At least there was one thing you could say for the Romans, Breoga reflected sourly as he topped the last rise in the chain of low wooded hills before beginning the slow descent to the neat rectangular camp on the plain below. They knew how to make a good camp and tonight he would be sure of hot food and a visit to the public bath house before meeting up with the quaesor to haggle over the trade goods he was pulling along behind him in his small mule train. And after that, he supposed, sour red wine while the minor tribunes would want to hear more stories about the Keltoi.
This camp, he could see, was far more than a temporary marching camp; instead it was a well-fortified base, housing at least two legions by the look of things. Well and good, Breoga thought to himself – the more the merrier and the better the trading. From his vantage point on the low hill, he could clearly see the rectangular shape of the fort, its clay ramparts surmounted by a timber palisade protected by a deep ditch cut around the outside, It’s Aquila standard, dwarfing the smaller Vexillium showing the legion’s name and emblem, stood proud against the darkening sky.
Another good thing, he thought ruefully, was the Roman road running as straight as a spear direct from the north to the south gate. Once down from the rough hillside track, he would make good time, even with his tired mules.
Funny thing about the Romans, though, once you knew the layout of one camp or fort, then you knew the layout of them all, and Roman camps were no stranger to Breoga, a Gallaecian from northern Iberia. He had travelled far and wide with his merchant father and was well used to both the ways of the Romans and the Keltoi tribes, having traded in wine, slaves, perfumes, spices, hunting dogs, medical herbs, weapons, news and technology as well as more mundane goods such as cattle, hides and grain – agricultural produce suitable for an army – supplying many Roman camps in his native Hispania, in Gaul, Germania and as well as the tribal centres, in Brittanica, Dál Riata and Ériu.
Once inside the main gate, having been cursorily checked by a bored legionnaire, Breoga headed down the via principalis towards the centre of the camp and the parade ground. One side of the parade ground housed the base commander or praetor and his staff while opposite it was the squat quaestorium, housing the supply officer. Perpendicular to that was the forum, a small duplicate of an urban forum, where public business could be conducted and where Breoga knew he could offload any of his trade goods the commissary rejected.
A tribune in a blue-banded tunic, accompanied by his scribe, strode briskly into the camp commissary and sat down behind his small desk. Despite his youth, Titus Publius, a narrow banded tribune of the IX legion was a confident soldier, having fought with Gaius Julius in Gaul and beyond in the northern lands. Nevertheless, he was well aware of his lack of knowledge with regard to the tribes he was in daily contact with and eager for news about them.
“And what wild stories do you have for me now, concerning our barbaric friends here and in Britannia?” Titus Publius inquired. “You’ve been there, I gather, and speak enough Gaulish and other tongues to make some sense of what you see and hear, is that right? Are the inhabitants of that mist shrouded isle so different from the tribes we deal with right now?”
“A thousand apologies lord,” Breoga raised his joined hands to his bowed head in a gesture of supplication, “but since we last met I have spent so little time in Albion, which you refer to as Britannia, that I fear there is nothing that I can tell you that you do not already know.”
Initially contact between the trader and the young Roman had been confined to the trading of small amounts of luxury goods in exchange for minerals and grain under the watchful eye of the quaesor, the supply officer, but the tribune learned he could gain much information of interest from the garrulous old trader about the lands he knew the Republic would soon wish to annex.
Titus rose from behind his writing desk and strode the length of the room impatiently. “I know it is only a matter of time before the legions finish their work here in defence of our allies, the Remi. Then we will push further west across the narrow sea into Britannia and north into Dál Riata. They say the Pictish tribes there are small, stunted little warriors, fierce, quick to scorn and always ready to back up their oaths with blood and violence? Is that so? Could they overpower our legions were we to go there?” Picking up a flask of wine, Titus waited until Breoga’s cup was empty.
The trader drained his beaker of the sour wine which the tribune seemed to favour and considered. “Were the legions to go where no Roman legion has ever gone before, my lord, they, no doubt, would be as successful as all such forays by the legions have been and will be forever.”
