I am sorry that it has been some time since my last letter. Things continue to be difficult here, and it has got worse since the news of the Emperor’s death reached us, so that it has been hard to find the time to write a proper letter.
When your message about Rufus Claudius threatening to foreclose on the Aventine properties reached me, I sent instruction to good old Tullus Lepidus straight away, so I hope he has got that straightened out by now. If anyone else comes bothering you about the mortgages, please send them straight to Lepidus: I know he is a boring old stick, but he is much better at these financial matters than I have ever been! But then you know that.
I know you will want to know what I have been up to, and why I have not had a moment to write to you. As soon as the tribes heard the news of Trajan’s death, we had the Iceni out making trouble. They were the tribe who had that terribly fierce queen that gave the Ninth such a bloody nose back in the old days. They are nothing but a shadow of the menace that they were in those days, but all the same, we had to send several cohorts off South, to help the good old Second Augusta chase them back into their fens.
Then the Brigantes started to make trouble. If you are trying to remember which ones the Brigantes are, they are the tribe that live in the hills all around us here in Eburacum. I can just imagine you laughing if you could see their tattoos, their wild hair, their blue shields and their brightly coloured braccae. They look like that picture of barbarians that young Marcus painted when he was five, that you sent to me when I was in Judaea. But they are fierce enough.
They knew we were busy with the Iceni so they decided we would not mind if they massacred their neighbours, the Carvetii, who (so the Brigantes said) had stolen some of their cattle. Both tribes were most put out when the Ninth intervened to keep the peace, and then they both turned on us! So we had hot work for a while, until we convinced them to go about their business.
I know there is a feeling among the men that the Legate should have seen that coming and left them to get on with it. Of course the Legate knew perfectly well that the tribes would resent the interference, I told him so myself and so did the Senior Tribune - but he felt that we cannot have the peace of the frontier broken for no good reason, and I can see his point.
In short, I have been hurrying about, trying to spread not enough men across too many jobs to be done, as usual. As usual, too, I am beset with men who are lazy, or corrupt, or simply foolish, and cannot be trusted with the simplest tasks. Too many of them whisper about bad luck and curses instead of getting on with the job! If the raisins have gone mouldy or rats have got into the granary, that is nothing to do with the curse of some dead Iceni queen. It is simply bad husbandry.
I am still determined to pull this Legion into shape if it kills me, but I have to admit it is turning out to be a bigger job than I had hoped (now you can say ‘I told you so!). At least I am confident in the men of the First Cohort now. It is a start, at least.
Mouse, I am sorry - I was called away from writing this to hear the news that the Painted People of the far North have risen. The Legate has decided to take the whole Legion North tomorrow to deal with them. I will leave this to go with the next galloper going South, and write to you again when I return. Give my love to Marcus.
All my love
Marcus Flavius Aquila
Cunoval ap Cunomor looked back along the long tawny flank of the hillside. The golden sun was still slanting down on the dark broken stone and thin grasses of the hilltops, and here on the heights it was still warm. Down below though, half the valley was in deep blue shadow, and already the evening mist was rising from the river, and a thicker mist was curling down from the moors to the North. Thin lines of cloud strung across the Western sky were brightening to a brilliant dragon-red. Cunoval smiled at his armour-bearer, young Atto, and waved a hand at the dragon-clouds behind them, “ A good omen for our riding out!” he said, and Atto, who had been quiet and wide-eyed, found the courage to smile back.
Up on the ridge behind them, almost imperceptible against the light of the falling sun, something caught Cunoval’s eye. It could have been a hare, but Cunoval would bet the fine golden harness-fittings that decorated his new red mare that the shape ducking down behind the boulder was his youngest son, Esca. Esca had been strictly forbidden to follow the warriors, which meant, of course, that he had been sure to follow. But the lad would take no harm up there on the ridge. The danger lay down in the valley ahead, well out of reach. Cunoval turned to look at it.
The danger marched like a grey serpent, armoured and weaponed, straight along the riverside and on, mounting the heather slopes towards the high moors. At the head of it, Cunoval caught a flash as wings caught the evening light: the golden wings of the Eagle of the Legion.
The serpent looked strong. But Cunoval knew it was not as strong as it had been: it was an old serpent now, a serpent that had lived fifty years under the weight of a dying Queen’s curse. And now it was marching North, away from stone walls and fortresses, away from help. As he watched, it marched on, into the grey shadow of the hills. And the white mist came silently down from the empty moors, and folded around it.
Cunoval raised his own spear as a signal, and the polished spear-blade caught the sunlight and flashed as brightly as any Roman Eagle’s wings.
“On!” he cried, and kneed his agile little red mare into motion along the path that wound quietly along the valley side, half-hidden from the valley floor by hazel scrub. Behind him followed five hundred spearmen, on horse and on foot, each with a blue war-shield on his back.
