“The silence which greeted this new order was even more deafening than the silence before it, for the cornicens did not know how to signal the gathering of seashells, and the only sound in my ears was that of the whipping wind. But, as before, it took only one man in a position of authority to take the Emperor literally, and soon the entire army was on its hands and knees before Little Boots, rooting around for the ‘plunder from the Ocean.’
“I, with an open expanse before me at the head of a legion, found a shell easily enough, and I amused myself by putting it to my ear. The sound I heard within the world that was Caligula’s shell was the sound of chaos.”
“And so it should come as no surprise, my friend, that our Little Boots was assassinated soon after his return to Rome that autumn. Myself and the rest of my legion had returned to the Rhenus, and it was from there that we learned of the ascension of Claudius to Emperor at the hands of the Praetorian Guard, a day after a member of that same mercenary body had murdered Claudius’s predecessor.
“The new Emperor may have been found trembling behind a curtain by a household guard on the day of his nephew’s demise, but it was to that Emperor that I owed my first real taste of martial glory. The ostensible reason for our summer landing on the coast of Albion two years into the new reign was assistance to that island’s King Verica, the leader of the Atrebates tribe who had been driven from his throne by the Catuvellauni from the north and opposite side of the Tamesis; the real reason was conquest in the name of Claudius.
“Our landing on the coast was unopposed, and perhaps it was my comrades’ desire to leave the sea well behind us that drove all four legions inland at a good clip. We found the natives at the Medeguaia (both the barbarians and that river lay across our path into the interior), and we proceeded to march back and forth along the south side of the stream.
“This seemingly nonsensical tactic garnered the full attention of the enemy while our Batavian allies crossed the river unseen on the right flank. Our Germans slashed the legs of the British chariot horses (as instructed), and fled from the Britons’ pursuit. Then the Second and Twentieth legions crossed the river on the left flank unseen and unopposed, and were able to draw themselves up into battle formation before being attacked by the natives.
“You might imagine, my friend, the ache in the heart suffered by myself and the rest of the Fourteenth as we watched the ensuing day-long battle from the far side of the river. But when night fell, we were given our chance for blood as well.
“We used a pontoon bridge to cross the river ourselves, under the cover of darkness, and three legions fell upon the natives at dawn (the Ninth Hispania remained in reserve on the south side of the river). The second day of fighting was more intense than the first, and was not won until Gnaeus Hosidius Geta broke through the enemy line. All that day I spent at the front of my century, thrusting alternately with shield and sword and stomping upon my victims with hobnailed sandals.
“Without warning, the enemy before us turned and fled. I was in command of our century now after the death of our centurion, and, as I had been trained to do, I ordered my men to collapse their ranks in the face of the fleeing enemy and thus allow the cavalry a path of pursuit. The horsemen did as they were trained, riding through us and falling upon those in flight with their longer swords.
“After the slaughter of two days, we spent the third gathering bodies and weapons and interring the former. The remaining days of the campaign were spent in an advance to and in an encampment along the Tamesis, where both our Emperor and the local chieftains joined us for the formality of establishing Imperial rule over southeastern Albion.
“The day of the ceremony of submission of the chieftains, a ceremony which was held along the southern bank of the Tamesis, I was not overawed by the regal spectacle of conquest centered upon the Emperor, nor by the same Emperor’s presentation to Geta of ornamenta triumphalia, nor even by my formal promotion that morning to the long-dreamed-of rank of centurion.
“The entire set of ceremonies, I looked out from my position at the front of my legion, out over the pontoon bridge which had already been thrown across the river. I gazed upon the virgin hills along the north bank, and could not help repeating in my head, many times more than once, ‘My God, this is the future site of London.’”
“For that moment, London was merely a river crossing on the road to the Catuvellaunian capital of Camulodunon, which was soon Romanized to ‘Camulodunum’ upon its capture and made the capital of the new Roman province of Britannia. By the following spring, however, the fort of ‘Londinium’ on the north side of the new Tamesis bridge was the base from which my legion advanced into the interior, to the north and west.
“I will not bore you, my friend, with the intermittent fighting of the next sixteen years, occasional open combat supplemented with the more humdrum but equally effective construction of roads and forts with which we could better project the might of our Emperor over the whole of the isle, or at least a good portion of it (the same roads and forts helped maintain our borders with the Welsh tribes for one, frontiers with natives who were slow to submit to the Imperial will). The life of a soldier, I can confirm, is hard and lonely when it’s not deadly, and I was looking forward to the advantages of retirement when the world of Britannia exploded.
