'Come on, you dozy beauties!' roared Centurion Hortensius as he stuck his head into Macro's tent. Macro was fast asleep on his camp bed, snoring with a deep bass rumble. To one side Cato slumped over a desk where he had been compiling the Sixth Century's strength return when the irresistible need for rest had finally overwhelmed him. Outside, in the century's line of tents, the men were also fast asleep, and so it was with the rest of the Fourth Cohort. Except Senior Centurion Hortensius. After seeing to the injured and giving orders that a hot meal be prepared for the cohort, he had gone to make his report.
To find himself in the presence of not only the legate but also the commander of all the Roman forces in Britain was something of a surprise. Tired as Hortensius was, he stood to attention and stared rigidly ahead as he outlined the short history of the Fourth Cohort's patrol. Giving the bare details, without embellishment, Hortensius delivered his report with the formal tonelessness of a long-serving professional. He answered their questions in the same style. As the debriefing proceeded, Hortensius became aware that the general seemed to want far more from his answers than he could possibly provide. The man seemed to be obsessive about even the smallest details concerning the Druids, and was horrified when told of Diomedes's slaughter of the Druid prisoners.
'He killed all of them?'
'What did you do with the bodies?' asked Vespasian.
'Dumped them in the well, sir, then filled it in. Didn't want to give their mates any further excuse to give us a hard time.'
'No, I suppose not,' Vespasian replied, with a quick glance at the general. The questions continued for a little while before the general relented and curtly waved him towards the door. Vespasian was angered by the general's casual dismissal of the veteran centurion.
'One final thing, Centurion,' Vespasian called out.
Hortensius halted and turned round. 'Sir?'
'You did an excellent job. I doubt many men could have led the cohort as you did.'
The centurion inclined his head slightly in acknowledgement of the praise. But Vespasian was unwilling to let the matter rest there. He placed heavy emphasis on his next words. 'I imagine there will be some kind of commendation or award for your performance…'
General Plautius looked up. 'Er, yes… yes, of course. Some kind of award.'
'Kind of you, sir.' Hortensius addressed his reply to his legate.
'Not at all. It's well-deserved,' Vespasian said crisply. 'Now, one last thing. Would you be kind enough to send Centurion Macro and his optio to see us? At once, if you please.'
Cato had dipped his head into an icy butt of water in an attempt to be more wakeful in front of his legate, and he looked a sorry state as he and Macro entered the headquarters tent. His dark hair was plastered across his forehead and beads of water trickled down either side of his nose and dropped in dark spatters on his tunic. Macro looked sidelong at him and frowned, largely oblivious of his own appearance. Since returning to the camp they had removed only their belts and armour, and still wore the soiled, bloodstained and torn tunics of the last three days of marching and fighting. Nor were their shallow cuts and scratches dressed in any way; dried blood still crusted their arms and legs. The legate's chief clerk curled his lip at the sight of them as they approached his desk outside the general's day tent; these two were hardly likely to do the legion's reputation much good in the eyes of the general. The clerk added a wrinkled nose to his expression of distaste as the two men came to a halt in front of him.
'Centurion Macro? Couldn't you have presented yourself in a more respectable condition, sir?'
'We were told to be here as soon as possible.'
'Yes, but even so…' The chief clerk looked disapprovingly at Cato, dripping perilously close to his paperwork. 'You might have let the optio dry out first.'
'We're here,' said Macro, too tired to be angry with the clerk. 'Better tell the legate.'
The clerk rose from his stool. 'Wait.' He slipped through the tent flap and pulled it to behind him.
'Any idea what this is about, sir?' Cato rubbed his eyes – the refreshing shock of the cold water had already worn off.
Macro shook his head. 'Sorry, lad.' He tried to think of any misdemeanour he or his men might have unwittingly committed. One of the recruits had probably been caught taking a dump in the tribunes' latrine again, he mused. 'I doubt we're in any kind of serious trouble, so take it easy.'
The clerk reappeared. He stood to one side of the tent flap and held it open for them.
'Anyway, we'll find out soon enough,' mumbled Macro as he led the way. Inside, he raised his eyebrows at the sight of the general, just as Hortensius had done before him. Then he marched up to the senior officers and stood to attention. Cato, younger and lacking the toughness of the veteran centurion, shambled to his side and stiffened into the appropriate posture as best he could. Macro saluted his legate.
'Centurion Macro and Optio Cato reporting as ordered, sir.'
'At ease,' ordered Plautius. The general cast a disapproving eye over them before he turned to Vespasian. 'These are the men we were talking about?'
'Yes, sir. They're just back from that patrol. You haven't caught them at their best.'
'So it seems. But are they as reliable as you say?'
