back a spadeful over his shoulder: 'Thank you for the offering,
soldier,' said Firmus, disposed to be pleasant but slightly irked
that the man resembled Vectis.
At that moment, the Tribune rode up: 'A new fashion for overseers,
Firmus?' he asked, regarding the centurion's spattered sandals.
Firmus harrumphed and shook his feet: 'Something like that, sir,'
he muttered, now glowering at his unwitting assailant: 'How are
things up ahead?'
'Well,' said Marcus, 'Caratacus's bad luck hasn't exactly destroyed
the Cambrian spirit. They're fighting on--we can look forward to
more raids, more ambushes, as we get near Viriconium.'
Firmus nodded: 'Last messenger I spoke to said the Silures are still
hard at it down south.'
'Indeed they are,' said Marcus. 'I only learned this morning that
one of our new forts has had a pasting--close to Glevum at that.'
He passed a hand over his brow. At times like this, he wished he
were one of these legionaries, ditching away. Such work made simple
sense: there was the task, and you did it. As it was, his head was
full of calculations: how many to send as a relief force here, how
many for foraging there--and now, of course, how many to send back
down the road, to help restore the damaged fort.
He was also frustrated at being unable to verify some talk he'd
heard. Scapula was fading fast; there were rumours that, in a peculiar
way, he'd taken Caratacus's capture badly: it was a hollow gain,
a victory by default, engineered by the smooth-faced Brigantes.
Apart from that, a dispatch Marcus had recently had from Rome had
mentioned one Didius Gallus, a rising man in the Imperial scheme.
The references had been hedged about in the usual politician's manner.
Marcus couldn't determine whether this was simply an update on who
was who in the chain of command, or whether they would shortly have
a new Governor in their midst.
He shook himself back into the present: 'It's all looking splendid,'
he said, surveying the ditches. Then he smiled at Firmus and the
men. 'Well, let's not worry about raids that haven't happened. The
present moment is the best place to be.'
'They're working well, sir,' said Firmus, eyeing the legionaries'
spades in case he was doused in muck again.
'Well, with any luck, these gentlemen can return to Salinae before
much longer. Then we can start bracing ourselves for the Cornovii
and their style of welcome.' He bade farewell to Firmus and started
back to the head of the road, where he knew he'd find a troubled
Tignum: his ditchers had uncovered an impenetrable system of roots,
and Marcus had promised to make his own brain available for racking
over a solution.
After a few yards, however, he reined in his horse: 'Oh, by the
way, centurion, I've had some good news.'
Firmus read the twinkle in the Tribune's eye: 'Wouldn't be anything
to do with a certain person, would it sir? Making his way back from
Cambria? Full of it, as usual?'
Marcus laughed: 'We shall talk again soon, Firmus.' And he wheeled
'I hope he's got bags of gold hanging off him,' called Firmus. 'That's
the least he can do.'
The Salinae auxiliaries returned to their fort. The road moved smooth
as a snake towards Viriconium and the land of the Cornovii. For
Marcus, Tignum and all the ditchers, quarriers and graders, the
rhythms of time, progress and setback were interwoven. The Romans
knew that they were moving into a new tribe's domain: the style
of conflict changed. There were no daytime attacks on the workforce,
and precious few night-raids. Instead, foraging parties found themselves
the sole targets of hostility, especially those ranging to the west
of the road.
On one occasion in early summer, a party lost its bearings north
of Brannogenium. There was some nervous joking about how they would
probably come across Scapula himself--but this barely masked uncertainty
about how deep into Cambria they were straying. Suddenly, with that
protean quality on which Marcus had pondered, the trees had turned
into men: Cornovii for the most part, the party's survivors reckoned,
although it had become hard to predict which tribesmen were where
in Cambria. Like their Silurian neighbours, these warriors used
surprise as though it were an axe. The legionaries were slaughtered
or, at the least, severely bloodied. Their ordeal provided proof--if
it were needed--that a bellicose spirit was still alive and abroad
in Cambria. Caratacus might have gone, but the Cambrian will to
triumph had not.
Summer wore on; the miles diminished between Viriconium and the
road's head. Marcus himself led foraging parties--or 'supply offensives'
as they became known. He found that remaining alert and suspicious
was as demanding as armed conflict; part of him was always relieved--even
glad--when the enemy declared themselves. He sustained broken bones,
which soon mended, and wounds to the face, which made him look old
before his time. He pondered the restriction of foraging operations
to the eastern side of the road: 'Salinae territory,' he took to
calling it--geographically inaccurate, but psychologically a good
way of maintaining morale.
Salinae had been a triumph, albeit modest, and the salt workings
were running smoothly. Firmus saw the apparent sense of his plan
for foraging, but also teased out its futility--something that Marcus
would have doubtless realized himself, sooner or later. One evening,
they debated the matter in detail. 'If we use the road as our boundary,'
said the centurion, 'they'll move in on it--then we'll have the
same raids and sabotage we had in the south.'
