The castrum was contained in a great rectangle. Once home to entire legions but now used as a peace-time garrison, it was unusually bare in the centre. The pattern of fires around its inside perimeter indicated where most of the occupants now had accommodation and stables. Permanent buildings from sixty years of peace had replaced tenting, and even replaced other buildings, though the castrum was still a military post, defending the road which connected the great city of Lugdunum to the south of Gaul.
As the day drew to a close, there was a steady hum of male voices punctuated by orders or laughter, and a general clatter of arms, tools and cooking utensils. The air was heavy with the aroma of boiling farrum, the imported corn loved by Romans which sometimes made its way to pots in the Morgarita.
Outside one part of the vallum, the traditional fortifications, there came glare and sound from the small town which had grown up to serve the castrum. One could even make out the voices of women and squeals of playing children.
Locusta was now alone in the cage on the back of the cart. The horses had been detached and the cart left on a clear area well in from the busy perimeter.
The massive woodcutter had been pulled from the cage then dragged to the vacant centre of the castrum. Still trussed, he was chained to what looked like the sawn-off trunk of a dead tree. The flattened top of the trunk was about ten feet off the ground, and leaned against it was a length of heavy timber.
In the growing dusk Locusta could just make out an odd discoloration all down the base of the trunk.
The chained woodcutter, just before dark, called out:
“Sleep, young lady. Consult your voices, then sleep. Strength will be needed if…”
A passing guard jabbed the man with the end of his spear and ordered him to silence. He waited for the guard to move away and cried out again:
“There’s nothing you can do for me, but you can plead a case for yourself. These Romans have funny, fussy laws. Find their law. There may be some law…”
A much heftier jab was followed by a groan, and the woodcutter fell to silence.
After dark, the officer who had led the patrol approached the cage. He had a tattered cloak over one arm and a steaming bowl cradled and concealed in its folds. Opening the back, he threw the cloak at Locusta and placed the bowl down on the floor of the cage, which he then closed again abruptly.
“The mornings can be frosty in these flat parts.”
“Thank you. Can you find a cloak for the woodcutter? Some food, perhaps? Some of mine…”
“I can do nothing for him now, not since he killed his skinny friend. Say nothing. We know he did it. A brave act…But I can now do nothing for him. Quickly, eat. I’m not sure I want to be seen giving you food. No-one’s forbidden it, but…Just sit up and eat, girl. Use fingers – it’s thick and not too hot. I need that bowl back.”
Locusta sat up, lifted the bowl and suddenly jerked backward at the smell. The Roman officer gave a faint laugh.
“That’s the garum. We mix it with some oil and pour it over our porridge. Never tasted it?”
“No. What is it?”
“Salty fish muck, I suppose. Juice from rotted down mackerel, oysters…whatever is at hand, as I’ve heard. But it gives flavour and strength. Skim it off if you don’t like it.”
“No, no…it makes sense. To ferment, to concentrate what would otherwise be wasted. A liquid of fish-meat. It makes sense. I’ll eat it.”
“Sense? You say it makes sense? You’re a strange one, girl – even for a forest Gaul.”
When she had finished gobbling she handed the bowl back to the officer through the bars.
“Thank you…But if you could find some food for the woodcutter…”
“Girl, he is a dead man. A prisoner awaiting questioning is Roman property. Imperial and Roman property, never to be tampered with, let alone eliminated. Your woodcutter has spared his friend but made his own case hopeless. There will be justice, but it will be against him and severe. And he will be questioned that much harder. He will be questioned for two…”
“He knows nothing. He told me so and I believe him…”
“That will make his questioning so much the harder, as his sturdiness will make it longer. I can change none of that though I like none of it. I like a fair fight with a few deaths to speed promotions, not this bully work in a dull peace. But I can change nothing for your friend. Even our commander is bound in this regard. However…for you, thanks to a certain visitor to our camp from Germany, there is some hope. If you show yourself well before this visitor he may be moved to influence our commander.”
“What visitor has such power?”
The officer dropped his voice as he moved nearer the cage bars.
“You may as well know that our visitor is none other than Germanicus Julius Caesar. He is a descendant of Emperor Augustus and relative of the present emperor…”
“That name…even in our forest…it is sometimes mentioned around firesides, I think…”
“No doubt. It is a name heard the world over these days. The name of the man who recaptured the Lost Eagles. Germanicus is far more than somebody’s relative. If Rome has ever produced a greater soldier his name is not in the history of any legion. All Germany has learnt that lesson. No man ever killed so well, with such unfailing success, and yet…”
“What else can a great Roman do but kill greatly?”
“Leave off your mockery, if you wish to live, girl. Germanicus is as great in forgiving and protecting as he is in slaughtering. That is what you need to know. He has been known to care for the captive wives and daughters of his enemies as if they were his own. Moreover, though he is a stickler for courtesy and proud of his breeding he sees even a mindless German brute as a potential citizen of Rome. Do you see my point? Do you see how you may live if you cut a good figure in the presence of General Germanicus?”
“Yes. But how is it that this man is not emperor?”
“Well, he will be, once the present emperor…becomes a god.”
“And that will be a good thing for Rome? To have an Emperor Germanicus, I mean?”
“No doubt. A man more capable or more suited to the position has never lived. All agree. I speak no treason, since he is the adoptive son and heir of Tiberius. What’s more, his wife, the Lady Agrippina, is the most forceful and capable of all his adjutants. Such a things has never been seen, a Roman lady who follows the legions and could command a legion if need be. But everything about General Germanicus is exceptional. He is all Rome in one man.”
Locusta paused before responding in a low but oddly firm tone.
“I appreciate your advice, captain.”
Thanks to the cloak, the food inside her, and her long practised method of breathing deep and slow, Locusta was able to sleep till dawn.
She woke to the sounds of barked orders in Latin and ringing metal, sounds coming from the direction of the tree stump where the woodcutter was chained.
Her first impulse was to turn and look. But no. She would continue to breathe deeply and observe anything but what was happening over by that stump. If necessary, she would close her eyes. The Romans did so much for purposes of display. So much of their power lay in display. In this one tiny way, she could thwart them.
There were thumping sounds, then the sing and smack of whips. It took a while till groans were heard. There were men’s voices speaking Gallic, but she could not – would not – make out what they were saying. No doubt they were interrogating their victim in his own language.
At one point the thumping noises and whip sounds stopped, but the groans became screams. Perhaps something was being silently gouged or hacked.
She thought of the woodcutter’s powerful bulk, contradicted by those alert, intelligent features. Someone was wasting all that great mass of life. Wasting.
At last there was a sound of hammering into wood, and with each hammering came a scream. Till the screams joined into a steady howl.
Then the squeal and rattle of some hoisting device. Some cheering among the men. The howl weakened to an agonised whine.