Vespasian nodded, uncomfortable at discussing the two men as if they were not present. He had noticed that those of aristocratic descent, like Aulus Plautius, were inclined to regard the lower orders as part of the scenery without a moment's consideration of how crushing it was to be treated that way. Vespasian's grandfather had been a centurion, like this man standing before them, and it was only due to the social reforms of Emperor Augustus that men from more humble lineages could now rise to the highest offices in Rome. In due course Vespasian, and his elder brother Sabinus, might become consuls, the highest post a senator could achieve. But those senators from the oldest families would still look down their fine noses at the Flavians and mutter snide remarks to each other about the arrivistes' lack of refinement.
'You're sure of them?' Plautius persisted.
'Yes, sir. Definitely. If anyone can do the job, it's these two.'
Despite his exhaustion, Cato's curiosity was aroused and it sharpened his concentration. He barely managed to restrain a glance towards his centurion. Whatever this 'job' was, it came right from the top and had to be a chance to distinguish himself and prove to the other men of the legion, and more importantly to himself, that he was worthy of the optio's white strap he wore on his shoulder.
'Very well,' said the general. 'You'd better brief them.'
'Yes, sir.' Vespasian quickly collected his thoughts. As things stood, the Second was to redirect its thrust into the heart of the Durotriges' territory rather than support the main campaign north of the Tamesis. Vespasian's troubled mind was plagued by the perils this posed for himself and his men, two of whom he must now send to an almost certain death. A death, moreover, at the hands of the Druids, who would be sure to extract every last measure of torment in the process.
'Centurion, you will recall the death of the fleet prefect, Valerius Maxentius, some days back.'
'You may remember the demands he was forced to make before he was murdered.'
'Yes, sir,' Macro repeated, and Cato nodded, vividly recalling the scene.
'The hostages he mentioned, the ones who were offered in exchange for the Druids we took at Camulodunum, they're the wife and children of General Plautius.'
Both Cato and Macro were astonished and could not help shifting their gaze to the general. He sat staring into his lap, quite motionless. Cato saw the weary stoop of the man's shoulders and his troubled expression. For a moment Cato felt pity for the general, until the shamefulness of that emotion embarrassed him. When Aulus Plautius looked up and caught his eye, it was as if he sensed that he had revealed more of himself than he should have. The general straightened his shoulders and concentrated on the legate's briefing with a stern and alert expression.
'General Plautius has authorised me to send a small party out into the territory of the Durotriges to search for and, if the opportunity presents itself, to rescue his family, Lady Pomponia and the two children, Julia and Aelius. He recalls the discreet manner with which you two retrieved that pay chest of Caesar's last year and I agree with his choice for the job.' Vespasian allowed a moment for his words to sink in. 'Centurion, I know your worth, and the optio here has no more need to prove himself to me. I won't deceive you; this task is more dangerous than anything you've ever been asked to do before. I will not order you to go, but I can think of no two men in the legion more likely to succeed in this mission. The decision is yours. But, if you do succeed, the general and I will be sure to reward you generously. Isn't that right, sir?'
General Plautius nodded.
Macro frowned. 'Like we were rewarded after we got that pay chest back -'
'You mentioned a small party, sir,' Cato quickly interrupted. 'I take it the centurion and I won't be alone in this.'
'No. There are two others, Britons, who know the area. They'll act as your guides.'
'One of them is a woman,' the general intervened. 'She will be your interpreter. The other was once a Druid initiate, in the order of the Dark Moon.'
'The same as those bastards we ran into then,' said Macro. 'How can we be sure this one can be trusted, sir?'
'I don't know that we can trust him. But he's the only one I could find who knows the area well and was willing to guide Romans inside Durotrigan territory. He's aware of the risks. If he, and the woman, get discovered in the service of Rome then they'll surely be killed.'
'Unless they were to lead us into a trap, sir. Hand the Druids two more hostages to bargain with.'
Plautius gave the centurion a grim smile. 'If they were prepared to murder a prefect of the navy to make a point then I doubt they would bother to treat two rankers as hostages. Centurion, make no mistake about this; if you're taken by the enemy the very best you can hope for is a quick death.'
'Put like that, sir, I'm not sure that I want to volunteer me and the lad for this mission of yours. It'd be plain madness.'
Plautius said nothing, but Cato could see that he was gripping the arms of his chair so hard that the tendons on his arm stood out like knotted wooden rods. When his fury had subsided a little, he spoke in a strained voice.
'This isn't easy for me, Centurion. The Druids are holding my family… Have you got a family?'
'No, sir. Families get in the way of soldiering.'
'I see. Then you can have little idea how much this affair torments me and how demeaning I find it having to ask you and the optio to find them for me.'
Macro pressed his lips tightly together to bite off his instinctive response. Then his usual calmness under pressure reasserted itself. 'Permission to speak freely, sir?'
