The action-filled climax of the epic story of the Batavi uprising in AD 69, f rom the author of the bestselling Empire series. **NOW FEATURING AN ADDITIONAL SHORT STORY** 'A masterclass in military historical fiction' - Sunday Express Victory is in sight for Kivilaz and his Batavi army. The Roman army clings desperately to its remaining fortresses along the Rhine, its legions riven by dissent and mutiny, and once-loyal allies of Rome are beginning to imagine the unimaginable: freedom from the rulers who have dominated them since the time of Caesar. The four centurions - two Batavi and two Roman, men who were once comrades in arms - must find their destiny in a maze of loyalties and threats, as the blood tide of war ebbs and flows across Germania and Gaul. For Rome does not give up its territory lightly. And a new emperor knows that he cannot tolerate any threat to his undisputed power. It can only be a matter of time before Vespasian sends his legions north to exact the empire's retribution.
Release date: January 1, 2019
Print pages: 416
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Retribution: The Centurions III
Jona Lendering, the driving force behind the indispensible Livius website (livius.org), was kind enough to cast an eye over the manuscripts and point out any gross errors. His comments have been invaluable on more than one occasion (‘There were no trees there so your character can’t run off and hide in them’, for example), and the series has benefitted hugely from his input. Thank you, Jona.
Ben Kane was instrumental in helping me mull over the choice of titles that eventually coalesced into the three that have proven so evocative, to the degree that they have tended to reflect each book’s contents even better than I ever intended. The fact that we conducted part of that long-running discussion driving from Xanten (the Old Camp) to Kalkriese (the site of Arminius’s momentous betrayal of Rome in AD9) only added to the enjoyment. And speaking of the Old Camp, Ben and I walked the site of the legion camp – now farmland – as the evening’s last light faded into night, and came across the remnants of the fortress’s amphitheatre, still in use for concerts. I can’t tell you here the brilliant idea that he then spontaneously gifted to me, or it’d be a spoiler, but it typified the generosity of a man I’m proud to call a friend. Thanks Ben!
And, just as heartfelt as ever, thank you, the reader, for continuing to read these stories. Please keep reading. We were only ever taking a temporary break from the Empire series, and now that the story of the Batavian revolt as seen through the eyes of the men I’ve imagined fighting on both sides is done, Marcus and his familia are set to return in the tenth book of the Empire series. There’s a murderous bandit on the loose in Gaul, an imperial chamberlain toying with our heroes’ lives and … Well, wait and see, eh?
One last thing. There’s a gold aureus from the time of Vespasian – yes, a real Roman gold coin – to be won by one lucky reader in my Centurions competition. All you have to do is go to my website and enter the answers to the three questions that you’ll find there, the solutions to which are contained in Betrayal, Onslaught and Retribution. There’s no restriction on when you enter each answer, multiple entries are allowed but the last answers given will be taken as your definitive entry, and all answers will be invisible to everyone except myself and my trusted webmaster (who’s not allowed to enter). So don’t hold back, get puzzling, think acrostically (and if that’s not a clue then I don’t know what is), and the very best of luck – someone’s got to win a precious piece of history. Why not you?
