Authors: Douglas Jackson
HERO OF ROME
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First published in Great Britain
in 2010 by Bantam Press
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Copyright © Douglas Jackson 2010
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This book is a work of fiction and, except in the case of historical fact, any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
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Also by Douglas Jackson
Hero of Rome
is a work of fiction but the story of the two hundred men sent from Londinium to reinforce the veterans at Colonia in the face of Boudicca’s avenging army is recorded by the historian Tacitus in his
The flames reached out to him like a lover’s arms as he walked naked between the twin fires. He felt their warm caress upon his skin but knew they could not harm him, for they were the flames of Taranis and he was the god’s servant. Another man’s flesh would have been scorched and shrivelled by their heat yet he remained untouched.
When he reached the far side of the chamber, Aymer, high priest of the sect, awaited him with the clothing he would wear on his journey, cleansed and blessed in its turn. The druid was very ancient, a shrunken husk of a man, dried out and worn down by all the long years of toil and study and abstinence in the great oak-walled halls of Pencerrig. But the life force was still strong in him and Gwlym felt it now, along with a palpable expansion of his own mind as the milky, faded eyes locked on his. No words were spoken as Aymer passed to him the knowledge that would take him to his goal, but he saw the path ahead clearly. The black mountains, with their deep gorges and narrow paths along foaming, rock-strewn streams. The great river, swirling, deep and dark, which he must cross unseen. Then, more dangerous still, the flat green pastureland with its well-worn tracks and curious inhabitants, before he reached the final sanctuary of the forests and the faraway sea.
‘It is done,’ the priest said, his voice brittle with age. ‘The cleansing is complete.’
Gwlym dressed quickly and followed the druid into the darkness where the ponies waited. They picked their way through the night along hidden trackways until they reached the edge of a low cliff over-looking a narrow beach. From below came the gentle hiss of waves breaking rhythmically against a pebble shore and he saw a shadowy figure working on the fragile wood and animal-skin craft which would carry him across. The light, or lack of it, made the sea a dull, leaden silver, and beyond it was visible the darker, more sinister contour of the mainland. Shorter routes existed between Mona, the sacred isle of the druids, and the country of the Deceangli, but they would undoubtedly be watched.
‘They will come for us soon.’ Aymer’s words were barely audible. ‘By then you must have completed your task.’
Gwlym nodded. There was nothing more to say. He understood he would never see Aymer again after this night. Soon, the legions of Rome would march through those same mountain gorges to destroy the last stronghold of the druids and break their power for ever. He felt the dull ache of regret at the knowledge he would not share the fate of the priests who had trained him and nurtured his unceasing quest for knowledge. But he had his own mission and it was more important still. For even as the spears of the legions descended upon Mona, he would fan the embers of the long-neglected fire that was Celtic pride and create a conflagration that would consume every Roman and every Roman-lover on the island of Britain. Shame and resentment and humiliation would be his greatest weapons. After sixteen years of conquest and debasement the tribes were ripe for rebellion; all they needed was a spark and a leader. Gwlym would be the spark, the gods would provide the leader.
‘Carry the word. Carry it far, but carry it with care. You must not be taken.’ Aymer paused, allowing Gwlym time to reflect on the grim reality of his last words. ‘Counsel patience. When the time is right the gods will send a sign: the wrath of Andraste will rain from the sky and the people of Britain will rise from their bondage and sweep the usurpers from our land in a maelstrom of blood and flame.’
‘The wrath of Andraste.’ The younger man whispered the words to himself as if they were a prayer before he picked his way carefully down to the beach without a backward glance.
What was the ruin of Sparta and Athens, but this, that mighty as they were in war, they spurned from them as aliens those whom they had conquered?
