'I'm sure it was around here,' muttered Centurion Macro, glancing down a dark alley leading up from the Camulodunum quayside. 'Any ideas?'
The other three exchanged a glance as they stamped their feet in the snow. Beside Cato – Macro's young optio – stood two young women, natives from the Iceni tribe, wrapped warmly in splendid winter cloaks with fur trims. They had been raised by fathers who had long anticipated the day when the Caesars would extend the limits of their empire into Britain. The girls had been taught Latin from an early age, by an educated slave imported from Gaul. As a consequence their Latin had a lilting accent, an effect Cato found quite pleasing to the ear.
'Look here,' the oldest girl protested. 'You said you'd take us to a snug little alehouse. I'm not going to spend the night walking up and down freezing streets until you find exactly the one you're looking for. We go in the next one we come across, agreed?' She looked round at her friend and Cato, fierce eyes demanding their assent. Both nodded at once.
'It must be down this one,' Macro responded quickly. 'Yes, I remember now. This is the place.'
'It had better be. Or you're taking us home.'
'Fair enough.' Macro raised a hand to placate her. 'Let's go.'
With the centurion leading the way, the small band softly crunched up the narrow alley, hemmed in on both sides by the dark huts and houses of the Trinovantes townspeople. Snow had been falling all day and had only stopped shortly after dusk. Camulodunum and the surrounding landscape lay under a thick blanket of gleaming white and most people were indoors huddled around smoky fires. Only the more hardy of the town's youngsters joined the Roman soldiers looking for dives where they might enjoy a night's drinking, raucous singing and, with a little luck, a bit of fighting. The soldiers, armed with purses bulging with coins, wandered into town from the vast encampment stretching out just beyond the main gate of Camulodunum. Four legions – over twenty thousand men – were sitting the winter out in crude timber and turf huts, impatiently waiting for spring to arrive so that the campaign to conquer the island could be renewed.
It had been an especially harsh winter and the legionaries, shut up in their camp and made to live on an unrelieved diet of barley and winter vegetable stew, were restless. Particularly since the general had advanced them a portion of the donative paid to the army by Emperor Claudius. This bonus was given to celebrate the defeat of the British commander, Caratacus, and the fall of his capital at Camulodunum. The townspeople, mostly engaged in some form of trade or other, had quickly recovered from the shock of defeat and taken advantage of the opportunity to fleece the legionaries camping on their doorstep. A number of alehouses had opened up to provide the legionaries with a range of local brews, as well as wine shipped in from the continent by those merchants prepared to risk their ships in the winter seas in return for premium prices.
The townsfolk who were not making money out of their new masters looked on in distaste as the drunken foreigners staggered home from the alehouses, singing at the tops of their voices, and spewing noisily in the streets. Eventually, the town's elders had had enough and sent a deputation to General Plautius. They politely requested that, in the interests of the new bonds of alliance that had been forged between the Romans and the Trinovantes, it might be a good thing if the legionaries were no longer allowed into the town. Sympathetic as he was to the need to preserve good relations with the locals, the general also knew that he would be risking a mutiny if he denied his soldiers an outlet for the tensions that always accompanied the long months spent in winter quarters. Accordingly, a compromise was reached, and the numbers of passes issued to soldiers rationed. As a result, the soldiers were even more determined to go on a wild bender each time they were allowed into the town.
'Here we are!' said Macro triumphantly. 'I told you it was here.'
They were standing outside the small studded door of a stone-built store shed. A shuttered window pierced the wall a few paces further up the alley. A warm red glow lined the rim of the shutters and they could hear the cheerful hubbub of loud conversation within.
'At least it should be warm,' the younger girl said quietly. 'What do you think, Boudica?'
'I think it had better be,' her cousin replied, and reached for the door latch. 'Come on then.'
Horrified at the prospect of being preceded into a drinking place by a woman, Macro clumsily thrust himself between the woman and the door.