Titus Flavius Vespasianus – legatus, imperial 2nd Legion Augustan
Gaius Hosidius Geta – legatus, imperial 14th Legion Gemina
Sextus – senior centurion, imperial 14th Legion Gemina
Gaius Licinius Mucianus – consul
Quintus Petillius Cerialis – legatus augusti, imperial Roman army
Tiberius Pontius Longus – legatus, imperial 21st Legion Rapax
Pugno – first spear, imperial 21st Legion Rapax
Alfenius Varus – former commander of the Praetorian Guard, emperor’s emissary to the Batavians
Gaius Sextiliius Felix – legatus, auxiliary cohort
Julius Briganticus – commander of the Ala Singularium, Kivilaz’s nephew
Appius Annius Gallus – legatus, commander of four legions in Gallia Lugdunensis
Aquillius – senior centurion, imperial 15th Legion Primigenia
Marius – senior centurion, imperial 5th Legion Alaudae
Munius Lupercus – legatus commanding imperial legions 5th Alaudae and 15th Primigenia
Kivilaz – (known as Julius Civilis by Rome) – prince of the Batavi, commander of the tribe’s revolt against Rome
Hramn – commander of his cohorts (formerly leader of the imperial German bodyguard), Kivilaz’s nephew
Draco Bairaz – commander of the guard cohort, Kivilaz’s cousin
Brinno – king of the Cananefates tribe, allies of the Batavi
Alcaeus – wolf-priest, centurion, 2nd century of the 1st Batavian cohort
Egilhard (Achilles) – watch officer, leading man, son of Lataz, brother of Sigu
Hludovig – Alcaeus’s chosen man
Sigu – soldier, brother of Egilhard
Lataz (Knobby) – soldier, father of Egilhard and Sigu
Frijaz (Stumpy) – soldier, uncle of Egilhard and Sigu
Adalwin (Beaky) – soldier
Levonhard (Ugly) – soldier
Lanzo (Dancer) – soldier
Wigbrand (Tiny) – soldier
Gaius Dillius Vocula – legatus augusti, legion commander
Antonius – senior centurion, imperial 22nd Primigenia
Herennius Gallus – former legatus, imperial 1st Germanica
Numisius Rufus – former legatus, imperial 16th Gallica
Julius Classicus – prince of the Nervii tribe and prefect of the First Nervian cavalry cohort
Montanus – Classicus’s cousin
Claudius Labeo – prefect, commander of army of allied tribes
It is January of AD 70, and Roman rule in northern Europe is teetering on the edge of disaster. Weakened by civil wars, first between Otho and Vitellius and then Vitellius and Vespasian, the legions whose fortresses safeguarded the Rhine frontier are either under siege or pathetic remnants of their former strength. The Batavi tribe of Germania Inferior and their tribal allies from both sides of the great river have moved decisively to defeat every attempt to contain their revolt, and the Gallic tribes to their south plot a similar rebellion, planning their own ‘Gallic Empire’. At a point in the struggle to defeat the Batavis’ revolt when every soldier is needed, two legions are bottled up in the Old Camp, present-day Xanten, while two more are on the brink of mutiny, having murdered their general for the crime of favouring the victorious Vespasianus. To the men charged with holding off a Batavi thrust to the south, defeat seems inevitable.
In Italy, on the other hand, preparations are well in hand for the re-conquest of the land north of the Alps, with legions under orders to march from their duty stations in Hispania and Britannia to join those returning north over the mountains to reclaim their fortresses and enforce Rome’s will. First among them is the famed Twenty-first Rapax, at least to its officers and men, long the most infamous unit in the emperor’s army, left bitter and in need of bloodshed by defeat at the Second Battle of Cremona whose loss resulted in Vespasianus’s victory. And the Twenty-first is under the command of the emperor’s son-in-law Petillius Cerialis, himself a man with a point to prove having been disgraced in the war against Boudicca’s Iceni rebels. The rebels have yet to face such crack soldiers, or men with quite so much need for vindication.
And the Batavi cohorts themselves are not the force that marched north to join the rebellion less than six months before. Bled of much of their strength at Gelduba late the previous year, they are no longer pre-eminent in the rebel army led by their prince, Kivilaz, but in the fighting to come, the Romans are likely to learn the hard way that the most dangerous opponent is the one with his back against the wall – and with nothing more to lose.
‘Once we are out on the field of bones you must all move in total silence.’
The grizzled chieftain looked around the circle of men gathered around him, staring at each of them in turn. His last remaining son, his brothers and his nephews. All of them were beloved to him, his blood and that of his father, all were men of whom he was proud. And there were a good number fewer than there had been at summer’s end, when, with the harvest gathered, he had led them to war to answer the call of the Batavi prince, Kivilaz, and make fact the prophecies of the priestess Veleda in her prediction of a great German victory.
‘If the Romans hear us out here then they will shoot their machine arrows out into the dark, and while we make small targets in a wide, empty night we have all seen the horror of a man killed in such a way. Death is certain, but it is not always swift. And their machines are not the only terror that awaits us out there, if the rumours of the Banô, the evil spirit that haunts this place, are true. So make sure your faces and hands are blackened with ashes, like this …’ he gestured to his own face, striped with the lines left by his soot-laden fingers to break up its pale image, ‘and leave your boots in our camp. We must be as silent as the mouse that hunts in the forest, knowing that the owl lurks above, waiting for a single sound to betray its presence. Now go and prepare.’
