“Pleasure in the job puts perfection in the work”
We rode north in the usual downpour behind two centuries of grumbling Roman legionaries. I could smell sweat and leather from them as their iron-studded sandals clicked and clattered on the slippery grey stones beneath their feet. They always marched in step too—an irritating trait for a cavalryman like me who had to follow behind. They were obsessed with keeping damned well to time, unlike my own warriors at home. My men had never complained like this lot, they had been true warriors; undisciplined it is true, but all heart when it came to fighting and dying for their Warlord—and die they did.
Chilly drops of rainwater meandered down the back of my neck as I rode and I realised with resignation I would have to oil my chain mail yet again in the evening. The shower came as no surprise, for it had rained every day since I Galdir, Warlord of the Franks, had come to this cold, wet country, three months before.
Galdir was not always my name you know, but what does a name matter anyway? It is only a label like “slave”, like “Warlord”, like “Auxiliary Cavalry Commander”. It is the man inside who really matters, and in my case I was struggling to be anything I valued or esteemed, for I could never now return home. In those days, my bitterness was as boundless and deep as the seas I had crossed to be there in Britannia. The Sarmatians too were far from their homes, north of the Roman wall, and I knew they felt the same as I did. What warriors in our place would not?
I had been the leader of the Franks, a small confederation of tribes now living in that part of Gaul where the Eburones used to live. Now I was only the displaced leader of a defeated people and far from home. My almost daily prayers and sacrifices to Wuotan, the Allfather, gave me little respite from the pain I was suffering deep inside. Defeat is hard for anyone. Perhaps I should have prayed to Loge the fire God and trickster instead, for I sometimes think he is the one who really moves my destiny.
It was the memories galling me. I rode and they kept coming into my head. I recalled a hayloft, for example, in the Dacian town of Lovosice, and a girl called Medana with long brown hair. I remembered how I had resented our betrothal. The king’s niece, she had been as unwilling to wed me as I was to engage in the nuptials myself. The memory of her tears and the two gentle nights we had spent next to each other on the straw, created pangs of nostalgia. Memories of those sweet nights seemed to prod at my heart like a spear.
Through the curtain of sloping rain, the distant, rolling green hills were unwelcoming and seemed cold and bleak. A couple of magpies rose, startled by the sound of our approach, and disappeared into the morning haze layering in the still vales like steam on a boiling cauldron. I regarded those birds with envy: at least they could fly away.
There were only a hundred Sarmatians riding with me that day. We had left the other four hundred and fifty behind in Vindolanda with Lazygis, because our Tribune decided greater numbers were unnecessary. Lazygis was my friend and a Sarmatian king in his own right. The Tribune might have been right, but who was he to tell me about fighting and war bands? I who had been Warlord, leading an army of forty thousand?
One of the two centuries was a group of Batavians; they were Germanic and auxiliaries like us. The others were Tungrians. Our Prefect was in command and we bore a vexillium with us, which the Romans regard very highly. It is a triangular flag, which represents part of a legion; the Romans call a war band like that a vexillation. In our present circumstances, I thought it was bordering on ridiculous to carry such an emblem. There were less than three hundred of us. It was as if our Tribune wanted to show we mattered. I knew though, we did not matter to the Romans; they only tolerated us, as we had to tolerate them.
Our orders were to locate a supposed rebellious village or tuath and burn it to the ground to discourage others from joining in a general revolt. They meant they would kill everyone. It was the usual way for the Romans to try to keep order on their borders, and nowhere more so than here, north of the wall they had built sixty years before, in the time of the Emperor Hadrianus. There were occasions when they ordered us to kill any Briton we saw north of the wall with no questions asked or explanations required. They never held a court-martial for a dead Briton. The locals were of no importance in the Roman scheme of things.
By noon, we were approaching a gully slashed out of the ground between two hills. The slopes were wooded and dark with a slight mist whispering and wavering at the tree line. My people call such mists ‘the dance of the elves’, for some say they can see the elves holding hands and dancing, shrouded in the watery wisps of grey. Fanciful perhaps, but I clung to the Gods and legends of my homeland, for there was precious little else left for me to hang on to in those days, so far from home.
The rain had attenuated slightly, and it was now only drizzling; the air was windless and still. In the bottom of the gully was a small stream trickling and giggling merrily as we approached, but it made the going difficult for the infantry since the many rocks and boulders made it hard for them to maintain formation. I rode ahead to the front.
‘Flavius Cerialis,’ I said, ‘can I have a word?’
Cerialis was the Legionary Prefect and that means he should have been back in Vindolanda, making use of the fact he was the highest-ranking officer in the entire Second Legion below Tribune. I thought he was there because he enjoyed this kind of work. He was a tough, ugly brute of a man who had fought his way to the top and his stubbly face looked up at me with a scowl. At first I had wondered if he always scowled, but I had seen him with the other members of the centurionate and he never scowled when he talked and joked with them. He was short of stature but built like a bull, broad, muscular and fearsome. His brown skin, hooked nose and black curly hair showed he was a real Roman. He had a scar on his left cheek, a relic of a former battle on the wall in the north, which the Romans had lost to the Caledonii and others, some twenty years before.
