Three days later the snow had almost melted and only the odd patch still gleamed in hollows and crevices where the low winter sun could not reach. The first days of March brought a little more warmth to the air and the rutted track became slick with mud beneath the booted feet of the Fourth Cohort. They were marching south from Calleva, patrolling along the border with the Durotriges, in an attempt to discourage any more raids. The mission was more of a gesture of Roman support for the Atrebates than a realistic attempt to discourage the Durotriges and their sinister Druid allies. The reports reaching Verica of the devastation being wreaked on the smaller villages had so unnerved him that he had begged Vespasian to act. So the Fourth Cohort and a squadron of scouts, accompanied by a guide, were dispatched on a tour through the frontier villages and settlements to demonstrate that the threat from the Durotriges was being taken seriously.
At first the villagers were nervous of the strange uniforms and foreign tongues of the legionaries, but the cohort had been ordered to behave in an exemplary manner. Shelter and rations were paid for in gold coin and the Romans respectfully observed local customs, which were explained to them by Verica's guide, Diomedes. He was an agent acting for a trader in Gaul and had been living amongst the Atrebates for many years. He spoke their Celtic dialect fluently. He had even married into a warrior clan that had been just liberal enough to tolerate letting one of their less prized daughters become the wife of the dapper little Greek. With his olive complexion, oiled ringlets of dark hair, carefully trimmed beard and fine continental wardrobe Diomedes could not look less like the crude natives he had chosen to live among for so long. Yet he was well enough regarded to be warmly greeted in every settlement the cohort passed through.
'What use have this lot got for cash?' grumbled Macro as the cohort's senior centurion counted out coins for a village headman in exchange for several bundles of salted beef – dark withered strips strung together by lengths of leather thong. The centurions of the cohort had gathered to be introduced to the headman and now stood to one side with the Greek guide while business was concluded.
'Oh, you'd be surprised.' Diomedes grinned, flashing his small stained teeth. 'They drink as much wine as they can afford. They've got a real taste for the stuff from Gaul – it's made me a small fortune over the years.'
'Wine? They drink wine?' Macro looked round at the motley scatter of round huts and small animal pens within a flimsy palisade that was only intended to keep wild animals out.
'Of course. You've tried their local brews. All right if you have to get drunk, but not much fun to drink otherwise.'
'You've got a point there.'
'And it's not just wine,' continued Diomedes. 'Cloth, pottery, cooking utensils and so on. They've taken to the empire's exports in a big way. A few more years and the Atrebates will almost be on the first rung of civilisation.' Diomedes sounded wistful.
'Why so glum?'
'Because then it'll be time for me to move on.'
'Move on? I thought you'd settled here.'
'Only while there's money to be made. Once this place becomes part of the empire it'll be flooded with traders and my profit margins will disappear. I'll have to move on. Maybe further north. I hear the Queen of the Brigantes has developed a taste for civilised living.' The Greek's eyes flashed with excitement at the prospect.
Macro regarded Diomedes with the special distaste he reserved for salesmen. Then something occurred to him.
'How can they afford all of this stuff you import?'
"They can't. That's the beauty of it. There's not much coinage about – only a handful of these tribes have started their own mints. So I let them barter instead. I get a much better deal that way. In exchange for my goods I take furs, hunting dogs and jewellery – anything that commands a high price back in the empire. You'd be astonished at the price Celtic jewellery commands in Rome right now.' He looked at the torc round Macro's neck. 'Take that little trinket, for example. I could get a fortune for that.'
'Not for sale,' Macro said firmly, and automatically reached for the gold torc with one hand. The heavy ornament had once been worn round the neck of Togodumnus, a chief of the Catuvellauni and brother of Caratacus. Macro had killed him in single combat shortly after the Second Legion had landed in Britain.
'I'd give you a fair price.'
Macro snorted. 'I doubt it. You'd rip me off just as soon as you would one of these natives.'
'You shame me!' Diomedes protested. 'I'd never dream of it. For you, Centurion, I would pay a good price.'
'No. I'm not selling.'
Diomedes pressed his lips together and shrugged. 'Not now. Maybe later. Sleep on it.'
Macro shook his head, and met the gaze of one of the other centurions who raised his eyes in sympathy. These Greek merchants had spread right across the empire, and well beyond its frontiers, yet they were all the same – chancers on the lookout for financial gain. They viewed everyone in terms of what they could make out of them. Macro suddenly felt repulsed.
'I don't need to sleep on it. I'm not selling it, particularly not to you.'