“They say our enemies, the Nervii are the fiercest warriors among all the Keltoi, some of them fighting buff naked,” Titus added, hoping to draw the old man, filling up his cup with more of the dark brown wine.
Breoga put down his beaker and looked up at the tribune before continuing, “But even beyond Britannia and Dál Riata, there lies the far flung western isle, so remote and untouched by Roman civilization and there, they say, the fiercest warriors of the Keltoi, the Craobh Ruadh, remain, in wild and wooded country, ruled by warlike kings, greedy queens, fierce warriors banded together by loyalty and honour in defence of their kingdoms and demi-gods, intent on seizing and maintaining power by warfare, conquest and cattle raiding.”
“This far-flung isle you speak of, is that what we Romans call Iuverna?” Titus asked eagerly, his young face flushing as he displayed his worldly knowledge.
Breoga reached down to the sack at the side of the low table and withdrew a bulging leather wineskin. “Try this wine, my lord and I will tell you what I know of that isle you speak of, for I have been there many times, ever since I was a child, accompanying my father there in the hopes of acquiring one of their fearsome hounds.”
Titus picked up his beaker and allowed Breoga to pour a jet of wine before sniffing suspiciously at the liquid. There appeared to be a faint sheen on the surface, as if oil floated there, mingled with a strong smell of resin, with which the inside of the leather wineskin had been coated. Putting it down untouched, he turned to face the trader.
“So, tell me, when did you first go to Iuverna?”
“I first set foot on that far-flung western isle when I was a child. I remember it well, looking back now that I am in my middle years, but I’ll tell you this much, that isle was a place of wonder and magic and awe. The green hills, forests thick with wolves, elk and boar, swept down right to the edge of that cruel, grey sea and the wind would cut the face off you. But the people, did they notice the cold and the wind and the rain that would tear the flesh off your very bones? They did not.”
The old man paused and drank deeply before continuing.
“Certainly, they were the men that would tramp barefoot over the thorny ground, splashing through the icy bogs and not a bother on them. And weren’t their women folk as fierce? Often they would be fighting alongside their menfolk, the lot of them stripped down to the pelt, the bodies smeared with ochre and other dyes, the hair on the heads piled up and stiff as a helmet, the long swords hacking and cutting while the wolfhounds would tear the throat out of a man and without as much as a snuffle, they’d bound on to the next warrior, the jaws on them as high as a tall man’s shoulder. Sure, didn’t I see lions in Sumeria that looked like pups compared to those hounds and the noise and the brassy bellow of their trumpets and the roaring out of the lot of them would freeze the blood of a mortal man?”
Titus picked up his beaker, sniffed at it again before taking a tentative sip. “Go on,” he said.
“I remember the first time my father took me there from our home in Hispania. Wolfhounds, he’d say, those are the hounds I want and the high king, or Ard Rí, they call him there, a fierce ould bollix, would demand more than his fair share of the fine amphorae of wine that we had brought, aye, wine and more than that. We would sit in the great hall, night after night, listening to their vaunting the exploits of warriors and champions.
“But could you get your hands on a hound that easily?” Breoga laughed harshly before turning to spit into the brazier. “Not for nothing did we ply the ould’ fella with the latest artifices and I couldn’t tell you what not but it wasn’t until the young fella took the throne that we felt we had the chance.”
“Do you mean Conor Mac Nessa?” Titus asked, a quickened note of interest in his voice,
Breoga stopped and pulled his cloak tighter around his shoulder as he inched closer to the brazier. A mottled hand hooked the beaker of Falernian wine closer to him and not until its position was adjusted to his satisfaction on the low table before him, did he look up at his interlocutor.
“Aye,” he nodded. “Conor Mac Nessa, and yer man, the real power behind the throne, the draoidh, Cathbad the seer. A quare ould’ bollix he was, always there when you didn’t want him and never there when you did.”