‘What do you want Galdir?’ he said.
‘I just think this would be a good place for an ambush. Would you like my men to split up and sweep the hills either side, before the centuries enter the gully?’
‘Yes, I think it would be a good idea. I thought the gully would be a good place for an ambush too. We will have to go through though. The Votadini village is on the other side of that hill.’
‘No, we’ll continue, but I will depend on you and your men to rout any Brittunculi you come across.’
He grinned then for once, and I remained impassive for I never liked the disparaging nickname the Romans seemed to use for the Britons even to their faces.
He led the men forward and I and Panador, my second in command, each took half the men to scour the woods on either side.
We entered the wood spread out in a flat formation to cover as much ground as we could. We might come across a group of Selgovae or Votadini warriors any time and I wanted to be sure to find them before our infantry were too far into the defile. Our sweep was uneventful at first, and as the two centuries passed into the gully I was well aware they were particularly vulnerable if the Britons attacked from the misty wood. It all depended on whether or not we discovered an enemy before they attacked our men.
As we approached the trees I had mental pictures of riding before my own host of Franks. There had been more than forty thousand of us. I could see the final battle, my men attacking, vastly outnumbered by five Roman Legions arriving fresh to the battlefield. We had already defeated Licinius Piso and his army following a long siege. My mind often flashed back in that way since the defeat. The visions impinged on my dreams as well as my waking moments as if they were imprinted and I had to relive them in atonement for my failure. It had changed me too. My mood was low and I was seldom like the young man I had been in my twenties. No future you see.
Faces came to mind: friends, laughing and drinking. I pictured my warm and cheerful hall, buzzing with merriment and feasting. Was it now silent? Was it perhaps slumbering in the expectant deprivation of its Warlord like some hibernating bruin? I pictured Stator, who had known my father. He had been a fierce warrior in his own right and steadfast in his loyalty to me and to Frankia. He fell in that last battle. Losing men like him made my defeat even harder to bear. I saw the old face of Eudes, a king of my nation, and remembered how he had led a small band of re-grouped men against a wall of Roman shields and how he fell, sword in hand, as they hewed him. At least he will feast with Wuotan in the Allfather’s long halls and will be there to welcome me when my turn comes as I hope it will one day.
The Votadini attacked before we made contact with them in the wood, so maybe Cerialis should have waited after all. The attackers were not like the Germans I was accustomed to march with at home. I was used to fighting with tall blonde warriors who looked and dressed like me. If there is one thing you learn in Germany it is to wrap up warm, for cold weather makes it difficult to move fast unless you spend time warming up. We have a saying at home: there is no bad weather only bad clothing.
The Britons fought wearing leggings or braccae as they called them, no armour and no clothing on the upper parts of their bodies. Some of them were completely naked, but I think they had battle-fury or some potion to keep them warm. They had blue dye streaked in different patterns across the exposed skin, even their faces. I wondered often at that time whether it was tattooing such as we did at home or whether it was war paint. They were wild, fierce people who, despite their lack of armour, moved fast and fought ferociously. The Romans called them Nudis, another disparaging nickname they used to make the locals feel diminished. They were an arrogant people the Romans.
There must have been about five or six hundred Votadini warriors; for them, it was a large war band. They had hidden in the woods and when they saw us riding through to search for them, they decided the game was up and they would have to attack. Cerialis reformed the men so the centuries were next to each other and they turned, so each was facing outwards towards the attacking foe. I had never seen a military manoeuvre accomplished so fast, and it took place before the first of the Nudis reached the wall of shields.
They attacked as the usual mass of fighting, screaming, jostling warriors they always became. The Romans kept formation, as Panador and I formed up our cavalry, either side of the stream running through the bottom of the gully.
Our assailants were not big men, though they were bigger than Romans. Some of them were huge but most came to shoulder height on me although I am a tall man. Mostly they were dark-haired but about one third of them had red hair. Red hair is unusual amongst my people, the Franks, and a little more common in the Chatti tribe at home, but there seemed to be more than the fair share among these half-naked warriors. They whooped and screamed in a fearsome way but the Romans had trained so as to ignore such things and they fought in strict silence. I always thought the quietness in their ranks was more daunting than war shouts, and if the Romans won a battle or skirmish it made their opposition look foolish; the legionaries knew it too.