He waited patiently while they made ready for their night’s work, content there was no sign that the heavy clouds that had rolled across the sky late that evening would part to admit the light of the moon and stars any time soon. Turning to contemplate the darkened fortress on which he and thousands of German tribesmen stood guard, its outline barely visible in the gloom, he spat softly into the dirt at his feet, muttering a curse on the Romans who had robbed him of two sons in the three months they had been besieging the stronghold that their enemy called the Old Camp. One had died instantly with a bolt in his chest, the other a slow, lingering death as a result of the horrific scalding inflicted on him by boiling water poured onto the tribe’s warriors as they had flailed furiously but to no avail at the twenty-foot-high brick-faced walls. The circle of heavily battle-scarred grass around the fortress was a killing ground that had claimed thousands of men over the previous months, fallen warriors whose bodies had been left to rot for days before the Romans had finally allowed them to be gathered, painfully slowly by only a small number of men, and granted a suitable farewell. Already he wished he had never set eyes upon it, or heard the names Kivilaz, the Batavi prince who was the leader of the revolt, or Veleda, the priestess who had encouraged his tribe and several others to join it, but he kept such thoughts to himself. As, he suspected, did many other men of his rank, the hundreds of clan leaders who had led their families to this place of death and horror.
With all attempts at breaking into the Romans’ fortress having failed, and now that the decision had been made to starve the defenders out, with the promise of a grim revenge to be extracted on that day, there was nothing for any of the besiegers to do but wait and take what opportunities for distraction and profit presented themselves. Only a week before a man had slipped back into the camp just before dawn with a gold brooch in his dirty hand, trembling both with the cold and the fear of the terror that was said to haunt the field of bones when darkness fell, but nevertheless undeniably rich. His find had been fit to grace a tribal king’s cloak, heavy enough to buy a farm and cattle, and he had left swiftly, before word got round and attempts were made to claim its return by false and genuine claimants alike. The brooch would by now be on its way to Rome, where, it was said, authentic tribal jewellery was in huge demand. And so, in the absence of any better way of earning some recompense for sons lost and a wife left alone too long, the chieftain had finally decided to risk the various dangers inherent in roaming the battlefield after dark, and had agreed to lead his family in a search of the ground over which so many men had fought and died. His warriors gathered around him again, and after making a few last adjustments to their ashen camouflage, he nodded and turned back to the fortress.
‘We go. From now, no sound.’
Climbing quietly up the timber steps out of the great fortified ditch that ran the full length of the perimeter around the Old Camp, a barrier that Kivilaz had ordered both as a means of keeping the legions inside the camp trapped, and to keep out any relieving force, they padded silently out onto the wide expanse of pitted and ravaged ground, their pace set by the man at the head of their line, the chieftain’s youngest son and his only remaining heir, an irrepressible boy on the cusp of manhood whose eyes and ears were undoubtedly the sharpest among them. Advancing slowly out into the killing field of the fortress’s bolt throwers they barely made a sound, their presence undetectable in the deep gloom of the overcast night.
A whispered command stopped them, and each man turned to his right and sank silently to the ground, the fortress barely discernible in the night except as a darker mass against the gloom. No lights burned on the walls, the Romans having learned early in the siege that to do so invited the attention of archers, who would creep in close and then loft speculative arrows at any torch or watch fire. The walls could have been empty of life, were it not for the fact that the sound of voices could be faintly heard in the night’s silence, men talking to pass the long hours of their watch. Good, he mused, for if they were talking then they could not be listening. He whispered the order to begin the search, and with an almost imperceptible rustle of fingers combing through frost-rimed grass his men began to crawl forward. Doing the same, his hands feeling forward in the darkness, he inched his way across the freezing cold ground, probing the ice-crusted blades of grass with his fingers for any sign of the prize in whose pursuit he had led his kindred out onto the dark battlefield. His skin touched cold metal, and with a thrill of discovery he slowly and painstakingly freed it from the earth into which it had been trodden, but even as it came free from the ground’s tight grip he knew that it was close to valueless, a piece of iron shield edging that would be worth next to nothing. Tucking it into his belt he crawled on, listening as the men on either side stopped and scraped at the soil as they chanced on items of potential value, only to breathe disappointed sighs as the truth of their discoveries became apparent.