'Er, please allow me.' He smiled, attempting to affect some manners. He opened the door and ducked under the frame. His small party followed. The warm smoky fug wrapped itself around the new arrivals and the glow from a fire and several tallow lamps seemed quite brilliant after the darkness of the alley. A few heads turned to inspect the new arrivals and Cato saw that many of the customers were off-duty legionaries, dressed in thick red military tunics and cloaks.
'Put the wood in the hole!' someone shouted. 'Before we all fucking freeze.'
'Watch it!' Macro shouted back angrily. 'There are ladies present!'
A chorus of hoots sounded from the other customers.
'We already know!' A legionary nearby laughed as he goosed a passing bar woman carrying an armful of empty pitchers. She yelped, and spun round to deliver a stinging blow before skipping off to the counter at the far end of the alehouse. The legionary rubbed his glowing cheek and laughed again.
'And you recommend this place?' Boudica muttered.
'Give it a chance. I had a great time here the other night. It has atmosphere, wouldn't you say?'
'It certainly has an atmosphere,' said Cato. 'Wonder how long it'll take before a fight breaks out.'
His centurion shot him a dark look before turning to the two women. 'What'll you have, ladies?'
'A seat,' Boudica responded tartly. 'A seat will do nicely, for now.'
Macro shrugged. 'See to it, Cato. Find somewhere quiet. I'll get the drinks in.'
While Macro steered a way through the throng to the bar, Cato looked round and saw that the only place left was a rickety trestle table flanked by two benches, right by the door they had just entered. He pulled back the end of one bench and bowed his head. 'There you are, ladies.'
Boudica curled her lip at the roughly hewn furniture presented to her, and might have refused to sit had her cousin not quickly nudged her forward. The younger woman was called Nessa, a brown-haired Icenian with blue eyes and round cheeks. Cato was well aware that his centurion and Boudica had arranged for her to come along to keep him distracted while the older couple continued their peculiar relationship.
Macro and Boudica had met shortly after the fall of Camulodunum. Since the Iceni were nominally neutral in the war between Rome and the confederation of tribes resisting the invaders, Boudica was more curious than hostile towards the men from the great empire across the sea. The town elders had rushed to ingratiate themselves with their new rulers and invitations to feasts had flooded into the Roman camp. Even junior centurions like Macro had found themselves asked to attend. On the first such night he had met Boudica. Her forthright nature had appalled him at first; the Celts appeared to have a distastefully egalitarian attitude towards the gentler sex. Finding herself standing next to a centurion, who in turn stood next to a barrel of the most powerful beer he had ever encountered, Boudica wasted no time in grilling him for information about Rome. At first her open approach inclined Macro to regard her as just another of the horse-faced women that made up the majority of the higher class of Briton. But as he endured her questioning, he slowly became less and less interested in the beer. Grudgingly at first, then more willingly as she artfully drew him into a more expansive discussion, Macro talked to her in a way he had never before with a woman.
By the end of the evening he knew he wanted to see more of this lively Icenian, and stammered out a request to meet again. She gladly assented, and extended an invitation to a feast being held by her kinsman the following night. Macro had been the first guest to arrive and stood in embarrassed silence by the spread of cold meats and warm beer until Boudica arrived. Then he watched in horror as she matched him drink for drink. Before he knew it, she had slapped an arm round his shoulder and was hugging him tightly to her. Looking round, Macro observed the same forwardness in the other Celtic women and was trying to reconcile himself to the strange ways of this new culture when Boudica planted a boozy kiss on his lips.
Momentarily startled, Macro tried to break away from her powerful embrace, but the girl had mistakenly taken his writhing as a sign of his ardour and merely tightened her grip. So Macro gave in and kissed her back, and on the alcohol-saturated wings of passion they had collapsed under a table in a dark corner and fumbled the evening away. Only the limp side effects of the beer prevented the consummation of their mutual attraction. Boudica had been decent enough not to make an issue of it.
