‘I don’t think I fancy the odds on the tall one,’ muttered Centurion Macro.
‘Why’s that, sir?’
‘Look at him, Cato! The man’s all skin and bones. Won’t last long against the opposition.’ Macro nodded to the other side of the makeshift arena where a short, thickset prisoner was being armed with a buckler and short sword. The man took the unfamiliar weapons reluctantly and eyed up his opponent. Cato looked over to the tall, thin Briton, naked except for a small leather loin guard. One of the legionaries assigned to arena duties thrust a long trident into his hands. The Briton hefted the trident experimentally and adjusted his grip for the best balance. He seemed to be a man who knew his weapons and moved with a certain amount of poise.
‘I’ll bet on the tall one,’ Cato decided.
Macro swung round. ‘You mad? Look at him.’
‘I have looked, sir. And I’ll back my judgement with money.’
‘Your judgement?’ The centurion’s eyebrows rose. Cato had only joined the legion the winter before, a fresh-faced youth from the imperial household in Rome. A legionary for less than a year and already throwing his judgements about like a veteran.
‘Have it your own way then.’ Macro shook his head and settled down to wait for the fight to begin. It was the last bout of the day’s games laid on by the legate, Vespasian, in a small dell in the middle of the Second Legion’s marching camp. Tomorrow the four legions and their support troops would be on the march again, driven on by General Plautius in his determination to seize Camulodunum before autumn closed in. If the enemy capital fell, the coalition of British tribes, led by Caratacus of the Catuvellauni, would be shattered. The forty thousand men under Plautius were all that Emperor Claudius could spare for the audacious invasion of the misty isles off the coast of Gaul. Every man in the army was aware that they were greatly outnumbered by the Britons. But as yet the enemy were dispersed. If the Romans could only strike quickly at the heart of British resistance before the imbalance in numbers weighed against the legions, victory would be within their grasp. The desire to push forward was in all their hearts, although the tired legionaries were grateful for this day’s rest and the entertainment provided by the fights.
Twenty Britons had been paired against each other, armed with a variety of weapons. To make things more interesting the pairs had been picked by lot out of a legionary helmet and a handful of the bouts had been entertainingly unbalanced. Like this last one appeared to be.
The legion’s eagle-bearer was acting as master of ceremonies and strode out to the centre of the arena, arms waving for silence. The eagle-bearer’s assistants rushed to take final bets and Cato sat back down beside his centurion, having got odds of five to one. Not good, but he had staked a month’s pay and if the man won, Cato would make a tidy sum. Macro had bet on the muscle-bound opponent with sword and buckler. Much less money, at much tighter odds, reflecting the assessment of the fighters.
‘Quiet! Quiet there!’ the eagle-bearer bellowed. Despite the holiday atmosphere, the automatic grip of discipline exerted itself over the gathered legionaries. Within moments over two thousand shouting, gesticulating soldiers stilled their tongues, and sat waiting for the bout to begin.
‘Last fight, then! On my right I give you a swordsman, well-built, and a skilled warrior, or so he claims.’
The crowd howled with derision. If the Briton was so bloody good, why the hell was he here fighting for his life as their prisoner? The swordsman sneered at the audience, and suddenly raised his arms, screaming out a defiant war cry. The legionaries jeered back. The eagle-bearer allowed the shouting to continue a moment, before calling for silence again. ‘On my left we have a trident. Says he’s a squire to some chief or other. A weapon-carrier by trade, not a user. So this should be nice and quick. Now then, you lazy bastards, remember that normal duties begin right after the noon signal.’
The crowd groaned rather too much to be convincing and the eagle-bearer smiled good-naturedly. ‘Right then, fighters – to your marks!’
The eagle-bearer backed away from the centre of the arena, a grassy sward, smeared with glistening patches of crimson where previous fighters had fallen. The contestants were led up behind two divots scored in the turf and made to face each other. The swordsman raised his short sword and buckler, and lowered himself into a tense crouch. By contrast the trident held his weapon vertically and almost seemed to be leaning on it, thin face completely expressionless. A legionary gave him a kick and indicated that he should prepare himself. The trident merely rubbed his shin instead, wincing painfully.
