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- Beric the Briton - 20/74 -
had been left there when Cerealis set out, and in the light of the setting sun the helmets and spearheads could be seen above the massive palisades that rose on the top of the outworks. The Britons halted half a mile away, fires were lighted, and the men sat down to feast upon the meat that had been brought in wagons from Camalodunum. Then a council was held. As a rule, the British councils were attended by all able bodied men. The power of the chiefs, except in actual war, was very small, for the Britons, like their Gaulish ancestors, considered every man to be equal, and each had a voice in the management of affairs. Thus every chief had, before taking up arms, held a council of his tribesmen, and it was only after they had given their vote for war that he possessed any distinct power and control.
When the council began, one of the chiefs of the Trinobantes was asked first to give a minute description of the Roman camp. The works were formidable. Surrounding it was a broad and deep fosse, into which a stream was turned. Beyond this there was a double vallum or wall of earth so steep as to be climbed with great difficulty. In the hollow between the two walls sharp stakes were set thickly together. The second wall was higher than the first, and completely commanded it. Along its top ran a solid palisade of massive beams, behind which the earth was banked up to within some three and a half feet from the top, affording a stand for the archers, slingers, and spearmen.
The council was animated, but the great majority of chiefs were in favour of leaving this formidable position untouched, and falling upon places that offered a chance of an easier capture. The British in their tribal wars fought largely for the sake of plunder. In their first burst of fury at Camalodunum they had, contrary to their custom, sought only to destroy; but their thirst for blood was now appeased, they longed for the rich spoils of the Roman cities, both as trophies of victory and to adorn their women. The chiefs represented that already many of their bravest tribesmen had fallen, and it would be folly to risk a heavy loss in the attack upon such a position.
What matter, they argued, if two or three hundred Romans were left there for the present? They could do no harm, and could be either captured by force or obliged to surrender by hunger after Suetonius and the Roman army had been destroyed. Not a day should be lost, they contended, in marching upon Verulamium, after which London could be sacked, for, although far inferior in size and importance to Camalodunum and Verulamium, it was a rising town, inhabited by large numbers of merchants and traders, who imported goods from Gaul and distributed them over the country.
Beric's opinion was in favour of an instant assault, and in this he was supported by Aska and two or three of the older chiefs; but the majority were the other way, and the policy of leaving altogether the fortified posts garrisoned by the Romans to be dealt with after the Roman army had been met and destroyed was decided upon. One of the arguments employed was that while the capture of these places would be attended with considerable loss, it would add little to the effect that the news of the destruction of the chief Roman towns would have upon the tribes throughout the whole country, and would take so long that Suetonius might return in time to succour the most important places before the work was done. Aska walked away from the council with Beric.
"They have decided wrongly," he said.
"I do not think it much matters," Beric replied. "Everything hangs at present upon the result of our battle with Suetonius. If we win, all the detached forts must surrender; if we lose, what matters it?"
"You think we shall lose, Beric?"
"I do not say that," Beric said; "but see how it was today. The Iceni made no more impression upon the Roman column than if they had been attacking a wall. They hindered themselves by their very numbers, and by the time we meet the Romans our numbers will be multiplied by five, perhaps by ten. But shall we be any stronger thereby? Will not rather the confusion be greater? Today the Roman horse fled; but had they charged among us, small as was their number, what confusion would they have made in our ranks! A single Briton is a match for a single Roman, and more. Ten Romans fighting in order might repel the assault of a hundred, and as the numbers multiply so does the advantage of discipline increase. I hope for victory, Aska, but I cannot say that I feel confident of it."
Marching next morning against Verulamium, they arrived there in the afternoon and at once attacked it. The resistance was feeble, and bursting through in several places the Iceni and Trinobantes spread over the town, slaughtering all they found. Not only the Romans, but the Gauls settled in the city, and such Britons as had adopted Roman customs were put to the sword. The city was then sacked and set on fire. It was now decided that instead of turning towards London they should march west in order that they might be joined by other tribes on their way and meet Suetonius returning from Wales.
