Read Cato 03 - When the Eagle Hunts Online
Authors: Simon Scarrow
The bitter March weather did not ease for two days, but at least the skies remained clear. At the end of each day, Vespasian insisted on the construction of a 'marching camp in the face of the enemy', entailing the digging of a twelve-foot deep outer ditch and an inner ten-foot earth rampart to enclose the legion and its baggage train. At the end of the day's march, the tired legionaries had to toil into the night to break up the frozen soil with their entrenching tools. Only when the defences were completed could the men, huddled in their cloaks, line up for their steaming ration of barley and salt pork gruel. Later, bellies full, and limbs warmed in the glow of camp fires, the men crept into their goatskin tents and curled up under as many layers of clothing as they had. They re-emerged in the pale blue light of dawn, to face a world blanketed with frost that sparkled along the folds of their tents and down the guy ropes. The men tried to fold into themselves to keep warm against the raw winter mornings until their officers chivvied them into life with orders to strike the tents and prepare for the day's march.
On the third day the fickle weather of the island became more mild and the thick white mantle of snow slowly began to release its hold on the landscape. While the legionaries welcomed the sun's warmth, the meltwater quickly turned the track into a glutinous bog that sucked at the wagon wheels and the booted feet of the infantry. It was with some relief that they marched down the shallow incline into the Tamesis valley on the fourth day and came in sight of the ramparts of the huge army base constructed the previous summer when the legions had first forced their way across the great river. The base was now garrisoned by four cohorts of Batavian auxiliaries. The Batavian infantry had been left at the base while the cavalry squadrons patrolled up the valley, searching out and chasing off any of Caratacus's raiding parties they might encounter. Within the base, supplies had been stockpiled all winter as the shipping from Gaul continued to cross the channel to Rutupiae whenever the weather permitted. From there, smaller barges carried provisions up the Tamesis estuary to the base that straddled the river. The final link in the supply chain was provided by small columns of wagons which made their way under heavy guard to the advance forts, manned by small detachments of auxiliary troops.
This line of defence had been erected by General Plautius to keep Caratacus at bay. A futile attempt, it had turned out. Small bodies of enemy troops regularly slipped through, under cover of darkness, to harass the Roman supply lines and wreak havoc on those tribes who had gone over to the invaders. Once in a while a more daring attack was attempted, and a handful of outposts had had their small garrisons slaughtered. Barely a day passed without some distant smudge against the clear winter sky telling of yet another attack on a supply column, native village or Roman outpost. The commanders of the auxiliary cohorts charged with defending the area could only gaze in despair at the evidence of their failure to contain Caratacus and his men. Not until spring arrived, and the weather improved, could the ponderous weight of the Roman legions be thrown at the Britons once again.
The Second Legion's arrival at the Tamesis camp gave them only a brief respite from the daily grind of constructing a marching camp. The following day, the legate gave the order to cross the bridge to the south bank. Only now did the more strategically minded in the ranks begin to understand what the role of the legion would be in the coming campaign. Once across the river, the legion swung to the west and advanced upriver for two more days along a track that the engineers had crudely surfaced with a mix of tree trunks and thick branches. The track then turned south, and early on the afternoon of the third day the legion arrived in the lee of a long hill. It was from here that the Second Legion would launch their thrust into the territory of the Durotriges once the campaigning season started.
While the baggage train and the artillery carts were painstakingly manoeuvred up the muddy slope, the main body of the legion was marched up to the broad crest of the hill. The order was given to down packs and begin entrenching. While the men of the Sixth Century started on their section of the defensive ditch, Centurion Macro gazed south.
'Here, Cato! Isn't that some kind of town over there?'
His optio joined him and followed his pointing finger. Several miles away some thin trails of smoke eddied up, just visible against the thick gloom of the approaching winter evening. It might be a trick of the light, but Cato thought he could see the faint lines of a substantial native settlement.
'I'd imagine that's Calleva, sir.'
'Calleva? Know anything about it?'
'Got talking to a trader in Camulodunum, sir. He's got a share in a trading post on the south coast. Supplies wine and pottery to the Atrebates. It's their land we're in now. Calleva's their tribal capital, sir. The only place of any size, according to the trader.'
'So what was he doing in Camulodunum?'
'Looking for a chance to expand his business. Like the rest of his kind.'
'Did he tell you anything useful about our friends over there?'
'Like how loyal they are, what they're like in a fight. That kind of useful.'
'Oh, I see. Only that the Atrebates seemed friendly enough to him and the other traders. And now that the general's reinstalled Verica to their throne, they should be loyal enough to Rome.'
Macro sniffed. 'That'll be the day.'
The following day was spent building up the fortifications of the main legion camp, and constructing a series of outposts to the north, overlooking the Tamesis, and to the west, to guard against incursions by the Durotriges. The morning after their arrival a party of horsemen approached the camp from the direction of Calleva. The duty cohort was instantly summoned to the walls, and word of the horsemen passed to the legate. Vespasian hurried to the guard tower and, breathing hard from the climb up the ladder, stared down the slope. The small column of horsemen was casually trotting up towards the gate, and just behind the head of the column fluttered a pair of standards, one a British serpent, the other bearing the insignia of a Roman vexillation detached from the Twentieth Legion.
A creaking on the ladder announced the arrival of the legion's senior tribune. Gaius Plinius had recently been appointed to the position, replacing Lucius Vitellius, now well on the road to Rome and a glittering career as a favourite of the Emperor.
"Who is it, sir?'
'Verica, I'd imagine.'
'And our lot?'
'His bodyguard. General Plautius sent a cohort of the Twentieth to lend some weight to Verica's cause when he reclaimed the throne.' Vespasian smiled. 'Just in case the Atrebates decided they'd be happier without their new ruler. Better see what they want.'