Claudius, Emperor of Rome,
Severn Valley, Siluria, September
Could it only have been ten minutes? Gaius Valerius Verrens gritted his teeth behind his smile and his eyes locked on his opponent’s, but the message, if message there were beneath those hooded lids, was the opposite of what he wanted to see: the bastard was mocking him. He breathed hard through his nostrils, drawing in the sharp pine scent of the freshly cut stump on which his right elbow rested. At the same time he felt the agony that had been tearing the big muscle in his upper arm ease a little. He channelled the relief up into his forearm and along his inner wrist to the fingers of his right hand. The increase in power must have been infinitesimal – he barely registered it himself – but he noticed a slight movement as Crespo’s eyebrows twitched and he knew the centurion had sensed it too. So. The hand that gripped his – the elbow resting precisely to the left of his own – was horny and calloused and had all the yield of a hypocaust brick. Fingers like talons clasped with a force designed to break bone, but he resisted the temptation to meet the challenge. Instead, he directed all his own strength into moving Crespo’s fist to the left; any movement, even a hair’s breadth, would do. So far, Crespo hadn’t yielded even that. But then again neither had he. The thought made him grin, and the crowd of legionaries ringing the tree stump cheered encouragement at the sign of confidence. Arm wrestling was a favoured pastime in the First cohort of the Twentieth legion. All you needed was a flat surface and the inclination. Sometimes they wrestled for fun. Sometimes to gamble. And sometimes because they hated each other’s guts.
The First had been in the temporary camp in the lee of the Silurian hill fort for six days. When the cavalry patrol had failed to return two weeks earlier, the legate’s reaction had been immediate. Reprisal in force. Three thousand men – five legionary cohorts and a mixed unit of auxiliary infantry and horse from Gaul and Thrace – had marched behind their standards down the River Severn, then west into the rough hill country beyond. They had found the heads, twenty of them, still in their helmets, like marker points on a trail. A few unfortunate Celtic peasants picked up along the way and put to the question had led them here. It had taken five of those six days to dig the ditch and rampart around the base of the rugged hill which now entirely isolated the fort’s inhabitants from either help or escape. When the legionaries weren’t digging they spent the time on guard, drilling, exercising or patrolling, but during their occasional rest periods they were able to sit outside their leather eight-man tents and do the things soldiers always do: mend and polish their equipment, gamble their pay away and grumble about their officers, or just sit and stare at the sky and the blue-grey haze of the distant mountains.
Valerius concentrated on his right arm, attempting to will more power into it. The big muscle bulged below the short sleeve of his tunic as if it were trying to burst free from the skin and he could see the twisting snakes of dark veins beneath the tanned surface. It had swelled to the size of a small melon and matched that of Crespo, who was judged the strongest man in the cohort. The forearm was broad, tapering towards the wrist, where the tendons stood out like tree roots. His wrist was bound firmly to Crespo’s by a strap of red cloth, so that neither man could shift his grip and win by trickery. But he knew Crespo would try, because Crespo was a cheat, a liar and a thief. But he was also a senior centurion, which made him untouchable. Almost.
He had discovered Crespo beating one of the new recruits, young Quintus from Ravenna, with the gnarled vine stick he carried as the traditional badge of his rank. Every centurion disciplined his men, because discipline was what made a legion a legion. But Crespo confused discipline with brutality, or maybe he just enjoyed brutality for its own sake, because he had beaten Quintus half to death. When Valerius ordered him to stop, Crespo had looked him up and down with those expressionless ice-chip eyes of his. The two men had a history, of sorts, but one that was more animal wariness than physical hostility. The first time they’d met had been like two dogs coming together on a narrow path: a rising of the hackles, a sizing up of strengths and weaknesses, a quick sniff and a moving on; gone, but far from forgotten.
Now he stared into Crespo’s features from two feet away. Did he sense uncertainty? By the gods, he hoped so. The fire which had started in the crook of his elbow was moving up into his shoulder and on into the base of his neck and it was like no pain he’d ever experienced. Crespo’s washed-out eyes glared back from a long, narrow face that had somehow stayed pale while the sun turned most men’s walnut brown. Valerius could make out a pattern of individual pockmarks dotting his opponent’s forehead and chin, evidence of some childhood disease unfortunately survived. His nose was long and sharply angled, like the blade of a pioneer’s axe, and below it hung a thin, rat-trap mouth that reminded Valerius of a viper’s. Oh, he was a handsome fellow was Crespo. But handsome or not, he was a sword hilt taller, and, though Valerius was broader in the chest and shoulder, the centurion had the wiry strength of fifteen years in the legion; the kind of strength you didn’t get from running errands in the law courts. Still, growing up on his father’s farms had given Valerius his own strength, and the confidence to use it.