The general's eyes narrowed. 'Depends what you want to say.'
'Very well, sir.' Macro lifted his chin and stiffened to attention, still and silent.
'All right, Centurion. Speak freely.'
'Thank you, sir. I understand what you're saying all right.' His tone was brittle with fatigue and ill-concealed contempt. 'You're in a fix and you want me and my optio to stick our necks out for you. And because we're plebs, we're expendable. What chance have we got wandering around in the middle of enemy territory with a bloody woman and some quack magician? You're sending us to our deaths, and you know it. But at least you will have tried something, to make yourself feel better. Meanwhile, the lad and I will have been parted from our heads, or burned alive. Does that sum the situation up… sir?'
Cato blanched at the uncharacteristic outburst, and glanced anxiously at the senior officers. The outraged expression on Vespasian's face was far less frightening than the dark gleam blazing in the eyes of the general.
'I volunteer to go, sir!' Cato blurted out.
The other three looked at him in surprise, instantly diverted from the tense confrontation that could only have ended in disaster for Macro. Cato quickly licked his lips and nodded to emphasise his words.
'You?' The general's eyebrows rose.
'Yes, sir. Let me go. I'll do the best I can.'
'Optio,' Vespasian said. 'I don't doubt your courage, and your intelligence. And you have a certain amount of resourcefulness. All that I can't deny. But I think it's too much to ask of one man.'
'Barely a man at that,' added the general. 'I won't send a boy to do a man's job.'
'I'm no boy,' Cato replied coldly. 'I've been a soldier for over a year now. I've been decorated once already, and I've proved my reliability. Sir, if you really think this mission has almost no chance of success, then surely the loss of one man is better than the loss of two or more?'
'You don't have to do this,' Macro muttered.
'Sir, my mind's made up. I'll go.'
Macro glared at Cato. The boy was mad, quite mad; he was bound to come a cropper at the first obstacle. The thought of Cato, undeniably bright and courageous but still a little naive and rough around the edges, in the hands of some devious Briton and his woman filled Macro with dismay. Damn the boy! Damn him! There was no way he could leave the lad to his own devices.
'All right then!' Macro turned back to the general. 'I'll go. If we're going to do it, might as well do it properly.'
'Thank you, Centurion,' the general said quietly. 'You will not find me ungrateful.'
'If we return.'
Plautius merely shrugged.
Before the situation could degenerate again, Vespasian stood up and shouted an order for more wine to be fetched. Then he stepped between his general and the two rankers and motioned towards some seats to one side of the tent.
'You must be tired. Sit down and we'll have something to drink while I pass the word for our British scouts. Now that you've agreed to go, it's best that you meet them. Time's short; there are only twenty-two days before the Druids' deadline. You'll leave tomorrow, at dawn.'
Macro and Cato walked over to the seats and eased their tired bodies down onto the comfortable cushions.
'What the fuck was that all about?' Macro whispered angrily.
'What have I told you about volunteering? Don't you listen to a bloody word I say?'
'What about the pay chest, sir? You volunteered us for that.'
'No I bloody didn't! Bloody legate ordered me to do that one. But even he wouldn't have the heart to order anyone to do this. What the fuck have you got us into?'
'You didn't have to volunteer, sir. I said I'd go alone.'
Macro snorted with contempt at the idea, and shook his head in despair at the alacrity with which his optio seemed to embrace the chance to die a grim and lonely death in some dark corner of a barbarian field. Cato, for his part, wondered what else he could have done in the circumstances. The Roman army did not tolerate the sort of insubordination Macro had displayed – and to a general no less. What the hell had come over him? Cato cursed his centurion and himself in equal measure. He had said the first thing that had entered his mind and now felt sick at the prospect of venturing into the land of the Druids, sick at the certainty of his own death. Beyond that there was only a cold anger directed at that part of him which had so wanted to spare the centurion the wrath of his general.
A light rasp of leather made Cato look up. A slave had entered the tent, carrying a bronze tray with six goblets and a slender bronze jug filled with red wine. The slave set the tray down and, at a nod from Vespasian, filled the goblets without spilling a drop. Cato was watching him and so he did not see the Britons enter the tent until they had almost reached the table. The former Druid initiate was huge, and towered over the Roman officers. At his side was a tall woman in a dark riding cloak with the hood pulled back to reveal a tightly braided arrangement of red hair. The general nodded a greeting and Vespasian unconsciously straightened his shoulders as he looked over the woman appreciatively.
'Fuck me!' Macro whispered as the woman turned slightly and they saw her face. 'Boudica!'
She heard her name and looked towards them, eyes widening in surprise. Her companion turned to follow her gaze.
'Oh no!' Cato shrank back from the giant's withering glare. 'Prasutagus!'