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Chapter Five

A hard frost covered the ground as the Second Legion marched out of the gates of the sprawling camp. The sea of churned mud that had formed beyond the turf ramparts during the wet months of early winter had frozen as hard as rock, and was now covered with a thick blanket of snow that had compacted into ice under the feet of the legionaries. The stumps of felled trees glinted under their sparkling coat of frost, and lined the route leading from the camp towards the west and the distant Tamesis. Above the sharply defined horizon at the legion's back, the sun shone in a sky of intense blue that only the clearest winter day can produce.

So cold was the air that a deep breath caused some of the men to cough as they stepped out with their full loads of equipment. Snow crunched and ice cracked under their nailed boots. The less footsure at the rear of the column slithered and struggled to retain their balance as they followed the dense mass of the legion. Far to the front, cavalry scouts fanned out and trotted across the rolling white landscape, kicking up small showers of glistening snow in their wake. The horses, invigorated by the sharp air and the prospect of exercise, champed at their bits and were frisky. Little clouds of steamy breath rippled into nothingness up and down the columns of men and beasts as they followed the sharply defined shadows slanting across the snow ahead of them.

For Cato, there was an inexpressible joy at being alive at such a moment. After the long months immured in the vast camp with the other legions, with only short patrols, mindless drill and weapons training to dispel the boredom of the daily routine, today's march was a liberation. His eyes swept the landscape, drinking in the stark beauty of the British countryside in late winter. With his cloak wrapped tightly round him, and woven mittens on his hands, the steady pace of the march soon warmed him. Even his feet, which had ached bitterly while the legion assembled at first light, felt comfortable after the first mile on the track. The light-heartedness of his mood was only slightly tempered by the sullen expression on the face of his centurion marching beside him at the head of the Sixth Century of the Fourth Cohort. Macro was already missing the drinking houses and fleshpots of Camulodunum.

The feeling was mutual. At a stroke, nearly a quarter of the customers who had patronised those establishments were now gone. The entrepreneurs who had flooded into the town from the ports of Gaul would soon drift back to the continent once the rest of the army began its preparations to renew the war against Caratacus and his allies. Macro's depression was not wholly caused by the denial of the pleasures offered by purveyors of drink and women. He had not parted from Boudica on very good terms.

After the night when Boudica and Nessa had evaded Prasutagus, her relatives had been determined to restrict any further encounters with Roman soldiers. Only once had Boudica and Macro been able to meet again, and then only very briefly. A quick clinch in the back of a stable while curious ponies and cattle gazed on, munching their winter feed. Macro had attempted to make the most of it – too much so, for the taste of the Iceni maiden. When she sensed his fingers being rather more intimate than she would have preferred, Boudica wriggled from his passionate embrace, leaned back on the straw and slapped him.

'What the fuck was that for?' asked a startled Macro.

'What kind of a girl do you think I am?' she spat back. 'I'm not some cheap tart!'

'Never said you were. Just making the most of the situation. Thought you were up for it.'

'Up for it? What kind of invitation is that?'

Macro shrugged. 'Best I can manage.'

'I see.' Boudica glared at him for a moment, and Macro shifted away from her, sulking and moody. Boudica relented, reached over and stroked his cheek. 'I'm sorry, Macro. I just don't fancy it with all these animals looking on. Bit too public for my taste. It's not that I don't want to, but I'd envisaged something a little more romantic'

'What's so bloody unromantic about a barn?' grumbled Macro.

And that was where things cooled off rather suddenly. Without another word, Boudica quickly rearranged her tunic and cloak, tucking her breasts back out of sight. With a last angry look at Macro, she rose to her feet and stormed out of the barn. He had been furious to be left in such a manner, and refused, on principle, to run after her. Now he regretted it bitterly. Before Camulodunum dipped out of sight, as the track passed down the far side of a low ridge, Macro glanced back ruefully. She was there, somewhere amongst the snow-covered thatch roofs that lay under the long, low smudge of woodsmoke. He had developed such deep feelings for the feisty native woman that his blood burned with desire at the merest recollection of her physical closeness. He cursed himself for being a romantic fool, and shifted his gaze away from the town and across the glinting helmets of his century, coming to rest on his optio.

'What are you bloody grinning at?'

'Grinning, sir? Not me, sir.'

The ranks of the Second Legion were rife with speculation about their mission. Some men even wondered if the legion was being withdrawn from the island now that Caratacus had been soundly beaten. The more experienced legionaries grunted their contempt at such rumours; the small-scale raids with which the Britons had been plaguing the Roman forces since autumn proved that the natives were not yet defeated. The veterans well knew the nature of the campaign that lay ahead: a vicious and exhausting period of advance and consolidation in the face of a wily foe who knew the lie of the land intimately and who would only emerge from cover to fight when the advantage was fully theirs. The threat of attack would never leave them. As likely as not, those legionaries doomed to die in the campaign would never hear the arrow that killed them, never see the spear thrown, or the dagger thrust from behind as they patrolled their picket lines. The enemy would be no more than shadows skirting round the ponderous legions, rarely seen, but with a presence that was always felt. This kind of warfare was far more difficult than a hard march and a desperate battle. It required a tenacity that only the legions could provide. The prospect of several years of campaigning across the misty wilderness of Britain soured the minds of the veterans as the Second Legion marched towards its new base of operations.

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?'

'Useful, sir?'

'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.'

Chapter Four | When the Eagle Hunts | Chapter Six