'Yes, but we'll be flushing them out. And they'll be using valuable
energy to get to us, rather than the other way round.'
Firmus stared for a second at Marcus, giving the latter the uncomfortable
feeling that he'd reverted to his five year-old self: 'Worrying
about energy didn't stop the Silures making off with our stuff,
sir. And it wouldn't stop this lot, if they'd a mind to change tactics.
No, if we don't venture in their direction it puts everything at
risk--road, forts, our integrity. Ground regained, sir: that's how
they'll see it.'
Marcus turned to regard the west--or rather, at the dense and unavoidable
woodland running along the road at this point. Firmus followed his
gaze: 'Stubborn as the natives, those trees. We've done our best
to push them back. See what I mean, sir? If we don't keep those
Cornovii at bay they'll be hanging from the branches day and night.'
'I know,' said the Tribune at last, quietly. 'It's the thought of
losing valuable men out of battle.'
'In battle, sir. It's all warfare. That's how the tribes see it--including
the ones who say they're on our side, I'll wager. Even building
this road. Act of aggression.'
Marcus rubbed the back of his neck: 'It's tricky.'
'Setting foot outside your own house is tricky, sir.' The centurion's
words brought Cremona back into Marcus's mind. He missed those hills
near Vertis. There was no reminder of home around him now. And he
hadn't had a message from the family for ages. He wondered how they
were--and whether Christianity was now well and truly within their
'Right, then,' he said at last. 'The westward foraging continues.
Tignum tells me there's open land coming up. At least that gives
us more chance of fighting on our own terms. Let the men know straight
away, Firmus. Firmus? '
But the centurion's attention was on the woodland. He could swear
he saw two figures--no, more--edging about far back in the trees.
'See what I mean about regaining ground?' he muttered. He rubbed
his eyes: maybe it was a trick of the failing light. No, they were
men. Or were they unknown animals up on their hind legs? Or some
bewitching folderol conjured by an itinerant druid? '
Firmus, I shall confiscate all flagons and amphorae if they have
this kind of delayed effect on--' began Marcus, but then he saw
too. There were other forms moving behind the figures; they looked
like bears from that distance.
'Speak of Diabolus,' whispered Firmus, 'and he shall appear.' A
voice called out--cheery, somehow familiar. The centurion started:
'I'll swear I counted in every man-jack from the last forage.' He
flexed his shoulders to prevent the Tribune noticing his shiver:
Diabolus with a Roman brogue--mischief was afoot:
'Don't rush at once, will you,' said the speaking figure, now at
the edge of the trees.
'Vectis!' called the Tribune, running forward. He and his compatriot
saluted, then embraced. Firmus stayed put, calling out a salutation
and thinking that his fancy about Diabolus wasn't so far off the
mark after all.
'We thought you might be the Cornovii,' said Marcus, then stepped
back to view Vectis's grubby, rather singular tunic.
'Funny, that,' said Vectis. 'I think the Cornovii thought the same.
And the Silures, and the Ordovices. That's the benefit of wearing
tat like this.' The other three figures now came forward, and Firmus
saw that the bears were actually fine-looking but docile horses,
effortlessly led on loose reins. He wondered at his own imagination,
not to mention his eyesight: 'My companions,' said Vectis, introducing
the Tribune and centurion. 'Fine scouts all. They'll be sterling
workers for Currerus--if he's still about.'
'Indeed he is,' said Marcus. 'And Tignum, speaking of sterling workers.
Firmus, forget what I said about the flagons and amphorae. We'll
drink deep tonight, yourself included.'
Firmus had no idea what he was on about. Sometime in the last few
minutes, the Tribune had given an order and was now revoking it.
The centurion felt his brow: sunstroke from a Britannic evening?
Impossible, surely. The group walked towards the encampment, Vectis
filling the air with names of places in which he'd campaigned, helped
to hold Roman lines or break Caratacus's--and built, built, built.
'Moridunum,' he said. 'Now that was a real barney. And Deva! I never
thought I'd get one stone fixed on another there, with everything
that was going on . . .'
'Any gold?' demanded Firmus, tapping him on the shoulder.
The engineer turned and bowed: 'Thank you, good Firmus--my journey
was astonishingly free from danger. Your concern for my person touches
me to my heart of hearts.'
Marcus interposed himself. Clearly these two would pick up where
they'd left off. 'More to the point, Vectis,' he said, 'any news
'Ah, now, that,' said Vectis, his tone suddenly sombre. As he responded,
the group drew close to the camp. In the woods behind them, eyes
watched. Minutes later, their owners dissolved into the deepening
night. They hadn't bothered with that self-important parrot and
his fellow travellers, though they'd watched them every step of
the way through the woods. The horses would have been useful, but
that wasn't part of the plan. No, they'd heard all they needed to,
courtesy of that barbaric Roman tongue. So: the foraging parties
were set to continue, were they? The spies would see about that.
End of Chapter VI
Worcester City Museums