“We had just completed our conquest of the Isle of Mona at the northern extremity of the Welsh hinterland, having faced down the dreadful Druids and their Fury-like women, when word of a disaster at Camulodunum reached us. The King of the Iceni had bequeathed his kingdom to the Emperor and the King’s own daughters, and the Emperor’s soldier representatives had returned the favor by plundering the kingdom in question and raping the Emperor’s fellow heirs. The Iceni and the neighboring Trinovantes, perhaps encouraged by the hundreds of miles between them and we two legions’ worth of men, set upon and wiped out the Roman veterans’ colony at Camulodunum, not to mention the Ninth Legion’s foot soldiers on the road to the town of Londinium. Our commander Suetonius, who had ridden ahead of us as we marched from the Welsh coast, retreated from Londinium and allowed both it and Verulamium a fate identical to that of Camulodunum.
“Once Suetonius encountered us men of the Fourteenth and Twentieth legions in the Midlands, however, he resolved to make a stand against the rampaging barbarians. Our side was drawn up in a narrow defile between forest and plain, and we awaited the enemy horde which soon arrived on that plain. The enemy warriors left their wagons, women, and children on the far side of the great grassy expanse, listened intently to the Icenian Queen Boudicca’s imprecations from her daughter-driven chariot, then charged our lines en masse.
“We Roman soldiers released two volleys of ten thousand javelins each, allowed the oncoming tide of the enemy to break upon our swords and shields, then advanced in a wedge formation which forced the two halves of the enemy against the steep hillsides of the defile. Our auxiliaries had climbed those same hills to rain stones and arrows down upon the now-tightly-packed barbarians, and our cavalry added the final touch needed to prompt the enemy’s flight when they rode through the empty center and wheeled in both directions to slash and hack into the dense hostile masses.
“Most of the enemy managed to flee across the plain, but the solid line of wagons along that plain’s edge prevented their escape. We infantrymen trotted close on the heels of the cavalry’s horses, and neither class of legionaries spared men, women, children, or even wagon horses, knowing that those who had exterminated entire Roman towns must themselves be exterminated.
“Queen Boudicca poisoned herself, those two daughters of hers spent many a subsequent night in a Roman tent, and we proceeded to the charred remains of Londinium, where we met reinforcements from Germania which had sailed up the Tamesis estuary. The Ninth Legion was reconstituted with these new men, winter quarters were established on one of the hills overlooking the river, and re-pacification of the entire province proceeded apace.
“This round of pacification was much aided by the arrival of the Second Legion (which had sat out the defense against Boudicca and whose commander had subsequently committed suicide), but was more aided by the starvation of the locals, who had spent the previous months waging war and not growing food. Those who could still resist us were hunters who had retreated deep into the island’s forests, and, by the following spring, all cultivated land was once more civilized land.
“Two springs after that, I was retired from the Emperor’s service and given my freedom as a citizen. My citizenship and a small farm north of the Tamesis were my only retirement gifts, but that was perfectly fine with me, as I managed to sell the farm to a neighboring veteran and journeyed south to Londinium with the farm proceeds and the proceeds from my caravan days of many years before both secreted in a pocket.
“Londinium was being rebuilt as a town along the ever-present Tamesis, and I rented an apartment as one of the many traders who were flocking to this center of Britannia’s thriving commerce. Some traded in olive oil, some in pottery, some in glassware, some even in slaves from the interior, but I, my friend, had decided to make my fortune in wine.”
“Wine?” Carter asked from his seat against his desk.
Cartaphilus smiled in a dreamy sort of way. “Yes, wine from Narbonensis. For, after the defeat of the rebellion, the province of Britannia was much more pacific, so much so that my legion was transferred to the south of Gaul shortly after my retirement from the service. While I envied my former comrades for their change to a much more hospitable clime, their transfer provided me with multiple connections in a first-rate wine-producing region.
“And the Britons were first-rate consumers. The former tribesmen surrounding my base of Londinium were eager to literally taste the fruits of civilization, and the first shipment from the continent sold out in a day. The next, larger, shipment (paid for to a middleman with my profits from the first) sold out in a second day, and I found myself purchasing ever-larger quantities of vintage which had sure buyers.