‘It’s an arrowhead.’
His son’s almost inaudible whisper was freighted with the despondency that followed the first thrill of a find, when the potential for wealth was dispelled by the certainty of what it was that lay on the discoverer’s palm. He had, of course, warned them that their search was likely to end in disappointment. The men with the unenviable job carrying away the rotting bodies of their dead fellow warriors after each battle had routinely searched them for valuables, and combed the ground on which they lay, and the vast majority of gold and weapons had doubtless been found and carried away. There would be other groups of men searching the battlefield elsewhere, as there were every moonless night, and previous searches had already seen men come away with items that had evaded the eyes of men struggling with the horror of their gruesome task, but such good fortune was rare, and becoming less and less likely as the weeks passed.
A faint sound away to his right snatched the tribesman’s attention away from his task, a hand snaking to his dagger, but no other noise broke the silence and, after a moment longer to assure himself that all was still well, he resumed the search, crawling slowly across the cold ground with the increasing feeling of having risked the battlefield’s perils for nothing, not yet willing to admit defeat, despite the fact that he could no longer feel his fingers or toes. Only when he judged that the dawn was approaching did he hiss a quiet command, waiting while it was passed down the line before creeping away from the fortress with his family at his back. Once they had regained the safety of the earthwork he straightened and stood erect, stretching out the knots in his muscles and counting his men as they walked stiffly past him into the besiegers’ camp.
‘Twelve. There is one missing. Come here!’ He looked at each of them in turn in the dim light of the torch that lit that section of the earthworks, quickly realising who was absent. ‘My son. Where is my son?’
They looked at each other in growing horror, all having heard the stories told by men whose narrow escapes from death in the darkness had usually been purchased with the lives or, more chillingly, the ruin of their comrades or family members – men who had professed, with wide eyes, their hands raised to protest the truth of their words, that they had never heard or seen a sign of the Banô, of whoever it was who had killed or mutilated the man barely feet from them, the terror that was said to roam the night in search of blood, and the opportunity to inflict a lifetime of misery on his victims. Turning back to the battlefield, forbidding any of them to accompany him, he retraced his steps with less care than before, heedless of the danger that he might be heard in his increasingly desperate need to find his son before the sun rose, and revealed whatever had befallen him, praying that the boy had simply got lost in the dark and made his own way back across the fortified earth defence. Out on the field of bones the fortress’s dark shape loomed a little larger, its outline fractionally clearer against the slowly lightening eastern sky, and he knew he only had a short time before the ground around him began to receive a portion of the impending dawn’s feeble glow despite the Old Camp’s brooding presence. Scouting across the bumpy, pockmarked surface, he cast frantically to his left and right, moving in an aimless hunt no less likely to reveal his son than a carefully thought out search. And then, just as he knew he would have to give up the hunt, he tripped, sprawling full length onto the hard ground with the breath driven out of him by the unexpected impact in a loud grunt that caught the attention of the wall sentries, who called excitedly to each other at the prospect of something to break their monotonous routine. Hobnailed boots were slapping at the stairs as the Romans ran for their arrow machines, but the chieftain’s attention was riveted to the corpse over which he had fallen, lifting the dead man’s head with the dread of certainty. He choked with the horror of his son’s lifeless eyes, and the gash that had been torn in his throat to allow his lifeblood to soak the ground on which he lay in a slick of fluid made black by the absence of light. Shuffling backwards, away from the boy’s cold body, desperate to escape the corpse’s accusatory stare, he felt a hard grasp pinion the back of his neck, fingers clamping so tightly that he instinctively knew his chances of escape were infinitesimal, even before the point of a knife slid under his jaw to rest on the soft skin beneath which his veins awaited its cold iron kiss.
‘You wish to live? Or die? Quietly.’
The words were spoken in fluent Latin, a language the German had learned a little of in his youth living in a village close to the great river, the voice brutally harsh even as a whisper, leaving him in no doubt that he was closer to death than he had ever been fighting under the defenders’ spears and missiles.
‘I wish to l-live.’
