'Someone bloody well told them!' Macro snapped. 'I mean, it's not the kind of trap you set up on the off chance. And if it's him, I'll have his balls for breakfast.' He jabbed his finger at Prasutagus, who was sitting on a fallen tree, chewing a strip of dried beef.
Macro glared at Boudica. 'Tell him.'
She raised her eyes in weary frustration. 'Tell him yourself. You really want a fight? With him?'
'Fight?' Prasutagus stopped chewing and his right hand casually slipped down to his sword belt. 'You fight me, Roman?'
'You're beginning to get your tiny little mind round the world's greatest language, aren't you, sunshine?'
Prasutagus shrugged. 'You want fight?'
Macro thought about it for a moment, and then shook his head. 'It can wait.'
'It doesn't make any sense,' said Cato. 'Prasutagus is in as much danger as the rest of us. If anyone told the Durotriges that we were coming, it has to be someone else. That farmer, for instance. Vellocatus.'
'It's possible,' admitted Macro. 'He was a shifty looking sod. So what now? The enemy knows what we're up to. They'll be on their guard everywhere we go. Numbskull here won't be able to go anywhere near any of the locals to pick up news of the general's family. I'd say that we've almost no chance of finding them now. Mounting a rescue is out of the question.'
Cato had to agree. The rational side of his mind knew they should abandon the mission and return to the Second Legion. Cato was confident that Vespasian possessed enough intelligence to see that they had done all they could before turning back. It would be foolhardy to continue while the Durotriges were hunting for them. As things stood, it would be dangerous enough trying to make it back into friendly territory. But as the thought of danger sidled into his consciousness, Cato could not help thinking of the vastly greater danger the general's family was in. Cursed with a vivid imagination, he could picture Plautius's wife and children living in daily terror at the prospect of being tied up inside one of those giant wicker effigies the Druids liked to construct. There they would be burned alive, and the mental image of their screaming faces struck Cato with such sharpness that he flinched. The general's son, whom he had never met, assumed the features of the blond child he had seen in the well…
No. He couldn't let that happen. To turn back and live with the knowledge that he had not acted to prevent the child's death would be unbearable. This was the irreducible truth of the situation. No matter how much he chided himself for being prey to his emotions, for being too sentimental to act according to objective reasoning, he could not swerve from the course of action demanded by some perverse instinct so deep inside him that it evaded any kind of analysis.
Cato turned towards Macro. 'Are you saying we should turn back, sir?'
'Makes sense. What do you reckon, Boudica? You and him?'
The Icenians exchanged a few words. Prasutagus did not appear very interested in the centurion's proposal, and only Boudica seemed to have a point of view, apparently urging him towards one course of action. At length she gave up, and looked down into her lap.
'Well? What's the opinion of our resident Druid?'
'He doesn't care either way. It's your people we're supposed to be saving. Makes no difference to him if they live or die. If you want to leave them to burn then that's up to you. Says it'll be an interesting test of character.'
'Test of character, eh?' Macro stared coldly at the Icenian warrior. 'Unlike you lot, we Romans can make difficult decisions. We don't just charge in and die out of sheer stupidity. Look where your dumb heroics have got you Celts over the years. We've done what we can here. Now we get some rest and start marching back to the legion once night falls.'
Macro looked towards Cato. The optio returned his gaze without expression. It unsettled Macro.
'What is it, lad?'
'Sir?' Cato stirred, as if from some kind of trance, and Macro recalled that they had had little sleep over the past few days. That must be it. 'I was just thinking…'
Macro felt a heavy weight drag his spirits down; when Cato started sharing his thoughts, he had a tendency towards complication that made it very wearing for those trying to keep up with him. Why the hell Cato refused to see the world as plainly as it appeared to other men was one of the great frustrations Macro had to suffer in his dealings with his optio.
'You were thinking what, exactly?'
'That you're right, sir. Best thing for us to do is turn tail and get as far away from those Druids as possible. No sense in taking any unnecessary risks.'
'No. There isn't.'
'The general's sure to understand your line of thinking, sir. He'll make sure no one accuses you of lacking – how can I put it? – lacking moral fibre.'
'Lacking moral fibre?' Macro didn't like the sound of the phrase. Made him sound like some civvy idler. Macro was the kind of man who resented being described as lacking anything, and he glared accusingly at his optio. 'None of your high-flown nonsense now, lad. Just speak your mind nice and clear. You say we might be accused of cowardice once we get back to the legion? Is that it?'
'We might be. It'd be an understandable mistake, of course. Some people might say we had one near scrape and that was enough for us. Naturally the general will appreciate the implications of having Prasutagus's cover story blown. Even though it meant the certain death of his family he'd be sure to try and persuade others that we had no alternative. In time everyone would see the point and come round to your way of thinking.'