“Slow down! Slow down! What’s all the rush?” old Tradui called out, grumbling. The warriors of the Seal People who were riding ahead of him had broken into a canter. Tradui’s pony followed eagerly, but his rider was not so enthusiastic.
One of the wild riders ahead turned and pointed.
“Battle ahead - listen!” he called back,and kneed his horse onward..
Tradui could hear nothing but the sound of hooves thudding into the soft earth. He squinted cautiously at the trail ahead. They were riding through an open woodland of birch and rowan, under yellow autumn leaves that were already beginning to fall, to cover the ground in a soft golden blanket. At the swifter pace the horses were taking now, a man must ride wary of low branches.
“I see nothing but trees!” he said, grumpily to old Gault, riding on his left - the younger warriors ahead were already too far away to speak to. “I have been to this place before, and it was not in the midst of a wood!”
But as he spoke, he caught the scent of a waft of cooking smoke, and then the trail ahead opened up. Between the pale tree trunks, he could see warriors squatting patiently on their heels, waiting, and horses being led about. Tradui could not see far through the trees, but it was clear they had reached the edges of a large force. The striped war-standard of the Badger People, whose hunting runs ran close to those of his own Seal People caught his eye, and further away, a gang of half-naked Painted People, bodies marked blue with ink, were cooking a piglet. The Painted People had clearly seen action already: several had fresh wounds, and the injured warriors had waded down into the clear waters of the shallow burn that ran bubbling among the tree roots, to wash away the blood and sweat.
In the distance they could hear a faint roar, like distant waves on a rocky shore, but here there was no sign of any enemy. Well, no enemy but the Painted People,at least - and they were not the enemy that Tradui was looking for today. Young Ciniod the Chief, with his shieldbearer beside him, had reined in his pony in confusion, so that now the warriors of the Seal People bunched together, looking around for the fight.
“This way!” said old Tradui, proudly, sending his pony pushing its way to the front. “This way! Am I not the wisest by far of all the men of this tribe? And I have fought the Red Crests here before. I know the way!” The sight of the little burn had caught in his mind’s eye : he had seen that burn before, long ago, though in those days it had glittered in the sunlight under the open sky.
Ciniod looked at him, a long look through the chieftain’s warpaint smeared bright between his long eyes, and Tradui knew a secret shameful old man’s fear, that perhaps he was wrong, perhaps the Chieftain would brush him aside, a foolish, confused old man whose time had passed.
But then the Chieftain nodded, and his hand came out to slap Tradui’s shoulder in stern approval. The Seal People fell back into a loose group behind him, and riding proudly ahead, in the favoured place by Ciniod the Chieftain’s right side, Tradui led the warriors up through the edges of the thin new woods. At last they could see the great flat mound of the Red Crests fortress looming ahead.
It had changed a great deal since Tradui had last seen it, when as a young man he had obeyed his first chieftain’s call and ridden out to the great battle, and then after the terrible defeat, had come with the others to bring unwilling and resented tribute. Then, the huge new walls had stood strong above the mighty bank and ditch, and the land all around had been bare of trees: wide pasture-lands over which the pick of the horses of the North, tribute on legs, had grazed. Along the river, great Roman supply ships filled with weapons and supplies from the distant South had tied up at the quay.
Now, the wooden fortress walls still stood, but as the Seal Clan moved closer, they could see that small trees and clumps of bramble had crept up the earth banks, which were crumbling into the wide ditch. It was a ghost of a fortress, for all that it still stood tall. Yet as they moved closer, the roar became louder. Tradui could hear the ring of sword on sword, and see movement along the walls, and men running and throwing spears outside. The old stronghold of the Red Crests was manned once again.
They dismounted then and left their ponies in the care of the shieldbearers, back in the shelter of the trees. There was no point in trying to attack such a fort on horseback, and in any case, the ponies were far too valuable to risk, unless at great need.
The wall loomed, taller than a man’s height against the heavy grey morning sky, and below the wall the great ditch was still wide and deep. Tall towers stood, improbably huge and straight, as if they had been reared by the hands of giants. The small bows that the Seal People carried could not hope to reach the men high above in their mailshirts, so the little force of Seal warriors moved on along the wall, looking for an easier way in. They skirted past jeering mobs of Painted People, pelting the walls with abuse and rocks, past a group of muscular, bare-armed women, skirling shrilly at the Romans to come out and discover how the women of the Selgovae made war.
A group of Votadini, who stood out from the rest because of the red hair of their tribe, had found a place where a straggling clump of hazel shrub had clung to the bank almost to the top, offering footing to the brave or reckless. A great bear of a Votadini man flung himself up the bank, and his supporters followed, with some of the young Seal Warriors running with them.
Tradui did not follow. Such things were the folly of youth: the wily warrior held back until he was sure of his spear thrust. He stood back on the far side of the trench with good old Gault, who also had far too much good sense for such a fight, and shouted encouragement, until the big Votadini took an arrow in the eye, and the rest of the attacking warriors got tired of the rain of stones and spears from above, and fled back to the far side of the trench.
