Spring, DCCLX* AUC
Following the festival of Tubilustrium, when the sacred trumpets were purified at the Temple of Mars to bring success in the coming battle season, Legate Valerius Sulpicius Aquilinus was sent to Germania Superior with a number of troops to replenish the ranks of the Legio XXIII Septentriona. The Legion was currently quartered in a fortress town called Arboraeum, along the river Maenus. They had suffered some losses in combat with barbarians of the Chatti tribe, and their current legate, Iustus Taenaris, was to end his term of service to retire to a veterans' community in Gaul. Once Aquilinus arrived, he was to relieve Taenaris as legate, keep the peace and await further word from the Emperor. Augustus expected his generals Tiberius and Germanicus to swiftly put down the rebellion in Pannonia and return to command a massive offensive against the German barbarians. The XXIII Legion, he promised, would be a part of that offensive.
Aquilinus and the leader of his Auxilia, Raetus, arrived in Mogontiacum to meet with the provincial governor, Varus, for a briefing on the region before he returned to his residence in Germania Inferior. They were surprised by the opulence of Varus's outpost, and were treated to a fine supper, good quality wine, and exotic Syrian dancing girls. Varus informed them of his relationship with the Hermanduri tribe, a friendly client state that had adopted many Roman practices. Varus was quite self-assured about the willingness of the tribes of Germania Superior and Inferior to undergo full Romanization, becoming citizens of the Empire. He pointed to his deep friendship with the German king Arminius as proof of this, going so far as to claim that the Emperor's planned invasion was little more than a formality at this point. He did grudgingly admit that there were still stubborn pockets of rebellion in the vast forests, however. What he wanted, Varus told Aquilinus, was the subdual of these rebel elements and the preparation of the Hermanduri to be assimilated into a proper province – "Germania Magna" – and begin paying taxes instead of tribute.
Aquilinus and Raetus got the impression that Varus was more an administrator than a military man, and apparently saw no reason to deny himself any indulgence. This was reinforced when Varus privately took Aquilinus to the terrace and suggested that the Hermanduri, while eager to become Romans, had not yet become jaded and cynical toward their overlords. Were Aquilinus to collect a greater tribute from the Hermanduri than what the Emperor demanded, they could both profit by it and return to Rome wealthy men. "I trust our relationship will be long and fruitful," Varus stressed, his hand on the Legate's shoulder. Additionally, he requested that, as a courtesy to him, Aquilinus should bring all information to the governor before it goes to the Emperor's ear. To facilitate this, Varus would make his most trusted legatus, Calpurnis, a go-between to carry messages.
Aquilinus and his men boarded barges and sailed up the Maenus to the harbor of Sinus Conquisitum, where they disembarked and marched to Arboraeum. Here most of the XXIII Legion was quartered, though cohorts were often assigned to various Hermanduri oppida. Another cohort was working on completing a road from Specula Ennium to Spinetidunum. Arboraeum was also home to the Hermanduri king, Gorgonius, who wasted little time in meeting the new commander of the Roman legion.
Aquilinus and Raetus were informed that the Legate Taenaris was with the Legion's Prima Cohors at Spinetidunum, inspecting the lumber camps at the edge of the so-called Nemus Cruentum – "Blood Wood". The Old Man wanted to perform that final duty personally, to commemorate his retirement.
Aquilinus set out to meet him with a retinue of soldiers. Legionaries working on the road east of Specula Ennium informed him that they hadn't seen any traffic arriving from Spinetidunum, which was unusual – it had been a few days since they passed, but no riders or messengers returned. Upon arriving, Aquilinus found Spinetidunum nearly deserted, in a state of disrepair, as though the camp had been besieged. There was no sign of the Legate, but corpses of Legionaries were discovered hanging from the watch towers and gates. Those bodies not strung up were missing their heads. Searching the camp, the Romans discovered a number of fearful Hermanduri peasants, scrounging for what food and supplies could be found in the Romans' absence. The lumber camps themselves were also deserted, with tools strewn about and massive amounts of blood staining the lumber. Raetus determined that the blood was not that of men, but of animals; probably pigs or boars. This did little to settle their rising fears, though.
A group of Auxilia - mostly healers – returned to Spinetidunum. They had gone to search for the missing troops, concluding that most of them had been killed or deserted. They did, however, find a half-crazed young Tribune they found wandering in the forest. He babbled about man-beasts living in the shadows of the Blood-wood, who would return to devour the rest of them under cover of night. He urged Aquilinus to flee back to Arboraeum. The healers could not get any sensible information out of him, save that the Legate and the legion's Eagle were taken back into the forest, and likely into Hades itself.
Raetus dispatched a messenger to fetch the nearest available cohort and return to Spinetinum. Aquilinus set his men to fortifying the central buildings of the camp, then ordered them to remain hidden inside the outlying buildings until after nightfall, prepared for battle. As he suspected, the "man-beasts" returned from the forests to Spinetidunum, scaling the palisade walls and moving along the rooftops. The Romans attacked, handily slaying the seemingly unnatural stalkers and revealing them to be mere men – mud-covered Chatti warriors. Yet their eerily glowing blood-red eyes could not be explained.
Aquilinus's cohort arrived in time to march on Nemus Cruentum. As they began to penetrate the wood, they encountered the Chatti in force – wild beserkers who frothed black bile at the mouth and bled from their glowing red eyes. They began to come in greater numbers, led to battle by a great chieftain who rode upon a giant boar and wielded a massive maul. Aquilinus faced off against the chieftain, knocking him from his mount handily. Raetus peppered the charging beast with arrows until it dropped dead, digging a deep furrow in the forest soil in its final charge.
At the rear of the force was a great cauldron whose contents were stirred and fed to the Chatti by a hooded Druid. This potion drove the warriors into their battle-rages, twisting their features into something feral and supernatural. Most significantly to the Romans, the Druid carried the legion's Eagle as a staff, and they witnessed a number of the missing soldiers of the Prima Cohors being bled into the cauldron to fuel its magic. The Druid himself was protected by black-cloaked warrior women who fought and screamed like wild harpies, but when they were cut down, he drank more deeply of his brew than any of his warriors had, and his form bulged and grew until he towered over them all, a misshapen and maddened brute who claimed many lives.
However, the Legion carried the day. The Druid-beast was slain, leaving the ruined corpse of a withered old man. They freed the Druid's prisoners, who included the Aquilifer, Autronius Nerva, next in line to be sacrificed for the Druid's potion. Though battered and barely conscious, Nerva was able to answer the question Aquilinus asked him, "Where is the Legate? Where is Iustus Taenaris?" Nerva raised his arm, wearily pointing at a pole suspended over the cauldron, where Taenaris's severed head stared back at them.
Aquilinus and Raetus returned to Arboraeum in victory, but their spirits were darkened. More troops would need to be requested from Rome to replace the soldiers yet unaccounted for. If the Chatti were able to defeat the Prima Cohors, elite soldiers of the Legion, what numbers must still lurk in the Nemus Cruentum, and what dark powers were they able to draw upon to secure such a victory?
*760 AUC (7 AD)