‘Then I will let you live. In return you will wear my mark for the rest of your life. Do you agree?’
He nodded minutely, knowing that the smallest movement of the knife’s blade could kill him, but his relief as the iron’s cold touch left the skin of his throat was replaced by horror as he was pushed effortlessly back onto the frozen grass, a dark shape looming over him with one big hand covering his mouth and holding him down with a force he could never have hoped to resist. Looking up into the featureless face that loomed over him he saw the faint reflections of his captor’s eyes, pitiless and without expression, a gaze that fixed him in place as effortlessly as the hand on his face. His knife was within easy reach of his right hand, and the man pinning him to the frozen earth was making no effort to prevent him trying to take it, but he knew without conscious thought that to do so would be to die before the blade had cleared its sheath.
‘This will hurt. If you make a sound I will kill you. Understand?’
The German nodded, starting as the blade’s point was suddenly touching his face, then stiffening with the first cut, feeling the iron scraping across the bone of his forehead in a line that curved down from one temple to the bridge of his nose and then up again on the other side of his head, red hot pain tensing his body as the knife descended again to peck at his face in a pattern that repeated half a dozen times above his right eye before the weapon’s point was momentarily withdrawn.
‘Nearly finished. But you can still die here.’
The blade came down again, repeating the same odd series of short cuts over the other eye, then withdrew.
‘Done. When men ask you what it is, tell them it is the mark of the eagle. Tell them that’s what happens when you pull Rome’s tail just a little too hard without working out that the dog you’re teasing still has teeth. Now leave in silence, without drawing attention to me, or I’ll run you down in a dozen strides and leave the rope of your guts hanging out for the crows.’
Padding silently away with blood pouring down his face from a dozen deep cuts to his forehead, the German was almost back at the earthwork, the shock of his disfigurement swiftly being overridden by the memory of his dead son’s corpse staring up into the blank sky, when the silence was broken by a sudden roar.
‘This! Is! Aquillius!’ Silence descended again, no answer call given, or, from the speed with which the Roman renewed his challenge, expected. ‘Let down the rope and get ready to pull me up! And if I find out that any one of you so much as puts bolt to bow while I’m down here, I’ll put that missile up your arse fins first!’
‘Gaius Hosidius Geta! At last, a man I can talk to without bothering about protocol!’
Beaming with pleasure, the newly enthroned emperor Vespasianus greeted his visitor with the evident warmth of a military man for a former brother-in-arms, gesturing to the couches that had been set up for their meeting along with wine and an assortment of morsels should either Caesar or his guest find themselves in need of refreshment. Taking a cup poured for him by the emperor, Vespasianus’s invited guest lowered his head solemnly in the universal gesture of respect. A man in his late middle age, he retained the razor-sharp intelligence that had characterised him as a legion commander over twenty-five years before, and which was one of the reasons the emperor had sent for him, summoning his old friend across the sea to Alexandria where the imperial court awaited favourable winds for the voyage to Rome.
‘Caesar. Allow me to present the compliments of my senatorial colleagues. Those men not selected to join the official delegation you met earlier, after a selection process that exercised the best minds in Rome for days with the arcane methods by which the undeserving, uninspiring and those men known to have favoured Nero, Otho or Vitellius were excluded.’
Vespasianus barked a gruff laugh.
‘Hah! I’d imagine Licinius Mucianus had a field day with that nonsense, it’s just the sort of thing he’s good at, smiling while he slides the knife in. Not like you and I, Gaius? The darker political arts don’t come easily to soldiers like us!’
Hosidius Geta inclined his head with a slight smile.
‘Indeed not, Caesar, you and—’
‘And you can cut out all that imperial fawning! You and I are Gaius and Titus, fellow legates who both very nearly bought our farms one misty morning on a hill in Britannia, eh?’
Geta stared at the older man for a moment, the niceties of dealing with an emperor falling away at the older man’s command.
‘Indeed we did. And, of course, when your colleague Mucianus summoned me to the Palatine, I guessed at once what it was that he would request of me, given our shared near-death experience.’
Vespasianus laughed again.
