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- Beric the Briton - 2/74 -
a sombre tone, "at any rate it is not while we are tranquil under the Roman heel that such a man could show himself. If he is to come to the front it must be in the day of battle. Then, possibly, one chief may rise so high above his fellows that all may recognize his merits and agree to follow him."
"That is so," Beric agreed; "but is it possible that even the greatest hero should find support from all? Cassivelaunus was betrayed by the Trinobantes. Who could have united the tribes more than the sons of Cunobeline, who reigned over well nigh all Britain, and who was a great king ruling wisely and well, and doing all in his power to raise and advance the people; and yet, when the hour came, the kingdom broke up into pieces. Veric, the chief of the Cantii, went to Rome and invited the invader to aid him against his rivals at home, and not a man of the Iceni or the Brigantes marched to the aid of Caractacus and Togodamnus. What wonder, then, that these were defeated. Worse than all, when Caractacus was driven a fugitive to hide among the Brigantes, did not their queen, Cartismandua, hand him over to the Romans? Where can we hope to find a leader more fitted to unite us than was Caractacus, the son of the king whom we all, at least, recognized and paid tribute to; a prince who had learned wisdom from a wise father, a warrior enterprising, bold, and indomitable--a true patriot?
"If Caractacus could not unite us, what hope is there of finding another who would do so? Moreover, our position is far worse now than it was ten years ago. The Belgae and Dumnonii in the southwest have been crushed after thirty battles; the Dobuni in the centre have been defeated and garrisoned; the Silures have set an example to us all, inflicting many defeats on the Romans; but their power has at last been broken. The Brigantes and ourselves have both been heavily struck, as we deserved, Boduoc, for standing aloof from Caractacus at first. Thus the task of shaking off the Roman bonds is far more difficult now than it was when Plautius landed here twenty years ago. Well, it is time for me to be going on. Won't you come with me, Boduoc?"
"Not I, Beric; I never want to enter their town again save with a sword in one hand and a torch in the other. It enrages me to see the airs of superiority they give themselves. They scarce seem even to see us as we walk in their streets; and as to the soldiers as they stride along with helmet and shield, my fingers itch to meet them in the forest. No; I promised to walk so far with you, but I go no farther. How long will you be there?"
"Two hours at most, I should say."
"The sun is halfway down, Beric; I will wait for you till it touches that hill over there. Till then you will find me sitting by the first tree at the spot where we left the forest."
Beric nodded and walked on towards the town. The lad, for he was not yet sixteen, was the son of Parta, the chieftainess of one of the divisions of the great tribe of the Iceni, who occupied the tract of country now known as Suffolk, Norfolk, Cambridge, and Huntingdon. This tribe had yielded but a nominal allegiance to Cunobeline, and had held aloof during the struggle between Caractacus and the Romans, but when the latter had attempted to establish forts in their country they had taken up arms. Ostorius Scapula, the Roman proprietor, had marched against them and defeated them with great slaughter, and they had submitted to the Roman authority. The Sarci, the division of the tribe to which Beric belonged, had taken a leading part in the rising, and his father had fallen in the defence of their intrenchments.
Among the British tribes the women ranked with the men, and even when married the wife was often the acknowledged chief of the tribe. Parta had held an equal authority with her husband, and at his death remained sole head of the subtribe, and in order to ensure its obedience in the future, Ostorius had insisted that her only son Beric, at that time a boy of eleven, should be handed over to them as a hostage.
Had Parta consulted her own wishes she would have retired with a few followers to the swamps and fens of the country to the north rather than surrender her son, but the Brigantes, who inhabited Lincolnshire, and who ranged over the whole of the north of Britain as far as Northumberland, had also received a defeat at the hands of the Romans, and might not improbably hand her over upon their demand. She therefore resigned herself to let Beric go.
"My son," she said, "I need not tell you not to let them Romanize you. You have been brought up to hate them. Your father has fallen before their weapons, half your tribe have been slain, your country lies under their feet. I will not wrong you then by fearing for a moment that they can make a Roman of you.
"You have been brought up to lie upon the bare ground, to suffer fatigue and hardship, hunger and thirst, and the rich food and splendid houses and soft raiment of the Romans should have no attraction for you. I know not how long your imprisonment among them may last. For the present I have little hope of another rising; but should I see a prospect of anything like unity among our people, I will send Boduoc with a message to you to hold yourself in readiness to escape when you receive the signal that the time has come. Till then employ your mind in gaining what good you may by your residence among them; there must be some advantage in their methods of warfare which has enabled the people of one city to conquer the world.