Further along the Western wall, a more serious assault was underway. A strong force of Brigantes, holding their heavy blue warshields overhead to protect them from missiles from above, were trying to force the gates. The gates were still tall and strong - made of heavy oak, untouched by thirty years unused - but still they were a weak point in the massive bank and wall. Yet to Tradui’s experienced eye, the defenders did not appreciate their strength. They mostly held back, hiding well away from the walls and gate, when they should have struck back with a heavy hand at their enemies below.
“They are soft, these Red Crests,” he observed to Gault, who was leaning on a spear at a safe distance from the edge of the ditch, as they watched the Brigantes give up on the hinges, and try to fire the gate, while arrows hailed down on them from the walls. “Not like the Red Crests of my youth. They were enemies worthy of a man’s spear!” Tradui shook his own spear at the fort, in illustration.
“They are cursed,” said Gault, with considerable satisfaction, scratching his lean belly. “I heard it from a man from the South: all this Legion is under a curse. No wonder they have no fire in their bellies. They crumble like bad flint... They will leave weak sons, or none at all... Ha! A good shot!” he exclaimed suddenly, for one of the Seal People had got in a lucky blow with a throwing-spear at long range, and had managed to topple a Red Crest soldier back over the wall into the fort.
“They are like snails, hiding in a shell - soft inside,” Tradui agreed. “But the shell is hard to crush. Am I not the wisest by far of all my tribe? And I say to you that these Red Crests can hold a strong place for many moons - maybe even these, that are soft as snails. Have I not seen it before, long ago? They hold on like limpets on the rocks when the waves come - and who can hold the war trail when winter comes? So it was they bested us before. ”
"So then, O wise old man - we had best pick these limpets out of their shells swiftly!" said Ciniod the Chief, "Come with me now, and we will try this gate!"
“Sir! The water has run out...”
Aquila turned to the trooper - Bericus his name was, it came back to Aquila’s mind after a moment of blankness. Bericus’ earnest face was smudged along one cheek with dirt and blood and he looked at Aquila hopefully, as if he expected the Commander of the First Cohort to keep a spare well in his pocket. Aqila looked away, and carefully wiped the blood from his sword, to give himself a moment to think.
“Have you reported this to Centurion Didius?” he asked. Didius was the Centurion in charge of Bericus’s century.
Bericus’s face was blank, and he licked his lips, awkwardly, “Can’t find Centurion Didius,” he said, with reluctance.
Aquila knew what that meant. Over a thousand men had been lost to the Legion on the way North, and most of them had not been killed. They had disappeared, here and there into the mist. You stumbled on their gear, discarded in the heather or left beside a tree, and there was no more sign of them. Didius had been born in Britain, his mother was Brigantes. When it came to the test, his loyalty to Rome had not been strong enough.
They were standing by the old Praetorian gate, next to what had once been the personal quarters of the great general Agricola. Outside the gate, all the tribes of Northern Britannia that Agricola had once brought to defeat were howling like wolves for Roman blood. Aquila wondered if Didius was out there howling with them.
In officer’s training, he remembered, they told you that when the commander has to draw his own sword, he has failed. But this Legion had more than enough unblooded commanders and tribunes. What it lacked was fighting men and the will to fight - and so there Marcus Flavius Aquila stood by the gate, wiping the blood off his sword, and wondering if there was anything he could have done - anything at all - that could have persuaded the Legate against forcing his fragile and troubled Legion into this insane march into the heart of enemy territory.
And now there was no more water. Surely this must be the end. They could not hold the fort: the Legate would have to see that now: retreat was the only option.
“Very well,” he said to Bericus, and he turned to Centurion Guern, who was nominally in command of the gate. “Carry on then Centurion,” he said, trying to sound confident and encouraging. “I think you may get a break for a little while now. It looks as though they are drawing off a little. Get the men started gathering up the dead and roll the bodies over the wall into the river. If we are short of clean water, we can at least make sure that they are too.”
“Yes sir!” said Guern, and he too, like Bericus, looked at Aquila with those hopeful eyes, as if he thought that Aquila somehow had the answer to the whole nightmarish situation. It was almost too much to bear.
Mist was rising from the still, dark river, was creeping outwards across the level ground. The fort still stood above the soft white of the mist, but the sounds from outside seemed a little muffled now, and most of the shouting had stopped. The grey skies and the river-mists came together and blurred, with only the heavy turf walls of the fort standing clear-edged and dark against a world of fog. A little way away among the trees, red fires were blooming into life.
They had survived the first attack, but had done little hurt to the enemy. And now the only way out was back, across the trackless miles, with the tribes at their heels all the way. But there was still a chance - only a small chance, but a chance - that if what was left of the Legion could hold together, they might still limp home.