Diomedes frowned and his eyes narrowed for an instant. Then he nodded slowly and smiled his salesman's smile again. 'You Roman army types really think you're better than the rest of us, don't you?'
Macro didn't answer, just raised his chin a little, causing the Greek to explode with laughter. The other centurions stopped their quiet chattering and turned towards Macro and Diomedes. The Greek raised his hands placatingly.
'I'm sorry, really I am. It's just that I'm so familiar with the attitude. You soldiers think that you alone are responsible for expanding the empire, for adding new provinces to the Emperor's territorial inventory.'
'That's right.' Macro nodded. 'That's about the size of it.'
'Really? So where would you be without me right now? How would your superior over there manage to buy provisions? And that's not the end of it. Why do you think the Atrebates are so well-disposed towards Rome in the first place?'
'Don't know. Don't really care. But I expect you'll tell me anyway.'
'Glad to oblige, Centurion. Long before the first Roman legionary ever shows his face in the more uncivilised corners of this world, some Greek trader like me has been travelling and trading with the natives. We learn their languages and their ways, and introduce them to the goods of the empire. More often than not they're pathetically keen to get their hands on the accessories of civilisation. Things we take for granted they treat as status objects. They develop a taste for it. We feed the taste, until they become dependent on it. By the time you turned up these barbarians were already part of the imperial economy. A few more generations and they'd have begged you to let them become a province.'
'Bollocks! Utter bollocks,' Macro replied, jabbing his finger at the Greek, and the other centurions nodded. 'Expanding the empire depends on the sword, and having the guts to wield it. You people just peddle tat to these ignorant fools for your own profit. That's all there is to it.'
'Of course we do it for profit. Why else would one risk the dangers and privations of such a life?' Diomedes smiled in an attempt to lighten the tone of the discussion. 'I merely wished to point out the benefits to Rome of our dealings with these natives. If, in some small way, my kind has helped smooth the path for the all-conquering legions of Rome then we are gratified beyond all measure. I apologise if this modest ambition in any way offends you, Centurion. I did not intend it to.'
Macro nodded. 'All right then. Apology accepted.'
Diomedes beamed. 'And if you should change your mind about the torc…'
'Greek, if you mention it again, I swear I'll -'
'Centurion Macro!' the senior centurion, Hortensius, called out.
Macro instantly turned away from Diomedes and stiffened to attention. 'Sir?'
'Cut the chatter and get your men formed up. Same for the rest of you – we're moving on.'
While the centurions hurried back to their units, bawling out their orders, the villagers quickly loaded the salted beef into the back of one of the supply wagons. As soon as the column was formed up, Hortensius waved the cavalry scouts on ahead and then gave the order for the infantry to advance. The haunted faces of the Atrebate villagers were eloquent testimony to their dread of being left undefended once again, and the headman begged Diomedes to persuade the cohort to stay. The Greek had his orders and politely but firmly made his apologies and hurried after Hortensius. As the Sixth Century, on rearguard duty behind the last of the wagons, marched out of the village gate, Cato felt ashamed to be deserting them while the Druids and their Durotrigan henchmen were still raiding along the frontier.
'There must be something we can do for these people.'
Macro shook his head. 'Nothing. Why do you ask? What would you have us do?'
'Leave some men. Leave one of the centuries behind to guard them.'
'One less century makes the cohort that much weaker. And where would you stop? We can't leave a century in every village we pass through. There's not enough of us.'
'Well, weapons then,' Cato suggested. 'We could leave them some of our spare weapons in the wagons.'
'No we couldn't, lad. We might need them. In any case, they're not trained to use them. It'd be a waste. Now then, let's hear no more about it. We've a long march ahead of us today. Save your breath for that.'
'Yes, sir,' Cato replied quietly, his eyes avoiding the accusing glare of villagers standing beside the village gate.
For the remainder of the day the Fourth Cohort trudged along the muddy track leading south to the sea and a small trading settlement which nestled beside one of the channels leading into a large natural harbour. Diomedes knew the settlement well – he had helped to build it when he had first landed in Britain many years earlier. Now it was his home. Noviomagus, as it had come to be known, had grown rapidly and acquired a happy mixture of traders, their agents and their families. The incomers and their native neighbours had lived side by side in relative harmony over the years, according to Diomedes. But now the Durotriges were raiding their land, and the Atrebates blamed the foreigners for provoking the Druids of the Dark Moon and their followers. Diomedes had many friends, and his family, at Noviomagus, and was concerned for their safety.
