“Probus, I have spent all my life, except these last weeks, in the Morgarita Forest. Are the forests of Germany so different?”
“Indeed they are, young lady. Many Romans and Italians have seen only remnants of oak forest, stunted groves good only for firewood and boar hunting. Their great forests were long ago cut down to make towns and navies. As for the Morgarita, it is a place of winds, dry and elevated. There is terror from the wolves, but not from the forest itself…and from the darkness.
“The Teutoburg, as we quickly learned, is like a mouth to the Underworld.”
“Three legions, eighteen thousand men, along with many followers, turned into that darkness.
“Varus and the general staff were up ahead. Merens was riding well in front of my special treasury detachment, staying with the main supply and baggage columns. It was normal to keep the treasury a little to the rear in case of terrain problems. But the entire army had terrain problems from the moment it entered the Teutoburg.
“It seems incredible that no scouts except those of Arminius, and no engineers at all, had been sent ahead. Everything we believed about our route we believed simply on the word of Arminius. Yet within a half-mile of entering we were forced to narrow our ranks outrageously. The further we advanced, the darker it got. The road became little better than a low track between densely wooded slopes, and it even became like a murky tunnel in stretches where giant trees, decked in creepers, leaned overhead.
“I recall turning to one of my subalterns and remarking that a Roman army without formation was no longer a Roman army. He replied that Varus was certain to order retreat, unless the terrain further ahead was far better, which seemed unlikely from our ever-slowing progress.
“What we could see of sky grew leaden, then black. At last came the rain, a constant chill rain. In such circumstances a soldier feels more than discomfort. He knows that his spear and the handle of his sword will be cold and slippery; he knows that bowstrings go slack and fingers of bowmen go numb.
“Leather in constant rain blisters through slight movement; condensation or rainwater trapped under armour make a cold that burrows to the bone.
“Yet we went on, a compressed line stretching over miles. It would only take a fallen tree or bogged wagon in the wrong spot to break that line.
“The track grew worse, and because we were following the bulk of the army we were soon sliding about and pushing through quagmires. Our wagons were in danger of sinking in places. We expected an order to halt then retreat, discussed whether Varus had taken a turn out of the forest by some other road rather than reversing our march. But he had contemplated neither measure, and was simply advancing further into that dank hell. It crossed my mind that Merens, so expert in transport and terrain, must be trying to dissuade him, but Varus could be stubborn even before the advice and charm of Merens. But surely Varus, for all his patrician conceit, could see what was so plain!
“None of it made sense.
“My men started looking sideways into the dripping forest, where a waterdrop on foliage might be a watching eye. It was still not an attack they feared, just that forest, with its million eyes.
“Instead of dovecotes or little shrines which cheer a traveller, there were strange ornaments of bone and feather, even human skulls, attached to tree trunks and dangling from branches. If these objects did not represent warnings or curses, our mood interpreted them as such.
“At last riders came from in front. I felt sure they must be a detachment to announce a change of plan, though our line was still lurching forward. As the riders drew close I saw the group was composed of Merens’ offsider, the loathsome Molossus, with some twenty of his tax extractors.
“He greeted me in his usual disrespectful way and told me that the army would proceed as planned but that the treasury was to be sent back, in view of the conditions and the danger of the cargo being bogged down or spilled. Molossus showed me the order from Merens. I was partly relieved and partly suspicious on reading it. Merens was commanding me to send my own riders ahead to replace the detachment which had just arrived. With Molossus and his riders I was to head back to the main road then proceed along it to the Rhine.
“It all made sense, except that we would be a small group without our usual mounted escort of trusted comrades. Though Molossus insisted that his men were far more experienced in dealing with German tricks, I would have been more comfortable with a larger contingent and my own riders. Much more comfortable.
“But the orders were clear and probably for the best. Why the entire army was not sent back was what baffled us. The terrain and weather had reduced it to a rabble, time and light were being lost, and the chances of making an adequate fortified camp for three legions that night were remote.
“I did what I always do. I registered objection soberly then complied, insisting that my men comply with all orders and co-operate with Molossus and his company, though we knew them to be a gang of degenerates.
“As we moved to the rear, Molossus showed our orders to the various officers who had been behind us. Most expressed surprise at the small size of our contingent but all assisted us to guide the treasury through their constricted ranks. Finally, the army was out of sight, and we were alone on the trail.
“Progress to the Rhine Way was slow, since we were travelling in the slush and ruts made by three legions. The damage to the saturated trail had been so great that there was danger of landslip. I occupied my place on the largest wagon, flanked by a sharp-eyed youth trained to do nothing but watch. My guard of some twenty specialist infantry held formation as best they could; the riders led by Molossus stayed close on the awkward terrain but had to scatter frequently so the rest of us had space.
“Soon it began to rain again, and then to pour down hard.
“We reached a turning where there was a steep slope on our left and a sharp fall to the right. It had been difficult for the army coming in; it was now perilous, with a quagmire forming in the very sharpest part of the bend. Molossus’ riders fell well behind or went far to the front.
“Suddenly, a rain of German javelins from the left, striking down several of my guard and the driver of a smaller wagon in front.