The Romans maintained a wall of shields and began to push forward. The Votadini outnumbered them hopelessly but, as is often the case, battle combat is a matter of technique rather than staunch warrior skills. There are times when the Romans fought battles with tiny numbers but defeated huge numbers of my people, and I had learned long ago that without strategy an army is a rabble and no more. I felt sorry for the Britons. I knew what they did not and I knew they would run in the end. It was a waste of men, for although they were brave they had not given enough thought to their plans. It was easy to see how the Romans had entered this land and walked right through it, the only limitations for them being their supply lines.
The Votadini had squashed together so tightly they could not swing their battle-axes and heavy swords. Each of them fought as an individual, seeking glory. The legionaries’ gladii therefore made quick work of the front ranks. They had a particular technique with the short swords. They pushed with their shields and stabbed with their gladii and the opposition could do little apart from stand and die. They were falling in droves before the legionaries.
We started at a walk. Our speed gradually increased and we loosed a flight of arrows before we drew our long cavalry swords. We were on the attackers’ flanks so they were using their shields in front of them, which made our volley particularly effective. When we hit the tribesmen we were cantering and the force of the impact was horrific. The mass of fighting and pushing barbarians shuddered as we rode into them. We were slashing to left and right, killing. Their lack of armour made us doubly effective. Although they fought back hard, they were no match for our horses who had kirtles of chain mail. My horse Valknir kicked and bit, as only a good warhorse could. I remember feeling proud of him. The Britons of course folded before our onslaught. Even the warriors on the opposite side of us howled and ran. We rode among them. We slashed with our swords and felled any of them who dared to stand. It was a slaughter and it did nothing for pride or honour.
I found it hard to feel any enthusiasm for the fight because the Votadini stood little chance against heavy cavalry and they seemed to be the only ones who were in ignorance of that. I looked down at the stream. Its waters ran red now with the blood of the attackers. Once the escaping men had reached the tree line we left them to run. There was no point in taking our horses into the forest.
It was an odd little skirmish, mainly because it had been so short. The whole battle lasted thirty minutes from the time we entered the woods but at least a hundred of the attackers lay dead. We had only sustained light casualties, ten men dead and four wounded—none of them seriously.
I looked down at a naked Briton, his face obscured by blood where a sword had struck him. He lay still, his twisted body stiffening in the cold rain. I thought we had much in common, this dead warrior and me. We were both defeated killers, but the difference was that Rome had all but enslaved me. He had died defending his homeland. There had been times when I wished I too had gone that way but it was not to be. I could ill afford to show my true feelings to these rulers of the modern world. If I rebelled, they would kill all my own people. What choice had I?
Marcus Aurelius had said it himself: ‘Kill for me or the Franks will vanish from the world forever.’
I wanted to fight the Romans, not the Britons. I remember thinking, ‘If only there were some way in which I could fight on their side’. My own people were far away and I had loyalties to the Sarmatians who would never change their allegiance for they had sworn an oath. We Germans take oaths seriously and I too had sworn, but it rankled. I also felt sorry for these blue-painted warriors. They fought so hard but they so were vulnerable even if the Romans had not had heavy cavalry. I thought someone ought to straighten them out; show them the way. Fighting legionaries requires discipline and the poor Brittunculi seemed to have none.
The Romans piled their dead near the stream and decided to burn the bodies on the way back. I knew this was because Cerialis thought there might be other bodies to burn. The centuries marched on.
We too rode on afterwards. I looked at the landscape around me and the similarity to my own German lands saddened me. The dense pine forest of home and the endless hills and mountains where we had made our strongholds forced themselves into my mind. All in Roman hands and rotting like the Britons’ corpses, without men, without leaders and above all, without a future. With no Warlord to lead them, the Franks did not exist and I knew it.
An hour later, we came to the Votadini village. It was a round conglomeration of huts with thatched mud and wicker walls built around a central square. There could only have been about twenty families living there and I suspected the inhabitants had appealed to local chieftains to help, which was why the defenders who had attacked us earlier numbered as many as they did.
A palisade of sorts enclosed the village. It was the height of a tall man and not of sufficient size to have a wall walk from which to defend it. There was a throng of people at the gate, and looking at them I felt this was ridiculous. Half were women. The other half consisted of boys and old men.
‘You know, Panador,’ I said, ‘there can be no honour in fighting with such people.’
He looked at me sideways and grinned.
He said, ‘What do you expect from Romans, they make us look civilised.’
I was glad he spoke in the common German tongue for none of the Romans would understand.
‘I don’t want to be part of this.’
‘No, we can hang back, while our brave Roman comrades proceed to storm the place.’
Simple rustic gates blocked the entrance to the village and we watched as the legionaries pulled them down. Once inside, they began to kill anyone who moved, with no discrimination.
They call us Germans barbarians because some of the tribes indulge in torture. This is surely no worse than decapitating small children in front of their mothers, raping the women and then slitting their throats like these men were doing. The Romans say they are civilised, but I saw no hint of it that day. In disgust, I rode through the village and left by the already opened gate at the north end.
I was twenty yards from the tree line when I heard the scream. It sounded like a child.