The sweat started at the very edge of Crespo’s hairline: tiny, almost invisible diamonds of moisture among the untidy dark stubble the unit’s barber had left him. Valerius watched, fascinated, as they slowly grew in size, until two or three joined and formed a clear drop which trickled gently down the centurion’s sloping forehead until it reached the point where it joined his nose. And stopped. He felt disappointment. The droplet had seemed an omen. If it had carried on and run down the blade of the axe to the tip, he was certain it would have foretold victory. Now he wasn’t so sure. Still, it was a sign of something. Was there a loosening of the talons, a sense that the opposing force, though it felt as relentless as ever, had passed its peak? Or was Crespo luring him into a trap? Allowing him to think he’d won and then producing a burst of energy he’d kept in reserve for the moment he had him slightly off balance? No. Wait. Patience.
Valerius recognized the voice but tried not to let it affect his concentration.
‘Tribune Verrens?’ The tone was a little more officious than was proper in a double-pay man addressing a Roman officer, but when the double-pay man was clerk to the Twentieth’s commander it seemed sensible to ignore the potential slight.
‘Had enough yet, pretty boy?’ Crespo’s lips barely moved as he hissed the words through clenched teeth. The thick Sicilian accent grated on Valerius’s ears as much as the insult.
‘What is it, soldier?’ Valerius addressed the man behind him but kept his eyes on Crespo and his voice steady. The joined fists remained as motionless as if they were carved in rock.
‘You are to attend the legate, sir.’ The announcement brought groans of disappointment from the dozen legionaries crowding around the tree stump. Valerius could have groaned with them. He sensed that the contest was there to be won. But you didn’t keep the legate waiting.
Which posed a problem: how to extricate himself without giving Crespo something to crow about? He knew that the instant he relaxed the centurion would force his arm over and claim victory. A small thing, a minor defeat which a man could easily bear and would cost nothing but a little hurt pride. But he wasn’t prepared to give Crespo even that satisfaction. He thought for a few seconds, allowing Crespo to anticipate his moment of triumph, then, maintaining his grip, rose smoothly to his feet, drawing the puzzled centurion with him. Crespo suppressed a curse and glared at Valerius as the young tribune used his left hand to untie the cloth binding their wrists. ‘There’ll be another time. I had you where I wanted you.’
Valerius laughed. ‘You had your chance, centurion, and I have better things to do.’ As he pushed through the grinning crowd of off duty legionaries at the heels of the legate’s messenger he heard Crespo boasting dismissively to his cronies, the senior men he kept loyal by handing out light duties: ‘Too soft. They’re all the same, these rich boys, just short-timers playing at soldiers.’
It took Valerius twenty minutes to wash the sweat from his body and don his uniform over his tunic and
, the calf-length trousers the legions had adopted after their first winter in Britain. First the dark red over-tunic, then the belt round his waist with the decorative apron of studded leather straps that were meant to protect his groin, but in reality wouldn’t stop a goose feather, never mind a spear. Over the tunic, his orderly helped him strap the
, the jointed plate armour that covered his shoulders, chest and back and
stop a spear, but was also light enough to allow him to move fast and fight freely. The short-bladed
hung from the scabbard on his left hip, the weight comfortable against his upper leg, ready to be cross-drawn with that musical hiss that always made the hair stand up on the back of his neck. Finally, the heavy polished helmet with its neck protector and cheek pieces, topped by the stiff scarlet horsehair crest. He knew he was testing the legate’s patience, but Marcus Livius Drusus was a general in the mould of the great Gaius Marius and anything out of place would be noted and remembered.