There was no haste in their movements. They advanced by easy stages, their numbers swelling every day, tribe after tribe joining them, as the news spread of the capture and destruction of the two chief Roman towns, and the defeat and annihilation of one of the legions. So they marched until, a fortnight after the capture of Verulamium, the news arrived that Suetonius, marching with all speed towards the east, had already passed them, gathering up on his way the garrisons of all the fortified posts. Then the great host turned and marched east again. Beric regretted deeply the course that had been taken. Had the garrisons all been attacked and destroyed separately, the army they would have to encounter would have been a little more than half the strength of that which Suetonius would be able to put into the field when he collected all the garrisons.
But the Britons troubled themselves in no way. They regarded victory as certain, and expressed exultation that they should crush all the Romans at one blow in the open field, instead of being forced to undertake a number of separate sieges. Still marching easily, they came down upon the valley of the Thames and followed it until they arrived at London. They had expected that Suetonius would give battle before they arrived there. He had indeed passed through the town a few days previously, but had disregarded the prayers of the inhabitants to remain for their protection. He allowed all males who chose to do so to enlist in the ranks and permitted others to accompany the army, but he wished before fighting to be joined by Cerealis and the survivors of his legion, and by the garrisons of other fortified posts. The Britons therefore fell upon London, slaughtered all the inhabitants, and sacked and burned the town. It was calculated that here and in the two Roman cities no less than 80,000 persons had been slain. This accomplished, the great host again set out in search of Suetonius. They were accompanied now by a vast train of wagons and chariots carrying the women and spoil.
Beric was not present at the sack of London. As they approached the town and it became known that Suetonius had marched away, and that there would be no resistance, he struck off north. Since they had left Verulamium the tribesmen had given up marching in military order. They were very proud of the credit they had gained in the battle with the Romans, but said that they did not see any use in marching tediously abreast when there was no enemy near. Beric having no power whatever to compel them, told them that of course they could do as they liked, but that they would speedily forget all they had learned. But the impatience of restraint of any kind, or of doing anything unless perfectly disposed to do it, which was a British characteristic, was too strong, and many were influenced by the scoffs of the newcomers, who, not having seen them in the day of battle, asked them scornfully if the Sarci were slaves that they should obey orders like Roman soldiers.
Boduoc, although he had objected to the drill at first, and had scoffed at the idea of men fighting any better because they all kept an even distance from each other, and marched with the same foot forward, had now become an enthusiast in its favour and raged at this falling away. But Beric said, "It is no use being angry, Boduoc. I was surprised that they consented at first, and I am not surprised that they have grown tired of it. It is the fault of our people to be fickle and inconstant, soon wearying of anything they undertake; but I do not think that it matters much now. We alone were able to decide the fight when there were but two thousand Roman spearmen; but when we meet Suetonius, he will have ten thousand soldiers under him, and our multitude is so great that the Sarci would be lost in the crowd. If the Britons cannot beat them without us, we should not suffice to change the fortunes of the day."
It was partly to escape the sight of the sack of London, partly because he was anxious to know how Berenice and Cneius Nepo were faring that Beric left the army, and drove north in a chariot. After two days' journey he arrived at the cottage of Boduoc's mother. The door stood open as was the universal custom in Britain, for nowhere was hospitality so lavishly practised, and it was thought that a closed door might deter a passerby from entering. His footsteps had been heard, for two dogs had growled angrily at his approach. The old woman was sitting at the fire, and at first he saw no one else in the hut.
"Good will to all here!" he said.
"It is the young chief!" the old woman exclaimed, and at once two figures rose from a pile of straw in a dark corner of the room.
"Yes, it is I," he said. "How fares it with you, Berenice? You are well, Cneius, I hope? You have run no risks, I trust, since you have been here?"
"We are well, Beric," the girl said; "but oh the time has seemed so long! It is not yet a month since you sent us here, but it seems a year. She has been very kind to us, and done all that she could, and the girls, her daughters, have gone with me sometimes for rambles in the wood; but they cannot speak our language. Not another person has been here since we came."
"What is the news, Beric?" Cneius asked. "No word has reached us. The old woman and her daughters have learned something, for the eldest girl goes away sometimes for hours, and I can see that she tells her mother news when she returns."
Beric briefly told them what had happened, at which Berenice exclaimed passionately that the Britons were a wicked people.
"Then there will be a great battle when you meet Suetonius, Beric," Cneius said. "How think you will it go?"
"It is hard to say," Beric replied; "we are more than one hundred and fifty thousand men against ten thousand, but the ten thousand
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