As the cohort marched, the dull sun struggled across the leaden grey sky in a low arc. As the gloom of the day's end began to thicken about the cohort, a sudden shout came from the head of the column. The men looked up from the track where they had been fixing their gaze, as tiredness and the weight of their marching packs bent their backs. A handful of cavalry scouts galloped down the track from the brow of a hill. Centurion Hortensius's voice carried clearly to the rear of the column as he gave the order for the cohort to halt.
'There's trouble,' said Macro quietly as he watched the scouts make their report to Hortensius. The cohort commander nodded and then sent the scouts forward again. He turned to the column, cupping a hand to his mouth.
'Officers to the front!'
Cato shifted the yoke from his shoulder and laid it beside the track and trotted after Macro, feeling a thrill of anticipation race up his spine.
As soon as all his centurions and optios were present Hortensius quickly outlined the situation.
'Noviomagus has been attacked. What's left of it is just over that hill.' He jerked a thumb over his shoulder. 'The scouts say they can't see any movement, so it looks like there're no survivors.'
Cato glanced at Diomedes, standing aside from the Roman officers, and saw the Greek guide staring at his feet, a deep frown on his forehead. His jaw suddenly clenched tightly and Cato realised the man was close to tears. With a mixture of compassion and embarrassment at witnessing the private grief of another, he turned his eyes back to Hortensius as the cohort commander gave his orders.
'The cohort will form a line just below the crest of the hill, we'll advance over the crest and down the far slope towards the settlement. I'll give the order to halt a short distance from Noviomagus and then the Sixth Century will enter the settlement.' He turned towards Macro. 'Just give it a once-over and then make your report.'
'It'll be dark soon, lads. We haven't time to construct a marching camp so we'll have to repair the settlement's defences as best we can, and camp there for the night. Right then, let's get to it.'
The officers returned to their centuries and called their men to attention. Once the lines of men were formally dressed, Hortensius bellowed out the command to form line. The First Century faced right, then smoothly pivoted round to form a line two men deep. The following centuries followed suit and extended the line to the left. Macro's century was the last to move into position and he called a halt as soon as his right flank marker came abreast of the Fifth Century. The cohort was held still for a moment to steady the men, and then the order was given to advance. The double ranks rippled up the gentle slope and over the crest. Before them in the distance stretched the sea, grey and unsettled. Closer in was a large natural harbour, from which a wide channel led inland to where the settlement had stood. The surface of the channel was made choppy by a chilly breeze. There were no ships at anchor, and only a handful of small craft were drawn up on the shore. Every man was tense in anticipation of what the far side of the hill would reveal and as the ground started to slope down, the remains of Noviomagus came into sight.
The raiders had been as thorough in their destruction as time had allowed. Only the stark blackened lines of the surviving timber frames showed where the huts and houses of the settlement had stood. Around them lay the charred remnants of the walls and thatched roofs. Much of the surrounding palisade had been torn up and hurled into the ditch below. The lack of any smoke indicated that some days had passed since the Durotriges had razed the place to the ground. Nothing moved amongst the ruins, not even an animal. The silence was broken only by the raw cries of ravens nesting in a nearby copse. On either flank of the cohort the cavalry scouts fanned out, searching for any sign of the enemy.
The chinking of the legionaries' equipment seemed unnaturally loud to Cato as he marched down towards the settlement. While concentrating on keeping in step with the others, no mean feat with his lanky gait, his eyes swept over the land surrounding Noviomagus, searching for any sign that this might be a trap. In the failing light the cold winter landscape was filled with gloomy shadows and he tightened his grip on the handle of his shield.
'Halt!' Hortensius had to strain his voice to be clearly heard above the wind. The double line drew up, and stood still for a beat before the next order was called out. 'Down packs!'
The legionaries lowered the yokes to the ground and stepped forward five paces to stand well clear of their marching equipment. Now their right hands held only a javelin, and they were ready to fight.
'Sixth Century, advance!'
'Advance!' Macro relayed the order, and his men marched out of the line, approaching the settlement from an oblique angle. Cato felt his heart quicken as they neared the blackened ruins, and a flighty ripple of nervous energy flowed through his body as he prepared himself for any sudden encounter. Just beyond the ditch, Macro halted the century.
'You take the first five sections and enter through the main gate. I'll take the rest and enter from the seaward side. See you in the centre of the settlement.'
'Yes, sir,' Cato replied, and a sudden chill of fear caused him to add, 'Be careful, sir.'
Macro paused, and looked at him scornfully. 'I'll try not to twist my ankle, Optio. This place is as still as a grave. The only thing left moving in there will be the spirits of the dead. Now get moving.'