‘Hope you didn’t bet much on that one,’ Macro commented.
Cato didn’t reply. What the hell was the trident up to? Where was the poise of a moment ago? The man looked unconcerned, almost as if the whole morning had been a boring drill instead of a series of fights to the death. He had better be acting.
‘Begin!’ the eagle-bearer shouted.
At the word the swordsman howled, and hurtled forward at his opponent fifteen paces away. The trident lowered the shaft of his weapon and jabbed the wicked points towards the throat of the shorter man. The war cry died away as the latter ducked, knocking the trident to one side and thrusting for a quick kill. But the response was neatly worked. Rather than trying to recover the point of the trident, the tall Briton merely allowed the butt to swing round and smash into the side of the swordsman’s head. His opponent dropped to the ground, momentarily stunned. The trident quickly reversed the weapon and moved in for the kill.
‘Get up, you dozy bastard!’ Macro shouted, hands cupped.
The trident lanced down at the figure on the ground, but a frantic sword swipe knocked the points aside from his neck. The trident still drew blood, but only from a shallow slash on the shoulder. Those in the audience who had taken the long odds groaned in dismay as the swordsman rolled to one side and got back onto his feet. He was panting, eyes wide, all arrogance gone now that he had been so neatly tricked. His tall opponent ripped the trident free of the soil and went into a crouch, a fierce expression twisting his face. There would be no more pretending from now on, just a trial of strength and skill.
‘Get on with it!’ Macro shouted. ‘Stick the bastard in the guts!’
Cato sat silently, too self-conscious to join in with the shouting, but urgently willing his man on, fists clenched by his sides – despite his aversion to such fights.
The swordsman quickly side-stepped, testing the other man’s reactions to see if the earlier move had been a fluke. But an instant later the tips of the trident were back in line with his throat. The crowd cheered appreciatively. This had the makings of a good fight after all.
The trident suddenly feinted, matched by his opponent’s well-balanced backward hop, and the crowd cheered again.
‘Good move!’ Macro thumped one fist into the palm of the other. ‘If we’d faced more like this it’d be us fighting out there. These two are good, very good.’
‘Yes, sir,’ Cato replied tensely, eyes fixed on the pair now circling each other over bloodstained grass. The sun blazed down on the spectacle. The birds singing in the oak trees surrounding the dell seemed quite out of place. For a moment Cato felt disturbed by the comparison between the fight-crazed soldiers hoarsely cheering men on to their deaths, and the placid harmony of wider nature. He had always disapproved of gladiatorial spectacles when he had lived in Rome, but that distaste was impossible to voice in the company of soldiers who lived by a code of blood, battle and discipline.
There was a metallic ring, and a frenzied exchange of clattering blows. With no advantage gained, the two resumed their circling motion. A swelling mood of frustration became evident in the cries of the watching legionaries and the eagle-bearer signalled the heated iron holders to move in behind the fighters, black rods tipped with red, glowing ends that wavered through the air. Over the shoulder of the swordsman, the trident caught sight of the approaching danger and threw himself into a furious attack, slashing at the shorter man’s sword, trying to knock the blade from his grasp. The swordsman parried for his life, using both sword and buckler as he was forced back towards the side of the arena, straight into the path of the heated irons.
‘Come on!’ shouted Cato, waving his fist, caught up in the excitement. ‘You’ve got him!’
A piercing shriek split the air as the heated iron came into contact with the swordsman’s back and he instinctively recoiled, straight onto the barbed tips of the trident. He howled as one prong entered his thigh, high up near the hip, and tore free with a thick gout of blood which flowed down his leg and dripped onto the grass. The swordsman swiftly side-stepped away from the heated iron and tried to get some distance between himself and the wicked tips of the trident. Those who had bet on him shouted their support, willing him to close the distance and stick it to the trident while he still could.
