Sunday, April 18, 2010
The howl rang out twice again that night, so that even the most battle-hardened legionaries began to fear what lay beyond the confines of the camp, where the forest grew thick and gnarled and brooding.
Dawn found Tacitus standing red-eyed before his tent. He pulled his wolfskin tunic closer about his body; the weak morning rays did little to dispel the chill.
'Did you sleep, domine?' The use of the title for addressing a superior indicated formality, but there was no disguising the warmth of the voice. Tacitus turned to see the squat form of Jerius, the lieutenant. His metal armour winked in the sun as he walked from his tent.
'In this place? No. Not for these three nights past. My eyes grow sunken and my mind is clouded. It is as if this excursion is but some kind of dream- I feel as though at any moment I will wake to find that I am in Nimes, or Carthage, or even in my villa in distant Rome… Anywhere but in this strange place.'
Jerius' eyes widened. His mouth struggled to express an appropriate sentiment.
'You are surprised at my frankness, Jerius?'
'Domine- yes, domine. That is, I mean-'
'There is no need, old friend.' Tacitus smiled. 'You and I have been through too much together for that. If I cannot confide in you, then I have no friend within several thousand miles of here, save those insolent tacticians in Brittania who sent me here, surely plotting my demise. If that be the case, I might add, then Jupiter help me.'
Jerius visibly relaxed. 'Sir, if I may also be frank, I had noticed that this place has been affecting you. I mean, how could it not? The isolation; the cold; and now these terrifying sounds during the hours of darkness…' A moment of silence, as the portly lieutenant debated the merits of revealing more. 'To me… it is as if we have wandered into the realm of myth- as if this island of Hibernia were in truth one of the fabled isles- Hy-Brasil, or the Ultima Thule spoken of by the Greek, Pytheas.'
Tacitus idled the grass with his foot. The standard soldier's sandal was certainly not adequate this far in the temperate north, he thought. 'The Greek is known to have lied about his travels, Jerius. Do not be tempted to compare his flights of fancy with… our situation here.' It was the standard dismissal of Greek achievements that Tacitus had been taught since childhood, but on this particular morning his voice lacked conviction. Perhaps this wind-swept isle was getting to him.
Looking back at the ranks of tents that comprised his century's castra, or temporary camp, Tacitus' mind drifted back to the larger camp in Brittania where his fate had been sealed. That camp had been large and well provisioned, with over one hundred centuries of legionaries being drilled every day in anticipation of the campaign to come…
It had been warm inside the tent. The smell of tanned hide mingled with the aroma of sweat as three men perspired, secretly deciding the fate of this remote outpost of the empire.
'We simply cannot tolerate any further excursions by the Celts into our affairs here. Trade with the local tribes will go to Hades if we cannot guarantee the safe passage of goods through our territories. An armed mission to Hibernia is the only answer.' That was Lupus, his small piggy eyes glinting in the darkness of the tent.
'Of course, we cannot spare more than a single century for this outing. But eighty men should be enough to make our presence felt on that forsaken island. After all, what are those savages next to our highly-trained soldiers?' Thus spoke Maximus, his bony fingers twitching incessantly as he did so.
Lupus appeared so uncomfortable in the stifling heat that Tacitus wondered how he ever had tolerated the weather in their native Italy. 'It occurs to me,' he spoke, his face shiny with sweat, 'that we have but one man present who could do justice to such a task- the hero of Carthage, Gregorius Tacitus.'
Tacitus' blood ran cold. His fame since his North African heroics had caused him trouble on occasion in the past, but this mission to Hibernia struck him as some kind of plot. 'With all due respect, domines,' he began, 'a single century seems a trifle meager for the task at hand. The Celts-'
'The Celts are savages, and will be planned against as such,' said Maximus irritably. Tacitus growled beneath his breath- Maximus had not been present at the ambushes in north Alba, where the Hibernian Celts had wiped out entire garrisons. He remembered all too well the stark, terrifying figures emerging from the night as though they were part of it, tall and hairy maniacs who butchered trained soldiers as expertly as would a gladiator in the coliseum. But the moment had passed- Maximus and Lupus were already planning his next brush with the Hibernian hordes, and any further protesting would be interpreted as insubordination.
'It will be glorious, don't you think?' Tacitus' reminiscing was broken by the sudden appearance of Julius Agricola. 'When we have tamed this place as we have done with Brittania, the entire Northern Isles will stand as a testament to the power of Rome.' Agricola, a centurion himself, was as dark and intense as Tacitus was open and fair. His intrusion threw Jerius into a brief confusion; the short lieutenent became embarrassed and left, returning to his tent mumbling an excuse about starting breakfast.
'Imagine it, Tacitus,' continued Agricola, 'forests cleared, straight roads running the length of the island, and planned towns- all in territory which previously only nature had claimed as her own.' His tanned face flashed a smile in which there was no joy.
But by now the sun was high in the sky, and it was becoming more difficult to hide the particulars of their true situation. The castra, settled uneasily between the sea and the forest, was but a fly on the lion's lip of this impenetrable, unknown land. Besides the vague records of the Greek travelers from centuries ago, no civilized men had ever come this far northwest, and Tacitus was becoming painfully aware of their isolation. Now, looking at the green hell that lay before him, he felt as though the forest would swallow him up.
Jupiter, he thought, no empire will again try to tame this heathen land.