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.
'You'd better tell him, Albinus. After all, you were there. You saw it.'
Vespasian switched his attention to the centurion, a scarred and weathered man well on in his career. Albinus was thin, but the muscle in his forearms was clearly defined. He had the look of a man who would not shock easily, and spoke with the brisk tonelessness of a hardened professional.
'After word of the first raids reached Calleva, the king here sent me and one century down to investigate, sir.'
'Only one century?' Vespasian was horrified. 'Hardly the kind of caution the army encourages, Centurion.'
'No, sir,' replied Albinus with a slight tilt of this head towards Verica who was busy taking another deep gulp of the legate's Falernian. 'But I thought it would be best if the rest of the cohort remained to look after the king's interests.'
'Well yes, quite. Carry on.'
'Yes, sir. Two day's march from Calleva we found the remains of a village. I scouted thoroughly before we approached. It was like King Verica says, not a thing left alive, not a single building left standing. Only, we didn't find more than a handful of bodies, all men, sir.'
'Must have taken the others prisoner.'
'That's what I thought, sir. There was some snow on the ground, and we could follow their tracks easily enough.' Albinus paused to look directly at the legate. 'I had no intention of trying anything stupid, sir. Just wanted to see where they'd come from, then report back.'
'So we followed the tracks for another day, until just before dusk we caught sight of some smoke rising above a small ridge. I thought it might be another village being sacked. We crept up the slope, quiet like, and then I ordered the men to stay back while I went on alone. At first I could hear women and children screaming, then the fire itself – not far over the crest of the ridge. It was well into dusk when I had crept far enough forward to see what was going on.' He paused, not quite sure how to continue under the scrutiny of his superior, and quickly glanced at Verica, who had stopped drinking and eyed the centurion with a fearful expression, even though he had heard the tale before.
'Well, spit it out, man!' ordered Vespasian, in no mood for any dramatics.
'Yes, sir. The Druids had built themselves a huge wicker man, made from twisted withies and branches. It was hollow, and they'd packed it with all the women and children. It was well ablaze by the time I could see what was going on. Some of them who were inside were still screaming. Not for much longer though…' He pursed his lips, and his gaze dropped for a moment. 'The Druids watched for a while longer, then mounted up and rode off, into the night. Like shadows, in black robes they were. So, I rejoined my men and we marched straight back to Calleva to report.'
'These Druids. In black, you say?'
'Any other distinctive features, or insignia?'
'It was getting dark, sir.'
'But there was a fire.'
'I know, sir. I was watching it…'
'All right.' Vespasian could understand that, but it was disappointing that a veteran centurion could lose his attention to the important details so readily. He turned to Verica. 'I've read about the Druids' human sacrifices, but there must be more to this. A warning of the fate waiting for those who side with Rome, perhaps?'
'Perhaps.' Verica nodded. 'Nearly every one of the Druid cults has gone over to Caratacus. And now, it seems, even the Lodge of the Dark Moon.'
'The Dark Moon?' Vespasian frowned for an instant, before the memory of the prisoner compound outside Camulodunum resolved into a vivid image in his mind. 'These Druids bear a dark crescent on their foreheads, don't they? A kind of tattoo. A black moon.'
'You know of them?' Verica's eyebrows rose.
'I've met some.' Vespasian smiled. 'Guests of General Plautius. We took them prisoner after Caratacus was defeated outside Camulodunum. Now I think of it, they were the only Druids we took prisoner. The others were all dead, mostly by their own hand.'
'I'm not surprised. You Romans are not renowned for your tolerance of Druids.'
'Depends on who is Emperor at the time,' Vespasian responded irritably. 'But if Druids prefer death to capture, why did the Dark Moon allow themselves to be taken?'
"They believe they are the chosen ones. They are not allowed to take their own lives. They're the servants of Cruach – the night-bringer. In time, so the legend goes, he will rise and smite the day into a thousand pieces and will rule a world of night and shadow forever.'
'Sounds nasty.' Vespasian smiled. 'Can't say I care to meet this Cruach.'
'His servants are terrible enough, as Albinus has discovered.'
'Indeed. I wonder why the tribes of this island tolerate them.'
'Fear,' Verica admitted readily. 'If Cruach ever comes, the suffering of those who worship him will be as nothing to the eternal torments of those who have abused his servants and made light of his name.'
'I see. And where do you stand on this, sire?'
'I believe what it is important for my people to think I believe. So I offer prayers to Cruach, along with the other gods, as often as I need to. But his priests, these Druids, are a different matter. As long as they raid my villages and slaughter my people I can portray them as extremists. Perverted fanatics worshipping the most terrible of our gods. I doubt if many of the Atrebates, or any other tribe, would shed any tears over the ruthless suppression of this particular lodge of Druids.' He looked away from Vespasian, into the heart of the glowing fire. 'I hope Rome will see to it as soon as possible.'
'I have no specific orders concerning Druids,' countered Vespasian. 'But the general has made it clear that he wants your lands to be secured before the spring campaign begins. If that means dealing with these Dark Moon Druids, then our interests coincide.'
