Strabo, the Greek geographer, wrote that the inhabitants of upper Illyricum — now Moesia — ‘created caves beneath their dung heaps and lived in them’, but Valerius saw without surprise that the Seventh legion Claudia Pia Fidelis had made itself much more comfortable at Viminacium in a short space of time. On a rise above the meeting place of the Danuvius and one of its larger tributaries the soldiers had demolished a town of mud huts and replaced it with a fortress that made him feel almost as if he was coming home. He could have been approaching Colonia, Glevum or Londinium, or any of the great military encampments in the Empire. Inside the deep triple ditches and the palisade lay the principia, the administrative heart of the legion, surrounded by the long lines of wooden barrack blocks, and beyond it the workshops, marked by the smoke from their glowing braziers, the stables and the supply area. Legionaries patrolled the walls and a cavalry wing exercised in a separate annex on the east side. On a flat piece of ground to the north of the fort, merchants from the surrounding area had created a great market, and below was the reason for it. In the mouth of the smaller river the Seventh had built a new harbour, and from here trim, oared galleys of the Roman navy patrolled to north and south, guarding convoys of supplies for the legions and trade goods from the east and south on their way to Noricum, Raetia and, eventually, Italia. But the most astonishing thing at Viminacium was not the fort or the naval base, but the bridge. Downstream from the fortress, legionary engineers had built a slender wooden crossing over the Danuvius that must have stretched half a mile across the river’s narrowest point. Each end of the bridge was guarded by a section of brick-tunicked soldiers and Valerius noticed that on the far side a crowd had gathered waiting for permission to cross.
Marcus, Serpentius and Heracles rode up from the rear of the convoy with the pack mules. Dust had stained their tunics grey and dulled their armour and Valerius insisted they stop for a few minutes to beat the worst of the dirt from their clothing and polish breastplates and helmets. No amount of cleaning could wipe away the weariness that etched their faces. Four days earlier, the perpetual, dangerous mountains had given way to endless plains with barely a landmark to break the horizon. Since then, the monotony had worn down man and beast alike, inducing a hypnotic, heavy-eyed exhaustion that even sleep could not conquer. It was as if the very land was fighting them and Valerius had never been more relieved to complete a journey.
As he said his farewells to the leader of the caravan, Marcus nodded towards the fort, where a group of riders had just emerged from the gateway. ‘The natives don’t look too friendly.’
They trotted up the slope to meet them.
Valerius inspected the unsmiling young auxiliary prefect and suppressed an urge to tip him from his saddle into the dust. Not only was a Praetorian entitled to the respect his position demanded, he outranked the man and it was customary for officers to exchange names and pleasantries. He looked over the cavalry officer’s shoulder towards the fort, where he had no doubt keen eyes were watching the outcome of the confrontation. Someone was sending him a message.
‘I asked you your name?’ This time the question was more brusque, almost an order.
‘My name is not your concern, but your legate’s.’ Valerius’s tone might have been reprimanding a recruit on his first patrol and he saw the first seeds of doubt in the prefect’s eyes. ‘It is enough for you to know that I am a tribune of the Praetorian Guard and that I am on imperial business. My men and I have travelled from Acruvium and I will require accommodation and rations for at least one week. See to it that this is done.’
The young officer frowned. His horse caught his uncertainty and jerked beneath him, so he had to haul back on the reins to control it. ‘I-’
‘Are you questioning my orders, prefect?’ Valerius snapped impatiently. ‘Perhaps it is you who should give me your name? I doubt the legate will be pleased to discover that the Emperor’s personal representative has been obstructed from doing his duty.’
The officer swallowed hard and saluted. ‘I apologize, sir. Flavius Genialis, prefect of the Second Tungrian wing, at your service. We have had trouble with spies and Dacian infiltrators.’
Valerius heard Serpentius snort at the lame excuse and suppressed a smile of his own. ‘I doubt many of them were wearing Praetorian uniforms, prefect.’ He urged his horse up the shallow slope and his grinning companions followed.
Inside the fort, a servant ushered them to the officers’ mansio, the temporary accommodation for senior guests. Flavius had wanted to billet Marcus and his companions with the legion’s other ranks, but Valerius insisted they stay together.
‘You think there’ll be trouble?’ Marcus asked when the prefect had left them alone. ‘We’re as welcome as a turd in a punch bowl, but I doubt they’d try anything here, not with us being the Emperor’s personal representatives an’ all.’
Valerius grinned. ‘Let’s just say that after all the time we’ve spent together I’d miss your company.’
He washed and donned a clean tunic. This was an encounter he’d anticipated, but he’d heard so many differing views of the man he was about to meet that he was uncertain of the outcome. Serpentius gave Valerius’s sword a final polish and handed it to him. He replaced it in the scabbard on his right hip.
‘Let’s hope I don’t need it.’
‘Gaius Valerius Verrens, tribune of the Guard.’ The aide announced his presence to the commander of the Seventh legion.
