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Simon Scarrow

The Blood Crows

CHAPTER ONE

February, AD 51

The column of horsemen struggled up the track to the crest of the hillock and then their leader raised a hand to halt them as he reined in. The recent rainfall had turned the surface of the track into a pitted and rutted expanse of glutinous mud and the cavalry mounts snorted and wheezed as their hoofs were sucked into the quagmire. The chilly air was filled with the sound of the wet slap of the horses’ hoofs as they slowed and then stood at rest, snorting jets of steamy breath. Their leader wore a thick red cloak over his gleaming breastplate, across which ran the looped bands that signified his rank. Legate Quintatus, commander of the Fourteenth Legion, entrusted with maintaining the western frontier of the empire’s recently acquired province of Britannia.

That was no easy task, he mused bitterly. It had been nearly eight years since the army had landed on the island that stood at the limits of the known world. At the time, Quintatus had been a tribune in his early twenties, filled with a sense of mission and a desire to win glory for himself, Rome and the new Emperor, Claudius. The army had fought its way inland, defeating the mighty host that had been gathered by the native tribes, under the command of Caratacus. Battle after battle had ground down the natives, until finally the legions had crushed the warriors as they made their final stand in front of their capital at Camulodunum.

That battle had seemed decisive at the time. The Emperor himself had been there to witness the victory. And claim full credit for it. Once the rulers of most of the native tribes had made treaties with the Emperor, Claudius returned to Rome to claim his triumph and announce to the mob that the conquest of Britannia was complete. Only it wasn’t. The legate frowned. Not by a long way. That final battle had not broken Caratacus’s will to resist. It had merely taught him that it was foolhardy to pit his brave, but poorly trained, warriors against the legions in a pitched battle. He had learned to play a deeper game, luring the Roman columns into ambushes and sending fast-moving bands to raid the legions’ supply lines and outposts. It had taken seven years of campaigning to drive Caratacus into the mountain fastness of the tribes of the Silures and the Ordovices. They were warlike, spurred on by the fanatic fury of the Druids, and determined to resist the might of Rome until their last breaths. They had accepted Caratacus as their commander and this new centre of resistance had attracted warriors from across the island who nursed a resolute hatred of Rome.

It had been a hard winter and the cold winds and icy rain had forced the Roman army to limit its activities during the long, dark months. Only towards the end of the season the lowering clouds and mists lifted from the mountainous lands beyond the frontier and the legions were able to renew their campaign against the natives over the winter. The governor of the province, Ostorius Scapula, had ordered the Fourteenth to push forward into the forested valleys and establish a chain of forts. They would serve as bases for the main offensive that would come in the spring. The enemy had responded with a speed and ferocity that had surprised Legate Quintatus and attacked the strongest of the columns he had sent into their lands. Two cohorts of legionaries, nearly eight hundred men. The tribune in command of the column had sent a rider to the legate the moment the attack had begun, urgently requesting support. Quintatus had led the rest of the legion out of its base at Glevum at first light and as they approached the site of the fort, he had ridden ahead with an escort to reconnoitre, his heart heavy with dread at what they might find.

Beyond the hillock lay the valley leading deep into the lands of the Silures. The legate strained his ears, striving to filter out the sounds of the horses behind him. But there was no sound from ahead. No dull rhythmic thudding of axes as the legionaries felled trees to provide timber for the construction of the fort, and create a wide cordon of clear land around the perimeter ditch. No sound of voices echoing off the slopes of the valley on either side. Nor any sound of fighting.

‘We’re too late,’ he muttered to himself. ‘Too late.’

He frowned irritably at his failure to keep his concerns to himself and glanced round quickly in case his words had been overheard. The nearest men of his escort sat impassively in their saddles. No, he corrected himself. Not impassive. There was anxiety in their expressions, eyes flickering over the surrounding landscape as they searched for any sign of the enemy. The legate drew a deep, calming breath and swept his arm forward as he eased his heels into the flanks of his mount. The horse walked on, dagger-like ears twitching, as if sensing its master’s nervousness. The track levelled out and a moment later the leading horsemen had a clear view down into the mouth of the valley.

The construction site lay half a mile in front of them. A wide open space had been carved out of the pine trees and the stumps looked like broken teeth scattered across the churned earth. The outline of the fort was still discernible, but where there should have been a deep ditch, rampart and palisade, there was just a ruined jumble of burned timber piles and wagons and the remains of tent lines where the goatskin shelters had been torn down and trampled into the mud. Many sections of the rampart had been destroyed and the soil and the log foundations tumbled into the ditch. There were bodies, too, men and some mules and horses. The bodies had been stripped and the pale flesh reminded the legate of maggots from this distance. He shuddered at the thought and hurriedly thrust it aside. He heard his men sucking in their breath at the sight and a handful mumbled curses as they surveyed the scene. His horse slowed to a halt and Quintatus angrily jabbed his heels in and snapped the reins to force it into a trot.

There was no sign of any danger. The enemy had finished their work many hours ago and left with their victory and their spoils. All that remained was the ruins of the fort, the wagons and the dead. That, and the crows feeding on the carrion. As the horsemen approached down the track, the birds lurched into flight, their raucous cries of alarm filling the air as they were forced to abandon their grim feast. They swirled overhead like strips of black cloth caught in the wind of a storm and filled the ears of the legate with their ugly sound.

Quintatus slowed his mount as he reached the ruin of the main gate. The timber towers of the fort had been the first structures to be built. Now they were reduced to charred frameworks from which thin trails of smoke still rose up against the background of rock and tree covered hillsides before merging with the grey clouds pressing down from the sky. On either side, the ditch ran out to the corners of the fort where the remains of the towers stood. With a click of his tongue the legate steered his horse past the ruined gatehouse. On the far side lay the rampart and the cordon of open ground inside of the defences. Beyond that lay what was left of the tent lines, and the first of the bodies heaped together in a small knot. Stripped of their armour, tunics and boots, they lay twisted, bruised and streaked with blood that flowed from the dark mouths of the wounds that had killed them. There were smaller cuts and tears in their flesh where the beaks of the crows had been at work and several of the corpses had bloody sockets where the birds had plucked out their eyes. The heads had been hacked off some of the corpses and the stumps were caked with dried, blackened blood.

As Quintatus stared at the fallen legionaries, one of his staff officers edged his horse alongside and nodded grimly.

‘At least it looks like some of our men put up a fight.’

The legate did not acknowledge the remark. It was easy to visualise the last moments of these men, fighting back to back as they stood their ground to the last. Afterwards, when the last of the wounded had been finished off, the enemy had stripped them of their weapons and equipment. What could be used by Caratacus and his warriors would be kept, the rest hurled into the nearest river or buried to prevent the Romans from returning it to the stores of the Fourteenth Legion. Quintatus lifted his gaze and looked round the fort. More bodies lay amid the destroyed tents, singly and in small clusters that told of the chaos that had ensued once the enemy warriors had broken through the half-completed defences.

‘Shall I order the men to dismount and start burying the dead, sir?’

Quintatus looked round at the tribune, and it took a moment for the question to penetrate his gloomy thoughts. He shook his head. ‘Leave them until the rest of the legion comes up.’

The younger officer looked surprised. ‘Are you sure, sir? I fear it will damage the men’s morale. It’s at a low ebb as it is.’

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