When he was satisfied, he marched the short distance from the bivouac he shared with another of the legion’s six military tribunes to the tented pavilion which doubled as the commander’s living quarters and the
, the legion’s nerve centre. The surroundings were comfortingly familiar. Neat rows of tents, divided into units of centuries and cohorts, the
stretching off to the point where it was bisected by the
just before the
, and beyond that the supply area, workshop tents and horse lines. Glevum, the Twentieth’s permanent headquarters, lay forty miles to the north-east, but since he’d arrived in Britain all those months ago, fresh-faced and nervous at the port on the River Tamesa, he’d spent more time on the march or on engineering detail than in the fort. Marching camps like this, hardly varying in any way, were more home to him now than his father’s villa. From the first, soldiering had come perhaps not easily but certainly naturally to him. In those early days he’d often lain wrapped in his cloak, exhausted after a long day on patrol, and wondered at the fate which had brought him here, where he belonged. He knew instinctively that his ancestors had fought at Romulus’s side, marched with Scipio and stood with Caesar at Pharsalus. It was there,
, in every nerve and sinew
He recognized the two legionaries on guard outside the
as permanent members of the legate’s bodyguard. The man on the right raised his eyebrows, warning of the reception he was likely to receive. Valerius grinned his thanks then switched to his expressionless soldier’s mask. Inside, the general bent low over a sand table at the rear of the tent, flanked by a pair of his aides. Valerius removed his helmet and stood for a few seconds before clashing his fist against his chest armour with a loud crash.
‘Tribune Verrens, at your service, sir.’
Livius turned slowly to face him. The afternoon heat had left the inside of the
airless and clammy, but even so he wore the heavy scarlet cloak that marked his rank over his full dress uniform, and by now his puffy, patrician face and balding scalp matched it almost to perfection.
‘I hope I didn’t disturb your games, Verrens?’ The voice was excessively cultured and the tone almost solicitous. ‘Perhaps we should have our tribunes wrestling in the mud with the common soldiery every morning? It would raise their morale considerably to inflict a few lumps and bumps on their officers. We might even lose a few, but then tribunes aren’t much good for anything in any case. Yes, good for morale. But … not … good … for … discipline!’ The final sentence was barked out with all the venom Livius could inject into it. Valerius picked out a worn spot on the tent wall behind the legate’s right shoulder as he prepared to ride out the inevitable storm.
The legionary commander spat out his words like a volley of ballista bolts. ‘Discipline, Verrens, is what has allowed Rome to conquer every worthwhile part of this world and to dominate what’s left. Discipline. Not courage. Not organization. Not even the untold riches of the Empire. Discipline. The kind of discipline that will keep a legionary holding the line while his comrades fall one by one at his side. The discipline that will keep him in the fight until he has not another drop of blood to give. The kind of discipline which you, Gaius Valerius Verrens, by your childish desire to impress, are in danger of fatally weakening. Do you think you made yourself more popular by challenging Crespo? Do you want to be
? Show me a legion whose officers are
by their soldiers and I will show you a legion ripe for defeat. This is the Twentieth legion. This is my legion. And I will have discipline. The only thing you achieved, tribune, was to diminish a centurion’s authority.’
Without warning the tone softened. ‘You’re not a bad soldier, Valerius; one day you may become a very good one. Your father asked me to take you on my staff to provide the military experience you require to make a career in politics and I fulfilled my obligation because our families have been voting side by side on the Field of Mars for ten generations. But the one thing I have learned in our time together is that you are no politician. Flattery and dissembling are not in your nature, nor is a natural desire to curry favour. You lack true ambition, which is essential, and you are honest, which is most certainly not. If you follow the political path you will fail. I have already tried to tell your father this, but perhaps I was overly subtle for he still sees you in the Senate some day. What age are you? Twenty-two? Twenty-three? A quaestorship in three years, atop some desert dung heap. Twelve months spent attempting to prevent your rapacious governor or proconsul from ruining his province and its people.’ Valerius was surprised enough to allow his eyes to drop and meet the legate’s. ‘Oh, yes, tribune, I have been there. Counting every
and gasping at the man’s greed, then counting them again just to be sure he hasn’t stolen a few more. And after that? A year back in Rome, perhaps with an appointment, perhaps not. That is when your future will be decided, and by then it will be in your hands.’