“And do not think, my friend, that I did not enjoy the fruits of this luck (versus labor). Without a modern banking system, my ability to expand my business was limited to the rapidity with which I could reinvest my profits, and I thus found myself with time as well as money on my hands. With the arrival of Autumn, I was wealthy enough to purchase a small villa between Londinium’s fort and newly-constructed forum. (I, who would forevermore have the threat of disorder in the back of my mind, judged such a real estate purchase as safe as any on the island.) And with the arrival of the first snow, I ventured forth to that forum to make a purchase of a domestic nature. There were no recent conquests to fill the slave stands, but there was the sale of the estate of a Roman officer taken by the god Pluto.
“I first saw the poor girl standing in the freezing cold in a corner of the forum, the usual sign around her neck and a cloak about her shoulders, a cloak which the auctioneer forced her to hold away from her front with one arm at her side and one arm straight away from her body. The effect was to reveal the entirety of her white, goosebumped flesh to myself and the host of other male onlookers, and we reveled in the curves of her young body. The creature was not beautiful, and I obtained her for little more than a hundred aurei. Once I had placed the gold in the merchant’s hand, I took the girl in my own hand and led her out of the forum to my timber villa down the street, a domicile which rested along a brook.
“Oh, you might imagine, my friend, the carnal pleasure of the slave girl Meredith’s first night in my home. I allowed her to cook us a dinner, ate the bread and drank the wine in silence, then led her to the back room of my home to lay her down upon my straw-stuffed mattress, after she had disrobed for me in the darkness.”
“And the domestic pleasures followed closely on the heels of the carnal. My first concubine, as far as a man can peer into the heart of a woman, accepted her fate and embraced me in spirit as well as body. And I soon received prima facie evidence that the medibots had not harmed my fertility, when my first son was born the following Autumn, sufficiently late to not have been sired by my dead rival.
“But do not think my friend, that I, who had the means and circumstances before me, stopped at the traditional nuclear family. The end of the summer following my first purchase, as that purchase grew swollen with child, I brought a second purchase into our new home (that spring I had replaced my timber villa with a proper villa urbana on the same site). I took great pleasure in dragging that new girl to bed with me after moving my first concubine into the second of three bedrooms.
“Alas, such pleasures of a man’s castle do not last, at least not for yours truly. As the years of my life as a Londinium wine merchant passed, my multiple aging concubines grew increasingly dismayed by my perpetual appearance as a thirty-year-old man. My numerous children by those same women, however, were too young to perceive anything amiss, and I found myself spending more and more of my precious leisure time playing with my children in and on the brooks which emptied into the northern bank of the Tamesis.
“It was in the Roman year of Eight Thirty Six that I seized my opportunity to escape, before being accused of practicing the Druidic arts on account of my perpetual youth. In that year, my latest concubine died in childbirth, and word reached Londinium of Governor Agricola’s victory over the Caledonians at Mons Graupius.
“While the Caledonians were in the Highlands far to the north, I took the Governor’s victory as proof that the island as a whole was now safe for a civilized man, and I journeyed forth to Wales, which had been subdued some years before. Pleading the desire to escape the grief of my most beautiful companion’s untimely death, to Segontium in the northernmost corner of the peninsula I headed, my newborn son, a new concubine, and a wagonload of possessions in tow. To my eldest son, now a young trader with a companion of his own, I left the care of the villa, with the understanding that his youngest and most unfortunate brother would be my sole heir upon my death. To my harem I left their freedom, along with the villa for residence and a sum of money in the care of my son for support.
“Initially my only customers in that remotest corner of the Empire were a thousand Germans stationed at the local fort, but I knew they would be a thirsty lot and I arrived with several amphorae of my best vintage, as well as an arrangement for my trader progeny to ship more wine from Londinium on a regular basis. Aware that my small customer base would leave me with ample free time, I purchased a tract of land near the fort, built another villa, and proceeded to draw wool from the herd which had come with the land.
“And so I settled down into the quiet life of a provincial farmer, reading the works of Latin writers my faithful son packed regularly with the shipments of Continental wine. To read those works lost to my own antiquity, one after the other! I started a small library (a horde, really), codices secreted away in a wall of my villa for the age when I and everyone else had long forgotten the wonder of their contents.