‘Did you now? You always were a smart arse, weren’t you? You pulled off the near-impossible in Africa by defeating the Mauri at twenty-three, and you were victorious in Britannia against all the odds at twenty-four, so gloriously victorious and at such great personal risk that dear old Claudius made you walk with him through Rome on the day of his triumph to celebrate the conquest of the new province, even though you weren’t a consul. And then?’
‘And then, Titus, I was reclaimed by my family. Glory won, honour more than satisfied, I was to run the family estates and allow my father a well-deserved retirement. Retirement from public life with a pretty wife chosen for me, not that they got that choice wrong in any way, but with that feeling that as a man of less than thirty I could have done more. So much more.’
The emperor smiled wryly.
‘Such hardship! Whereas, with a legion centurion for a grandfather rather than a pillar of an old and well-respected family, I never had any alternative but to serve, or to trade mules when times were thin …’ The two men exchanged smiles at his recounting of a story that had long since passed into legend. ‘Mulio, they called me. They won’t dare do that again, will they!’
‘No, they surely won’t.’
The emperor was suddenly serious, tipping his head to one side in question.
‘So come on then, Gaius, if you’re so clever, tell me what it is I want with you?’
The younger man smiled slyly.
‘The empire is still …’
‘I was going to say “unsteady”, but shaken will serve as well. Your son Titus will see to the Jews, that’s obvious. He’ll make a fine emperor when the time comes.’
‘Not too bloody soon, I hope. There’s a good deal of life left to be enjoyed! But yes, he will, and yes, he’ll put the Jews back in their place with the minimum of fuss. But these Batavians …’
‘Exactly.’ Geta nodded knowingly. ‘You don’t need a general, not with your son-in-law Petillius Cerialis breathing fire to be sent north, and you wouldn’t have brought me all this way to appoint me commander of an army even if I were qualified for the task. But perhaps you need … counsel? The advice of a man who knows … shall we say the individual concerned?’
The emperor nodded.
‘I thought you’d understand. So, tell me, why you? What special qualities do you possess that I couldn’t find in any other man of our class?’
‘That’s easy enough to make out. It’s my knowledge of the events of that morning we both almost died in Britannia. My memories.’
‘Yes, your memories. I’m becoming an old man, Gaius, and old men sometimes find themselves with a recollection of distant events that is less precise than might be desirable. I need you to remind us both exactly what happened that day, and then I need to ask you to help me answer a question that’s been troubling me for a while now.’
‘Ever since the revolt of the Batavians got somewhat … out of hand? I take it that the rumours that you incited our mutual friend to lead his tribe to war, so as to tie down the army of Germania and deny Vitellius the support of his own legions, are correct?’
‘Yes. I had my son-in-law Petillius Cerialis and his friend Secundus Plinius woo Julius Civilis, Kivilaz among his own people, with exactly that intention. With the somewhat over-enthusiastic assistance of that poor fool Hordeonius Flaccus.’
‘You’ve heard the stories of Legatus Augusti Flaccus’s death then?’
‘Yes. It seems he put his head into the lion’s mouth one time too many, and his German legions obliged their commander’s apparent death-wish in the bloodiest manner possible. And yes, partially thanks to Flaccus and partially our own miscalculation, I suppose, the Batavians are running amok across Germania Inferior. And the war threatens to spread south and consume the Gauls as well. Peace will be restored, of course, at some further cost in dead legionaries, and when that state of calm has been achieved, if our former ally Gaius Julius Civilis survives the pacification, we’ll have to be clear what should be done with him. So, Gaius, remind me of what happened that day in Britannia.’
Geta leaned back on his couch and sipped from his glass.
‘The battle of the Medui river. What a disaster that could have been.’
‘Could have been? What a disaster that very nearly was! And you’re not the man who spent the most uncomfortable night imaginable waiting for the enemy to come down that hill one hundred thousand strong and erase any trace that we’d ever even been there!’
The younger man inclined his head, accepting his emperor’s acerbic rejoinder.
‘Yes. And then, the morning after, came that moment when the fate of an entire army rested on one tribe. On one man, it’s probably fair to say. “Our” rebel Civilis.’
The emperor stared at him, his expression suddenly rapt as the younger man’s words brought memories of the most desperate moment of his military career.
‘Yes. Your memory is as sharp as ever, Titus. I’d totally forgotten Prefect Draco’s part in the matter.
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