Cato saluted, and turned back towards the ranks of legionaries. 'First five sections! Follow me!'
Without a pause he strode up towards what was left of the main gate, his men hurrying to keep up. A rutted track led gently up to the huge timbers that formed the main gate and the fortified walkway that had once protected the entrance. But now the gates had gone, savagely cut from their rope hinges and smashed into pieces. Cato picked his way over the splintered fragments. On either side, the defensive ditches curved out round the low rampart and smashed palisade. The legionaries followed silently, eyes and ears straining for any sign of danger in the tense atmosphere that enveloped them.
On the other side of the ruined gateway the full extent of the Durotriges' destruction was evident. The place was littered with smashed pots, shredded clothing and the debris of all that had made up the worldly possessions of the people who had lived here. As the men fanned out on either side of him, Cato looked around and was surprised to see no sign of any bodies; not even the remains of animals. Apart from small eddies of ash disturbed by the breeze, nothing moved in the eerie silence.
'Spread out!' ordered Cato, turning back to his men. 'Search thoroughly. We're looking for any survivors. Report back to me once we reach the centre of the settlement!'
Weapons at the ready, the legionaries cautiously picked their way through the destroyed buildings, using the points of their javelins to test any mounds of debris. Cato watched their progress for a moment before slowly walking up the ash-strewn route that led from the gateway towards the heart of Noviomagus. The lack of bodies disturbed him. He had braced himself for the horrors he might see, and the absence of any sign of the people and beasts who had lived here was almost worse, for his imagination took over and filled him with a terrible foreboding. He cursed himself angrily. It was possible that the raiders had surprised the settlement, taken it without a fight, and carried off the people and their beasts as booty. It was the most likely answer, he assured himself.
'Optio!' A voice called out close by. 'Over here!'
Cato ran towards the voice. Near the remains of a stone animal pen the legionary was standing by a large pit, covered with a hide cover. He had drawn back one side and was pointing down with his javelin.
'There, sir. Have a look at this.'
Cato joined him and looked into the pit. It was ten feet or so across and as deep as a man. The earth along the edges was loose. In the gloom he saw a pile of dried haunches of meat, scores of grain baskets, some Greek silverware and a few small chests. It was clear that the pit had been dug recently, no doubt to store the spoils the raiders had selected. They had covered the pit with the tarpaulin to keep wild animals out. Cato slipped off his shield and lowered himself down by the chests. He flipped open the lid of the nearest one. Inside he found a selection of Celtic ornaments fashioned from silver and bronze. He picked up a mirror and flipped it over, admiring the fine workmanship of the spiralling patterns on the reverse. He placed it back in the chest and took in the assorted torcs, necklaces, cups and other vessels, all of the highest craftsmanship. Little of this would have been used by the inhabitants of Noviomagus. It would have been gained from trade with native tribes and stockpiled during the winter before it was shipped to Gaul where a high price could be fetched by agents of dealers in Rome. Now the Durotriges had seized and hidden it, no doubt intending to pick it up on their way back from raiding deep into the territory of the Atrebates.
Cato trembled as he realised the full implication. He slammed down the lid of the chest and scrambled out of the pit.
'Find the others, and get them to the centre of the village as fast as possible. I'm going on ahead to find the centurion. Get moving!'
Cato hurried through the brittle remains of the burned-out buildings where only the stoutest timbers and blackened stone walls still stood. He heard Macro calling out orders, and made for his centurion's voice. Emerging between the walls of two of the more substantial buildings arranged around the heart of Noviomagus, he caught sight of Macro, and a few of his men, standing beside what looked like a covered well, about ten feet across. A waist-high stone parapet encircled it and the whole was covered with a conical hide roof. Strangely, the roof had been left intact by the raiders, apparently the one thing they had not tried to destroy.
'Sir!' Cato called out as he ran towards them. Macro looked up from the well, a distracted expression on his face. Seeing Cato, he stiffened his posture and strode to meet him.
'Yes, sir!' Cato could not restrain his nervous excitement as he made his report. 'There's a pit filled with spoils near the main gate. They must be intending to come back this way. Sir, we might have a chance to spring a trap on them!'
Macro nodded solemnly, apparently unmoved by the prospect of ambushing the raiders. 'I see,' he said.
Cato's impulse to run on about his discovery was stilled by the peculiar deadness in the face of his superior.
'What's the matter, sir?'
Macro swallowed. 'Did you find any bodies?'
'Bodies? No, sir. None. It's a funny thing.'
'Yes.' Macro pursed his lips and jabbed a thumb towards the well. 'Then I guess they must all be in there.'