"It is not their strength, for they are but pigmies to us. We stand a full head above them, and even we women are stronger than Roman soldiers, and yet they defeat us. Learn then their language, throw your whole mind into that at first, then study their military discipline and their laws. It must be the last as much as their discipline that has made them rulers over so vast an empire. Find out if you can the secret of their rule, and study the training by which their soldiers move and fight as if bound together by a cord, forming massive walls against which we break ourselves in vain. Heed not their arts, pay no attention to their luxuries, these did Cunobeline no good, and did not for a day delay the destruction that fell upon his kingdom. What we need is first a knowledge of their military tactics, so that we may drive them from the land; secondly, a knowledge of their laws, that we may rule ourselves wisely after they have gone. What there is good in the rest may come in time.
"However kind they may be to you, bear always in mind that you are but a prisoner among the oppressors of your country, and that though, for reasons of policy, they may treat you well, yet that they mercilessly despoil and ill treat your countrymen. Remember too, Beric, that the Britons, now that Caractacus has been sent a prisoner to Rome, need a leader, one who is not only brave and valiant in the fight, but who can teach the people how to march to victory, and can order and rule them well afterwards. We are part of one of our greatest tribes, and from among us, if anywhere, such a leader should come.
"I have great hopes of you, Beric. I know that you are brave, for single handed you slew with an arrow a great wolf the other day; but bravery is common to all, I do not think that there is a coward in the tribe. I believe you are intelligent. I consulted the old Druid in the forest last week, and he prophesied a high destiny for you; and when the messenger brought the Roman summons for me to deliver you up as a hostage, it seemed to me that this was of all things the one that would fit you best for future rule. I am not ambitious for you, Beric. It would be nought to me if you were king of all the Britons. It is of our country that I think. We need a great leader, and my prayer to the gods is that one may be found. If you should be the man so much the better; but if not, let it be another. Comport yourself among them independently, as one who will some day be chief of a British tribe, but be not sullen or obstinate. Mix freely with them, learn their language, gather what are the laws under which they live, see how they build those wonderful houses of theirs, watch the soldiers at their exercises, so that when you return among us you can train the Sarci to fight in a similar manner. Keep the one purpose always in your mind. Exercise your muscles daily, for among us no man can lead who is not as strong and as brave as the best who follow him. Bear yourself so that you shall be in good favour with all men."
Beric had, to the best of his power, carried out the instructions of his mother. It was the object of the Romans always to win over their adversaries if possible, and the boy had no reason to complain of his treatment. He was placed in the charge of Caius Muro, commander of a legion, and a slave was at once appointed to teach him Latin. He took his meals with the scribe and steward of the household, for Caius was of noble family, of considerable wealth, and his house was one of the finest in Camalodunum. He was a kindly and just man, and much beloved by his troops. As soon as Beric had learned the language, Caius ordered the scribe to teach him the elements of Roman law, and a decurion was ordered to take him in hand and instruct him in arms.
As Beric was alike eager to study and to exercise in arms, he gained the approval of both his teachers. Julia, the wife of Caius, a kindly lady, took a great fancy to the boy. "He will make a fine man, Caius," she said one day when the boy was fourteen years old. "See how handsome and strong he is; why, Scipio, the son of the centurion Metellus, is older by two years, and yet he is less strong than this young Briton."
"They are a fine race, Julia, though in disposition as fierce as wild cats, and not to be trusted. But the lad is, as you say, strong and nimble. I marked him practising with the sword the other day against Lucinus, who is a stout soldier, and the man had as much as he could do to hold his own against him. I was surprised myself to see how well he wielded a sword of full weight, and how active he was. The contest reminded me of a dog and a wild cat, so nimble were the boy's springs, and so fierce his attacks. Lucinus fairly lost his temper at last, and I stopped the fight, for although they fought with blunted weapons, he might well have injured the lad badly with a downright cut, and that would have meant trouble with the Iceni again."
"He is intelligent, too," Julia replied. "Sometimes I have him in while I am working with the two slave girls, and he will stand for hours asking me questions about Rome, and about our manners and customs."
"One is never sure of these tamed wolves," Caius said; "sometimes they turn out valuable allies and assistants, at other times they grow into formidable foes, all the more dangerous for what they have learned of us. However, do with him as you like, Julia; a woman has a lighter hand than a man, and you are more likely to tame him than we are. Cneius says that he is very eager to learn, and has ever a book in his hand when not practising in arms."
"What I like most in him," Julia said, "is that he is very fond of our little Berenice. The child has taken to him wonderfully, and of an afternoon, when he has finished with Cneius, she often goes
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