Cato saw that the trident was grinning, aware that time was on his side. He just had to keep his opponent at a distance long enough for the loss of blood to weaken him. Then close in for the kill. But the crowd was in no mood for a waiting game and jeered angrily as the trident backed away from his bleeding foe. Up came the heated irons again. This time the swordsman sought the advantage, knowing that his time for effective action was short. He rushed at the trident, raining blows on the tip of his weapon, forcing the tall Briton back. But the trident was not going to fall for the same trick. He slid his grip down the shaft and suddenly swung it at the legs of the swordsman, then ran round to the side, away from the irons. The shorter man jumped awkwardly and landed off balance.
A series of thrusts and parries clattered out and then Cato noticed that the swordsman was swaying, his steps becoming more and more uncertain as his lifeblood ebbed from his body. Another attack from the trident was beaten off, but only just. Then the swordsman’s strength appeared to give out and he slowly sank down onto his knees, sword wavering in his hand.
Macro jumped to his feet. ‘Get up! Get up before he guts you!’
The rest of the crowd rose, sensing that the end of the fight was near, most of them desperately urging the swordsman to stand up.
The trident thrust forward, catching the sword between the prongs. A quick twist and the blade spun from the swordsman’s grip and landed several feet away. Knowing all was lost the swordsman slumped onto his back, waiting for a quick end. The trident shouted his victory cry, and shifted his grip forward as he advanced to stand over his opponent and deal the final blow. Legs astride the heavily bleeding swordsman, he raised his trident high. The swordsman’s buckler suddenly swung up with savage desperation and slammed into the taller man’s groin. With a deep groan the trident doubled up. The crowd cheered. A second blow from the buckler smashed into the man’s face and he went down on the grass, weapon slipping from his grip as he clutched at his nose and eyes. Two more blows to the head from the buckler and the trident was finished.
‘Marvellous stuff!’ Macro jumped up and down. ‘Bloody marvellous!’
Cato shook his head bitterly, and cursed the trident’s cockiness. It never paid to assume your foe was beaten simply because he appeared that way. Hadn’t the trident tried that very trick earlier in the fight?
The swordsman rose to his feet, far more easily than a critically wounded man could, and quickly retrieved his sword. The end was merciful, the trident was sent to his gods with a sharp thrust under the ribcage into his heart.
Then, as Cato, Macro and the crowd watched, a very strange thing happened. Before the eagle-bearer and his assistant could disarm the swordsman, the Briton raised his arms and shouted out a challenge. In crudely accented Latin he screamed out, ‘Romans! Romans! See!’
The sword swept down, the grip was quickly reversed and with both hands the Briton thrust it into his chest. He swayed a moment, head lolling back, and then collapsed onto the grass beside the body of the trident. The crowd was hushed.
‘What the fuck did he do that for?’ Macro muttered.
‘Maybe he knew his wounds were fatal.’
‘He might have survived,’ Macro replied grudgingly. ‘You never know.’
‘Survived, only to become a slave. Perhaps he didn’t want that, sir.’
‘Then he was a fool.’
The eagle-bearer, concerned about the uncertain change in the audience’s mood, hurried forward, arms raised. ‘Right then, lads, that’s your lot. Fight’s over. I declare the swordsman the winner. Pay up the winning bets, and then back to your duties.’
‘Wait!’ a voice cried out. ‘It’s a draw! They’re both dead.’
‘The swordsman won,’ the eagle-bearer shouted back.
‘He was finished. The trident would have bled him to death.’
‘Would have,’ agreed the eagle-bearer, ‘if he hadn’t screwed it up at the end. My decision’s final. The swordsman won, and everyone’s to pay their debts. Or they’ll have me to deal with. Now, back to your duties!’
The audience broke up, quietly streaming through the oak trees towards the tent lines while the eagle-bearer’s assistants heaved the bodies onto the back of a wagon, to join the losers of the earlier bouts. While Cato waited, his centurion hurried off to collect his winnings from his cohort’s standard-bearer, surrounded by a small mob of legionaries clutching their numbered chits. Macro returned a short while later, happily weighing up the coins in his purse.
‘Not the most lucrative bet I’ve ever made but nice to win all the same.’
‘I suppose so, sir.’
‘Why the long face? Oh, of course. Your money went on that cocky twat with the trident. How much did you lose?’