They continued to meet almost daily from that point on, and sometimes Macro invited Cato to join them, mainly from a sense of pity for the lad, who had only recently seen his first love murdered at the hands of a treacherous Roman aristocrat. Quiet and shy at first, Cato had been slowly drawn out by Boudica's infectious sociability and now the two could hold a conversation for hours. Macro felt himself being slowly frozen out. Despite Boudica's claim that she only had relationships with grown-ups, Macro was not reassured. Hence the presence of Nessa – at Macro's suggestion. A girl Cato could get stuck into while he continued wooing Boudica.
'Does your centurion often frequent places like this?' asked Boudica.
'Not always as nice as this.' Cato smiled. 'You should feel honoured.'
Nessa missed the ironic tone and sniffed in disgust at the suggestion that any right-thinking person should deem it a privilege to be led to such a dive. The other two rolled their eyes.
'How did you manage to get permission to be out?' Cato asked Boudica. 'I thought your uncle was going to burst a blood vessel that night we had to carry you back home.'
'He nearly did. Poor chap's not been quite the same since and only agreed to letting us out to stay the night with some distant cousins provided we were escorted.'
Cato frowned. 'So where's the escort?'
'Don't know. We got separated in the crowd near the town gate.'
'Of course. What do you take me for?'
'I wouldn't presume.'
'Prasutagus is probably peeing himself with worry!' Nessa giggled. 'You can bet he'll be searching every drinking hall he can think of.'
'Which makes us quite safe, since my dear kinsman – another cousin incidentally – would never think of this place. I doubt he's ever even ventured into the alleys behind the quay. We'll be all right.'
'If he does find us,' Nessa's eyes widened, 'he'll go mental! You remember what he did to that Atrebate lad who tried to chat us up. I thought Prasutagus was going to kill him!'
'Probably would have if I hadn't hauled him off.'
Cato shifted nervously. 'Big lad, this kinsman of yours?'
'Huge!' Nessa laughed. 'Sa! Huge is the word all right.'
'With a brain in inverse proportion to his physique,' Boudica added. 'So don't even think of trying to reason with him if he comes in here. Just run.'
Macro returned from the bar, arms raised to keep cups and jug above the throng. He set them down on the rough surface of the bench and politely filled each of the pottery mugs to the brim with red wine.
'Wine!' Boudica exclaimed. 'You do know how to spoil a lady, Centurion.'
'Beer's off,' explained Macro. 'This is all they have left, and it's not cheap either. So drink up and enjoy'
'While we can, sir.'
'Eh? What's the matter, lad?'
'These ladies are only here because they slipped away from a rather large male relative who is probably looking for them right now, and not in the best of moods.'
'Not surprising on a night like this.' Macro shrugged. 'Still, we're well out of it now. We've got a fire, drink and good company. What more could you ask for?'
'A seat nearer the fire,' replied Boudica.
'Now then, let's have a toast.' The centurion raised his mug. 'To us!' Macro raised his mug to his lips and downed the wine in one go then slammed the mug back down. 'Ahhhh! That hit the spot! Who's for more?'
'Just a moment.' Boudica followed his lead and drained her cup.
Cato knew his limitations with respect to wine, and just shook his head.
'Suit yourself, lad, but wine's as good as a knock on the head for helping you forget your troubles.'
'If you say so, sir.'
'I do say so. Particularly if you have some bad news to break.' Macro looked across the table at Boudica.
'What news?' she asked sharply.
'The legion's being sent south.'
'Three days' time.'
'First I've heard of it,' said Cato. 'What's up?'
'I'd guess the general wants to use the Second Legion to cut Caratacus off from any escape route south of the Tamesis. The other three legions can clear up on the north side of the river.'
'The Tamesis?' Boudica frowned. 'That's a long way off. When is your legion coming back here?'
Macro was about to give some glib and reassuring answer when he saw the pained expression on Boudica's face. He realised that honesty was the right course of action in this situation. Far better for Boudica to know the truth now than for her to resent him later.