'Good.' Verica eased himself to his feet, and the Romans politely rose from their seats. 'Now, I'm tired, and I'm returning to Calleva with my men. I expect you'll want a word with the centurion.'
'Yes, sire. If that's no trouble.'
'None. I'll see you later then, Albinus.'
'Yes, sire.' The centurion saluted as Vespasian led his guest out of the tent, responding to the British king's leave-taking with as much display of respectful formality as possible. Then Vespasian returned, casting a resentful eye into the empty jug resting on the table, before waving the centurion back into his chair.
'I take it that Verica is finding the resumption of his rule something of a challenge.'
'I suppose so, sir. We've not had too many problems with the Atrebates themselves. They seem more sullen than rebellious. The Catuvellauni were pretty hard masters. The change in rule might not have improved matters much, but it hasn't made things worse.'
'Wait until they meet some Roman land agents,' muttered Vespasian.
'Well, yes, sir.' The centurion shrugged; the depredations of the civil bureaucracy following in the wake of the legions was not his concern. 'Anyway, Calleva, and the immediate area are pacified. I keep two centuries out on local patrols all the time. A third is doing a wider sweep through the villages that border on the Durotriges.'
'Have any patrols encountered the Druids?'
The centurion shook his head. 'Apart from that time I saw them, we've never come into contact, sir. All we've found is the remains of the villages and the bodies. They're mounted, of course, and that means they have us at an immediate disadvantage since pursuit is out of the question.'
'Then I'll lend you half my mounted force while we're stationed near Calleva. I need the rest for my own scouting.'
Sixty of the legion's cavalry scouts were not going to make much of an impact on the Druids' raids, but it was better than nothing and Albinus nodded his thanks.
'How's the training of the locals coming on?'
A flicker of despair showed in the centurion's expression as the mask of stolid professionalism momentarily slipped.
'I wouldn't say it's hopeless, sir. But I wouldn't say I'm very hopeful either.'
'They're tough enough,' Albinus said grudgingly. 'Tougher than many of the men who serve with the eagles. But the moment you try and make them drill in a formal and disciplined way, it's an utter fucking shambles. Pardon my Gallic, sir. They can't co-ordinate; it's every man for himself in a mad charge at the enemy. About the only thing they will do is individual weapons practice. Even then they use the swords we've equipped them with like bloody meat cleavers. Keep telling 'em that six inches of point is worth any amount of edge, but I'm not getting through. They just won't be trained, sir.'
'Won't be?' Vespasian raised his eyebrows. 'Surely a man of your experience can make them train? You've dealt with difficult cases before.'
'Difficult cases, sir. But not difficult races.'
Vespasian nodded. All the Celts he had met shared the same arrogant belief in their culture's innate superiority, and affected a profound contempt for what they considered the unmanly refinements of Roman and Greek civilisations. These Britons were the worst of the lot. Too stupid by half, Vespasian concluded.
'Do what you can, Centurion. If they won't learn from their betters they'll never be a threat to us.'
'Yes, sir.' Albinus's gaze dropped despondently.
The muffled blaring of a signal trumpet sounded beyond the tent. Moments later they could hear orders being shouted. The centurion glanced towards the legate but Vespasian refused to be seen as a man who would be ruffled by any stray distraction. He leaned back in his chair to address the centurion.
'Very well, Centurion. I'll send a report back to the general to let him know about your situation, and these Druid raids. In the meantime, you're to carry on with the training, and keep the patrols going. We might not keep the Druids out but at least they'll know we're looking for them. The scouts should make that job easier. Anything else to tell me?'
The centurion picked up his helmet, saluted and marched smartly out of the tent.
Vespasian was aware that the shouting had increased, and the chinking of weapons and armour indicated that a large body of men was on the move. It was difficult to resist the impulse to rush from the tent to discover what was happening, but he would be damned if he allowed himself to behave like some excitable junior tribune on his first day in the army. He forced himself to pick up a scroll and start reading the latest strength reports. Footsteps sounded on the floorboards immediately outside the tent.
'Is the legate there?' someone shouted to the sentries guarding the entrance flap to Vespasian's tent. 'Then let me pass.'
The folds of leather parted and Plinius, the senior tribune, pushed through, panting for breath. He swallowed anxiously. 'Sir! You have to see this.'
Vespasian looked up from the lines of figures on the scroll. 'Calm yourself, Tribune. This is no way for a senior officer to act.'
'You don't go belting about the camp unless there is the gravest of emergencies.'
'And are we in grave danger, Tribune?'
'Then keep a cool head and set a good example for the rest of the legion.'
'Yes, sir. I'm sorry, sir.'
'All right then. What have you come to report that is so urgent?'
'There are some men approaching the camp, sir.'
'Two men, sir. And a few more are holding back at the treeline.'
'Two men? So what's all the fuss about?'
'One of them's a Roman…'
Vespasian waited patiently for a moment. 'And the other?'
'I don't know, sir. I've never seen anything like it before.'