Cato told him, and Macro whistled.
‘Well, young Cato, you’ve still got a lot to learn about fighting men, it seems.’
‘Never mind, lad. It’ll come in time.’ Macro clapped him on the shoulder. ‘Let’s see if anyone’s got any decent wine to sell. After that we’ve got work to do.’
As he watched his men leave the dell from the dappled shadows of a large oak tree, the commander of the Second Legion silently cursed the swordsman. The men badly needed something to take their minds off the coming campaign, and the spectacle of British prisoners taking it out on each other should have been entertaining. Indeed, it had been entertaining, until the end of the last fight. The men had been in high spirits. Then that damn Briton had picked his moment for that pointless gesture of defiance. Or not so pointless, reflected the legate grimly. Maybe the Briton’s sacrifice had been deliberately aimed at undermining the morale-boosting diversion.
Hands clenched behind his back, Vespasian slowly walked out of the shadows into the sunlight. Certainly these Britons did not lack spirit. Like most warrior cultures, they clung to an honour code which ensured that they embraced warfare with a reckless arrogance and a terrible ferocity. More worrying was the fact that the loose coalition of British tribes was being led by a man who knew how to use his forces well. Vespasian felt a grudging respect for the Britons’ leader, Caratacus, chief of the Catuvellauni. That man had more tricks up his sleeve yet, and the Roman army of General Aulus Plautius had better treat the enemy with more respect than had been the case so far. The death of the swordsman illustrated all too well the merciless nature of this campaign.
Pushing thoughts of the future aside for the moment, Vespasian made his way over to the hospital tent. There was an unfortunate matter he could put off no longer. The chief centurion of the Second Legion had been mortally wounded in a recent ambush, and had wanted to speak to him before he died. Bestia had been a model soldier, earning men’s praise, admiration and fear throughout his military career. He had fought in many wars across the empire, and had the scars on his body to prove it. And now he had fallen to a British sword in a minor skirmish that no historian would ever record. Such was army life, Vespasian reflected bitterly. How many more unsung heroes were out there waiting to be snuffed out while vain politicians and imperial lackeys grabbed the credit?
Vespasian thought of his brother, Sabinus, who had raced up from Rome to serve on General Plautius’ staff while there was still some glory to be won. Sabinus, like most of his political peers, saw the army only in terms of the next rung on their career ladder. The cynicism of high politics filled Vespasian with a cold fury. It was more than likely that Emperor Claudius was using the invasion to strengthen his hold on the throne. Should the legions succeed in subduing Britain, there would be plenty of spoils and sinecures to oil the wheels of state. Some men would make fortunes, while others would be granted high office, and money would flow into the thirsty imperial coffers. The glory of Rome would be reaffirmed and its citizens be given further proof that the gods blessed Rome’s destiny, yet there were men to whom such great achievements meant little, for they viewed events only in terms of the opportunities they presented for personal advancement.
This savage island, with its restless, feuding warrior tribes, might one day be afforded all the benefits of order and prosperity conferred by Roman rule. Such an extension of civilisation was a cause worth fighting for, and it was in pursuit of this vision that Vespasian served Rome, and tolerated those Rome placed over him – for now at least. Before that, the present campaign must be won. Two major rivers must be crossed, in the teeth of fierce resistance by the natives. Beyond the rivers lay the capital of the Catuvellauni – the most powerful of the British tribes opposing Rome. Thanks to their ruthless expansion in recent years, the Catuvellauni had swallowed up the Trinovantes and their prosperous trading city of Camulodunum. Now many of the other tribes viewed Caratacus with almost as much dread as they viewed the Romans. So, Camulodunum must fall before autumn to demonstrate to those tribes still wavering that resistance to Rome was futile. Even then, there would be more campaigns, more years of conquest, before every corner of this large island was incorporated into the empire. Should the legions fail to take Camulodunum then Caratacus might well win the allegiance of the uncommitted tribes, and raise enough men to overwhelm the Roman army.
With a weary sigh Vespasian ducked under the hospital tent’s flap and nodded a greeting to the legion’s senior surgeon.