“My well-drilled men moved around all three of our wagons, though there were not enough of them for a tight formation. Molossus came riding toward me and shouted that his horses could not pursue uphill in the conditions but that his men would guard the wagons if I decided to send some of my infantry after the raiders.
“There was no choice but to take the suggestion. If we did not retaliate, our invisible attackers would have hours to pick us off as we tried to move along the damaged road, and they may well have felled trees in our path. I reasoned that they could not be numerous or they would have attacked in force. Some ten of my soldiers would likely be enough to keep them engaged if not disperse them.
“Cursing my superiors’ judgement for the entire expedition and my present ridiculous exposure to any gang of tramps, I ordered ten men up the hill, with orders to flank our contingent beyond normal javelin range.
“I never saw those men again. I am guessing that they ended their lives on sharpened stakes in carefully prepared traps.
“For everything had been a carefully prepared trap.
“When Molossus’ twenty or so men had formed in close, I ordered that my remaining guard load the two dead and four wounded on to wagons. As they did so, Molossus chose that unguarded moment for his attack. His men pounced from their horses with weapons drawn and began to hack my men to death. Molossus, and another rider with a heavily bandaged face, stayed mounted and simply watched the slaughter.
“Because of my position high on the main wagon and the impossibility of drawing a bow in the heavy conditions, none of the attackers had yet reached me. There was nothing to do but die as a legionary. Drawing my sword I hurled myself from the wagon rim at Molossus, hacking at his head as I fell to ground. I gave him the wound he bears to this day. Rising from the mud I made a vertical stab with my sword, hoping to catch him under his breastplate. And that is when he gave me this wound which I still bear. I reeled and he thrashed at me again with his longer cavalry sword.
“The rest is like a dream. I remember stumbling as I dodged the thrusts and retreated a few steps, then a few more steps. I remember looking into my opponent’s gashed face as I fell back into air.
“I had gone off the embankment right where it was most sheer. Whatever my head hit first was enough to remove my helmet. I then began to fall, roll, fall, with branches and saplings tearing away flesh as I went further down. Something stopped my fall. In the same moment the back of my head struck wood and for a while I lost consciousness.
“After a while I was aware of voices. Above me they were discussing my whereabouts, and whether I was dead. Soil and rubble fell near me as some of the gang tried to descend. I had fallen too far however, and was well out of sight, my fall having been stopped by a dense thicket where the slope made a small shelf. Finally I heard Molossus barking down to his men to give up the hunt and leave me for dead. Their haste to escape with an enormous fortune had saved me.
“My wounds were bad, but none of them fatal. The slash down my neck had not struck any veins, but was likely to get infected without treatment. When I tried to move, it was a shattered wrist which caused me the most difficulty. Yet to stay where I was in the cold rain, especially in a state of shock and exhaustion, would mean death in the course of the night. I had to get back up the slope and improvise some sort of shelter.
“Molossus would certainly have departed in silence with the wagons, so I was surprised to pick up distant cries which came and went on the wind. But perhaps I was just hearing the echos from my concussion.
“There was not a minute to waste in recuperation. I would need to devote the remaining hours of light to nothing but the climb back to the road. Any resting would be done up there, after I had made shelter.
“And the ascent did take hours, with just one hand to grab and pull on rocks, shrubs and low branches. The rest was achieved with feet to push and one elbow to hook. I thought only of reaching the next grapple point, being careful not to select anything shallow-rooted or unfixed.
“Yes, I studied my way upward, and in doing so I was a legionary, a Roman, again. I hope that doesn’t sound arrogant: it is just an explanation. I am a Gaul like you, but my life has been with the legion. At our best, we organise, do things in sequence and formation, no matter how dire or confused the circumstances.
“When I had finally crawled to the top I could witness what had been done to my comrades. Every one of them had been hacked or stabbed to death. The usual stripping of bodies, however, had not taken place, for the obvious reason that the marauders had hold of a state treasury, fruit of the year’s taxation and exactions, along with much of Varus’ private fortune. They needed to move away in haste. This worked in my favour, since I would be able to gather the dead men’s cloaks for shelter.
“Then more luck: one of the wagon horses had been speared. It had been loosed from harness and left to die. I finished the poor animal with a thrust into its neck then set to work, though with much pain and little strength.
“The first thing I needed to butcher from the carcase was the liver, warm and soft. An animal’s fresh liver is easily eaten and quickly digested. I ate as much of it as I could get down then proceeded to cut out the bladder. With the still warm urine I began to bathe my cuts. There was no chance of starting a fire, so that delicate bag of horse piss was my best chance to keep away infection.
“The last thing I wanted to do in my state was to skin a horse, but I knew the green hide, if wrapped about me twice, would be far better than the cloaks for keeping me dry and warm.
“By the time the sun set I had been able to wriggle into a thicket above the road and wrap myself in the horse’s hide. Instead of my wet clothes I wore some woollen shirts which had stayed dry inside the breastplates of my comrades. With the cloaks over the top of the horse’s hide, I was not merely dry but snug.
“After nibbling on more soft organs and drinking some water, I fell into one of those fevered sleeps which always come after a shock.
“And all through that night I seemed to hear distant cries, coming and going as the wind and rain varied in intensity or changed direction.
“I now knew that the cries were not just echos from my concussion.”