Valerius saluted the man standing at the far side of the room. By rights, Aulus Vitellius should have been leading an army, not a single legion. He had no record as a military commander, but that had never been an impediment to a military career. A decade and a half ago he had been consul and a favourite of Emperor Claudius. Under Nero his fortunes had first thrived, then waned, and now, it was said, were about to thrive again. In his mid-forties his handsome features had a florid, slightly pasty look, as if they had been modelled from damp clay, and he wore his hair brushed forward over a wide forehead to cover the growing expanse of bare scalp. His enemies said he was a drunkard who never held a thought long enough to make a rational decision. His friends said he was a misunderstood genius who would one day sit at the Emperor’s right hand.
As Valerius stood to attention, the general studied him with a hint of amusement in the light blue eyes.
‘I had expected you to be older.’ The voice was deep, the accent cultured, perhaps exaggerated to counter the detractors who said his family came from rough plebeian origins. ‘A year ago, Seneca talked of you as the next Scipio: a general in the making. I see a young man with little experience but a surfeit of conceit. Enough, in any case, to force his way into my command and embarrass one of my officers.’
The general paused, but Valerius didn’t respond to the implied rebuke.
‘And yet the young man is a Hero of Rome.’ Vitellius’s eyes took in the wooden hand. ‘And he has made great sacrifices for the Empire. They tell me you fight as well with the sword in your left hand as you once did with your right.’ Now how did he know that, Valerius wondered? ‘Perhaps we should put on an entertainment. A Hero of Rome against my best swordsman. What do you think?’
For answer, Valerius pulled the imperial seal from his tunic and held it out so that Vitellius could see exactly what it was. ‘I think I am not some two-headed snake to be paraded for your garrison’s entertainment, general. I am here on a mission from the Emperor and I will carry it out with your support… or without it.’
‘You have it, of course,’ Vitellius nodded, untroubled by the lack of deference from the younger man. ‘But first I must know the substance of this mysterious assignment. Perhaps you wish to march out at dawn with my legion at your back? I am sure the Emperor would be most pleased if you were to add Dacia to the list of Rome’s provinces.’
Valerius smiled politely. They both knew the last thing the Emperor wanted was more barbarians to worry about. ‘You have a tribune on your staff, Publius Sulla?’
‘A fine young officer, diligent and ambitious.’
‘I would like to talk to him; he may have information of value to my investigation. It is possible that he will have to return with us to Rome… with your permission, of course.’
The lines on Vitellius’s broad forehead deepened.
‘I am afraid that may be difficult.’ He walked to a cloth map pinned to the far wall and pointed to a position beyond the winding blue ribbon of the river. ‘The boy has been pining for an independent command, as you young men do. You know our situation?’ Valerius shook his head. ‘The Seventh, soon to be followed by the Fourth, has been sent here to curb the ambitions of Coson, the Dacian king across the river there, who seeks to annex land for his tribe on the west bank. Coson knows Rome will not countenance it, but for reasons of internal politics he must be seen to make the attempt. A number of small parties have crossed by boat to the east — here, here and here — some of them made up of warriors, others entire families of dispossessed farmers. We have sent them all back, peacefully where possible, by force if not. Your barbarian, young Verrens, appreciates force. At present, however, we are in a period of negotiation. Coson has withdrawn his warriors ten miles from the line of the river in return for a substantial subsidy. To ensure this bargain is adhered to I have set up an outpost, here.’ The position he marked was well into Dacian territory. ‘Publius Sulla commands there.’ He smiled apologetically. ‘Some wine?’
‘Why can’t he just send a messenger and bring Publius back?’ Serpentius wondered suspiciously.
Valerius adjusted his bedroll. ‘It’s a matter of face. His and mine. He’s testing us to see how far we’re prepared to go to complete Nero’s task. Maybe he doesn’t want to lose a promising officer, maybe he can’t afford to lose any officers. It happens. A legion is never at full complement and this is a complicated command.’
‘I don’t like it.’
‘I don’t like it either, but the only power we have is the power of this seal and these uniforms. If we sit and wait for Publius to come back — and the chances are he’s been warned not to — that power diminishes every day. First we’ll be sneered at, then we’ll be laughed at, and after that… well, we’ll never get Publius Sulla out of here.’
‘So we cross the river?’ Marcus sounded thoughtful.
‘We cross at dawn. We ride to the outpost and we bring Publius back.’
‘What if he doesn’t want to come?’
‘But if he doesn’t…?’
‘That’s why you’re here, and we’ll have an escort of twenty auxiliary cavalry from the fort. But that won’t be necessary. He’ll come, for his family’s honour, and because if he doesn’t he knows his career is finished. Vitellius will eventually be forced to send him back in chains.’
Marcus looked at the two others. They hadn’t signed up to go beyond the Empire’s boundaries. Heracles nodded immediately. Serpentius hesitated, then followed suit.
‘Dawn then,’ Marcus said, and wrapped himself in his blanket.
Valerius sat for a few moments before dousing the oil lamp. He pulled his own blanket over his body and closed his eyes. But he didn’t sleep.
Because tomorrow they were going into the unknown.