The roughly hewn timber gate swung inwards to admit the horsemen. On the muddy ground to one side of the churned track a hastily assembled century lined up to greet the guests. At the head of the column rode a tall man with flowing grey hair. Verica had been an imposing man in his prime, but now age and years of fretting in exile had reduced him to a frail, stooping figure who wearily dismounted from his horse to greet Vespasian.
'Welcome, sire!' Vespasian saluted, and after the briefest hesitation Plinius followed his legate's example, swallowing his distaste for such deference to a mere native, albeit a king of his people. Verica walked stiffly up to the legate and clasped the forearm extended towards him.
'Greetings, Legate! I trust the winter has been kind to you and your men?'
'It hasn't quite finished with us.' Vespasian nodded at the slick mud lying all around them.
'Goes with the turf!' Verica grinned, pleased with his joke. Then he turned back to the horsemen, whose excitable beasts were champing and snorting at the unfamiliar surroundings. 'Centurion! If you'd be good enough to give the word for the men to dismount. Then please join us!'
Beside the vexillation standard bearer a Roman officer saluted and quickly gave the order.
Vespasian turned to his senior tribune. 'Plinius, see to it that they're given something to warm them up.'
'My thanks, Legate.' Verica smiled. 'I'd appreciate a drink as well. I seem to recall a certain fondness for Falernian you had when we last met.'
'Indeed, sire. I still have a drop.' Vespasian forced himself to smile. Only a meagre supply of this superior vintage remained in his private stores, and he resented having to share it. But his orders from General Plautius had been explicit: every effort was to be made to remain on the best terms with the allies Rome had won amongst the tribes of this island. The success or failure of the invasion was finely balanced due to Rome's parsimony in allocating troops to the task. Plautius dared not advance without being sure that his flanks were guarded by tribes loyal to Rome. So every man in his army, regardless of rank, was to behave with the greatest courtesy to those tribes allied to Rome, or suffer the wrath of the general. That included supplying Falernian to those who judged drink purely by its capacity to inebriate.
'I assume you already know Centurion Publius Pollius Albinus?' Verica waved a hand at the officer striding towards them. The centurion snapped a salute at the legate and stood to attention at the king's shoulder.
'Centurion.' Vespasian nodded a greeting, before turning back to his guest.
'Albinus is one of our best. I trust he has been giving you good service.'
Vespasian glanced at Albinus, but the centurion's expression didn't flicker at the less than fulsome praise, justifying the general's selection of him for a duty that required a high degree of diplomatic tact and tolerance.
'How's the training of your men coming on, sire?'
'Well enough.' Verica shrugged, clearly not terribly concerned by Rome's efforts to provide his regime with a stable backbone. 'I'm too old to take much interest in military matters. But I dare say Centurion Albinus is doing a good job. With the quality of manpower provided by the Atrebates you shouldn't have too much trouble producing an effective body of men to enforce my will. Eh, Centurion?'
'Can't complain, sire.'
Vespasian shot him a warning glance, but the centurion stared straight ahead, expressionless.
'Yes, well, I think we might retire to the warmer comforts of my tents. If you'd follow me.'
Seated around a bronze brazier, a fresh log crackling on the glowing embers, Vespasian and his two guests sipped wine from silver goblets and soaked up the warmth. Around them, clumps of mud soiled the fine patterns of the woven rugs scattered across the wooden floor panels, and Vespasian inwardly cursed the need to be so utterly faithful to his commander's orders concerning hospitality towards the natives.
'How is General Plautius?' asked Verica, leaning closer to the brazier.
'He's fine, sire. He sends his warm regards and trusts that you are in good health.'
'Oh, I'm sure he is most concerned about that!' Verica chuckled. 'It wouldn't be very helpful of me if I went and died. The Atrebates shed no tears when Caratacus kicked me out, and hardly welcomed my return, accompanied by Roman bodyguards, with affection. Whoever succeeds me might do well to claim allegiance with Caratacus rather than your Emperor Claudius, if he wants to win the hearts of our people.'
'Would the Atrebates really want to risk the terrible consequences of allowing such a man to claim your throne?'
'My throne is mine because your Emperor says so,' came the quiet response.
Vespasian thought he detected a trace of bitterness in the old man's tone. If Verica had been younger, it would have caused the legate some concern. But old age seemed to have bred a desire for peace and quashed the fiery ambition that had fuelled the glittering achievements of Verica's youth. The British king sipped his wine before continuing.
'Rome will have peace with the Atrebates as long as Centurion Albinus and his men are here to ensure that the Emperor's word is respected. But with Caratacus at large, and freely slipping through your legions to punish those tribes whose leaders have gone over to Rome, you can understand why some of my people might challenge my loyalty to Rome.'
'Of course I understand that, sire. But surely you can make them see that the legions will eventually crush Caratacus. There can be no other outcome. I'm certain of it.'
'Oh really?' Verica raised his eyebrows, and shook his head mockingly. 'Nothing in this life is certain, Legate. Nothing. Perhaps least of all the defeat of Caratacus.'
'He will be defeated soon enough.'
'Then see to it, or I cannot answer for the loyalty of my people. Particularly with those bloody Druids stirring things up.'
Verica nodded. 'There have been a number of raids on small villages and trading settlements on the coast. At first we thought it might be a small band of the Durotriges. That is, until we heard a more detailed report. It appears that these raiders were not content with a little bit of theft and slaughter. Nothing was spared. Not one man, woman or infant. Not even their livestock. Every house, every hut, no matter how mean, was put to the torch. And worse was to come.' Verica paused to take another draught of his wine, and Vespasian noted that the hand clasping the goblet quavered. Verica drained the cup, and quickly gestured to Albinus to refill it. He nodded only when the red wine had almost reached the rim.