'I don't know. Maybe a few more campaign seasons, maybe never. All depends on how long Caratacus continues to fight on. If we can crush him quickly then the province can be settled straightaway. As it is, the wily bastard keeps raiding through our supply lines, and all the while he's trying to negotiate with other tribes to get them to join him in resisting us.'
'You can hardly blame the man for fighting well.'
'I can blame him for it if it keeps us apart.' Macro reached for her hand and gave it an affectionate squeeze. 'So let's just hope he's bright enough to realise he can never win. Then, once the province is settled, I'll get some leave and come and find you.'
'You expect the province to be settled that quickly?' Boudica flared up. 'Lud! When will you Romans learn? Caratacus leads only those tribes under the sway of the Catuvellauni. There are many other tribes, mostly too proud to let themselves be led into battle by another chief, and certainly too proud to meekly submit to Roman rule. Take our own tribe.' Boudica gestured to herself and Nessa. 'The Iceni. I know of no warrior who would dream of becoming a subject of your Emperor Claudius. Sure you've tried to woo our chiefs with promises of alliance and a share in the spoils of those tribes Rome defeats on the battlefield. But I warn you, the moment you try and become our master, Rome will pay a high price in the blood of its legions…'
Her voice had become quite shrill, and for a moment her eyes blazed defiantly across the table. Drinkers at neighbouring benches had turned to look, and conversation was briefly stilled. Then heads turned back and the volume slowly rose again. Boudica poured herself another mug of wine and drained it before continuing, more quietly. 'That's true of most of the other tribes as well. Believe me.'
Macro stared at her and nodded slowly as he took her hand again and held it gently in his own. 'I'm sorry. I meant no slight on your people. Honestly. I'm not very good with words.'
Boudica's lips lifted in a smile. 'Never mind, you make up for it in other ways.'
Macro glanced round at Cato. 'Do you think you could take this lass over to the bar for a while? My lady and I need to talk.'
'Yes, sir.' Cato, sensitive to the needs of the situation, quickly rose from the bench and held his arm out to Nessa. The young woman looked to her cousin and was given a faint nod.
'All right then.' Nessa grinned. 'You be careful, Boudica, you know what these soldiers are like.'
'Sa! I can look after myself!'
Cato did not doubt it. He had come to know Boudica quite well over the winter months and his sympathies were with his centurion. He led Nessa through the crowd of drinkers to the counter. The barman, an old Gaul judging by his accent, had eschewed the Roman fashions of the continent and wore a heavily patterned tunic, upon the shoulders of which rested his pigtails. He was rinsing mugs in a tub of dirty water and looked up when Cato rapped the counter with a coin. Wiping his hands on his apron, he shuffled over and raised his eyebrows.
'Two mugs of heated wine,' ordered Cato, before he considered Nessa. 'That do?'
She nodded, and the barman picked up two mugs, and made for a battered bronze cauldron resting on a blackened grate over faintly glowing embers. Steam curled up from inside and, even where he stood, Cato could smell the scent of spices above the beer and the underlying sour smells of humanity. Cato, tall and thin, looked down on his Iceni companion as she eagerly watched the Gaul dip a ladle into the cauldron to stir the mixture. Cato frowned. He knew he should make some attempt at small talk, but he had never been good at it, always fearing that whatever he said sounded either insincere or merely stupid. Besides, his heart was not in it. Not that Nessa was unattractive in looks – her personality he could only guess at – it was just that he still grieved for Lavinia.
The passion he had felt for Lavinia ran through his veins like fire, even after she had betrayed him and run to the bed of that bastard Vitellius. Before Cato could teach himself to despise her, Vitellius had drawn Lavinia into a plot to kill the Emperor and cold-bloodedly murdered her to cover his tracks. An image of the dark tresses of Lavinia's hair settling into the blood spreading from her cut throat filled Cato's mind and he felt sick. He longed for her more than ever.