'Hmmm.' Macro nodded slowly, pressing a thick knuckle to his forehead as if that might help him concentrate his tired mind. He needed time to think this through.
'We'll be riding light, won't we, sir?' Cato continued cheerfully. 'I suppose I'd better offload anything we don't need. Anything that might slow us down when we run back to the legion.'
'Nobody's running back anywhere!'
'Sorry, sir. I didn't mean it to sound that way. Just keen to get moving.'
'Oh, are you? Well, you can just stop right there. Leave the packs alone.'
'I said leave 'em. We're not going back. Not yet at least. Not until we've searched a little longer.'
'But you just said -'
'Shut it! I've made my decision. We keep looking. Anyone else got any objections?' Macro turned to the Icenians, jaw thrust out, daring them to challenge him. Boudica struggled to hide a grin. Prasutagus, as usual, grasped the wrong end of the stick and nodded his head vigorously.
'We fight now, Roman?'
'No. Not now!' Macro snapped, exasperated. 'When we've got a little more time on our hands, and only if you're a good boy until then. All right? Better make sure he gets that clear, Boudica.'
Prasutagus looked disappointed, but his natural good humour overcame any inclination to sulk. He reached over to Macro and gave the centurion a hearty slap on the shoulder with his huge paw.
'Ha! You good man, Roman. We friends, maybe.'
'Don't count on it.' Macro smiled as sweetly as his scarred veteran's face would permit. 'Meanwhile, we need to decide what to do next.'
Cato coughed. 'Sir, it occurs to me that the Druids might have some sacred place, somewhere secret, known only to themselves.'
'So we might want to press Prasutagus on that point. After all, he was a novice once. You might want to ask him if the Druids have such a place, somewhere where the general's family could be held safely.'
'True.' Macro eyed the Icenian warrior thoughtfully. 'Strikes me our man might just have been holding out on us. Ask him, Boudica.'
She turned to her kinsman and translated. The warrior's expression changed completely. He shook his head.
'Someone's not very happy. What's the matter?'
'He says there is no such sacred place.'
'He's lying. And he's no good at it. You better tell him. And tell him I want the truth, right now'
Prasutagus shook his head again, and started to shuffle away from Macro, until the centurion's hand shot out and trapped the Iceni warrior's wrist in an iron grip.
'No more of your bullshit! I want the truth.'
For a while the two men stared at each other, faces taut and uncompromising. Then Prasutagus nodded, and began to speak quietly, his tone resigned and fearful.
'There is a sacred grove,' Boudica translated. 'He was trained there for a while… It's where he failed the initiation into the second ring. The Druids call it the grove of the sacred crescent. It's the place where Cruach will rise and reclaim the world for himself one day. Any day. Until then his spirit hangs like a black shadow over every stone, leaf and blade of grass in the grove. You can hear the cold rasp of his breath through the limbs of the trees. Prasutagus warns you that Cruach will sense your presence at once and will show no mercy to the enemies of his servants. No mercy.'
'I've seen enough of this world to know that the only thing anyone needs to be afraid of is other men, said Macro. 'If your cousin's afraid, tell him I'll hold his hand for him.'
Boudica ignored the last comment and continued with Prasutagus's warning. 'He says that the grove is on an island at the centre of a large marsh two days' ride from here. There's a small causeway leading to the main entrance, and that's always heavily guarded. We'd never make it in that way.'.
'Then there's another way in,' Cato guessed shrewdly. 'A way in that Prasutagus discovered?'
'Yes.' Boudica glanced quickly at her kinsman, and he nodded for her to continue. 'He used it to visit the daughter of the man commanding the Druids' guards. She got pregnant and as soon as the Druids discovered he had broken his oath of celibacy he was thrown out of the order.'
Macro roared with laughter, causing the others to glance anxiously around, but nothing stirred in the surrounding trees.
'Oh dear!' Macro wiped his eyes and grinned at Prasutagus. 'You just can't resist a bloody challenge, can you? You got kicked out on account of a piece of tail – what a prat! You know, I think we might just get on after all.'
'This way in.' Cato leaned closer to Boudica. 'Does anyone else know about it?'
'Prasutagus doesn't think so. It's a series of shallows through the water. It ends in a thicket on the bank of the island close to the grove. Prasutagus says he marked it out with a line of coppice stakes, placed quite far apart.'
'Can he find it again? After all these years?'
'He thinks so.'
'I'm not reassured,' said Macro.
'Maybe not,' said Cato. 'But it's the only chance we've got left, sir. We take it or go home empty-handed. We face the consequences either way.'
Macro stared at Cato a moment before replying. 'You've got such a cheerful way with words, haven't you?'