All his spare passion was devoted to cultivating a burning hatred for Tribune Vitellius so great that no revenge could be too terrible to contemplate. But Vitellius had returned to Rome with the Emperor, having emerged a hero from his botched assassination attempt. As soon as it was clear that the Emperor's bodyguards would save their master, Vitellius had fallen upon the assassin and killed him. Now the Emperor regarded the tribune as his saviour for whom no reward or honour could be sufficient expression of his gratitude. Staring into the middle distance, Cato's expression hardened into a thin-lipped bitterness that startled his companion.
'What on earth's the matter with you?'
'Eh? Sorry. I was thinking.'
'I don't think I want to know.'
'It was nothing to do with you.'
'I should hope not. Look, here comes the wine.'
The Gaul returned to the counter with two steaming mugs, whose rich aroma excited even Cato's taste buds. The Gaul took the coin Cato handed him and turned back towards his rinsing tub.
'Hey!' Cato called out. 'What about my change?'
'No change,' muttered the Gaul over his shoulder. "That's the price. Wine's in short supply, thanks to the storms.'
'You don't like my prices? Then fuck off and find somewhere else to drink.'
Cato felt the blood drain from his face and his fists clenched in anger. He opened his voice to shout, and only just managed to pull himself back from the brink of a terrible rage and a desire to tear the old man apart. With the return of self-control, he felt horrified at such a lapse in the rationality he prided himself in. He felt ashamed, and glanced round to see if anyone had noticed how close he had come to making a fool of himself. Only one man was looking his way, a thickset Gaul leaning on the far end of the counter. He was watching Cato closely and one hand had moved towards the handle of a dagger in a metalled scabbard hanging from his belt. Clearly the old Gaul's hired muscle. He met the optio's gaze and raised his hand to wag a finger at him, faintly smiling with contempt as he warned the young man to behave himself.
'Cato, there's a space by the fire. Let's go.' Nessa gently pushed him away from the counter towards the brick hearth where fresh logs hissed and crackled. Cato resisted her touch for an instant but then yielded. They picked their way between the customers, taking care not to spill the heated wine, and sat down on two low stools alongside a handful of others who craved the fire's warmth.
'What was all that about?' asked Nessa. 'You looked so scary back there at the counter.'
'I did?' Cato shrugged, and then carefully sipped from his steaming mug.
'You did. I thought you were going to go for him.'
'Why? Boudica told me you were the quiet type.'
'It's personal!' Cato replied sharply. Then quickly relented. 'Sorry, I didn't mean it to sound like that. I just don't want to talk about it.'
'I see. Then let's talk about something else.'
'I don't know. You think of something. Do you good.'
'All right then, that cousin of Boudica, Prasutagus, is he really as dangerous as he sounds?'
'Worse. He's more than just a warrior.' Cato saw the frightened expression on her face. 'He has other powers.'
'What kind of powers?'
'I-I can't say.'
'Will you and Boudica be in any danger when he finds you again?'
Nessa shook her head as she sipped from her mug and spilt a few drops of wine down the front of her cloak where they glistened with reflected firelight for a moment, before soaking in. 'Oh, he'll go bright red in the face and shout for a bit, but that'll be all. Once Boudica makes eyes at him he'll just roll over and wait for her to tickle his tummy.'
'Fancies her then?'
'You said it. Fancies her something rotten.' Nessa craned her neck to look across the room at her friend who was leaning over the table and cradling Macro's cheek in the palm of one hand. She turned back to Cato and whispered confidentially, as if Boudica might somehow hear her, 'Between us, I've heard that Prasutagus has quite fallen in love with her. He's going to escort us home to our village once spring comes. I shouldn't be surprised if he takes the opportunity to ask Boudica's father for permission to wed her.'
'How does she feel about him?'
'Oh, she'll accept, of course.'
'It's not every day that a girl gets offered the hand of the next ruler of the Iceni.'
Cato nodded slowly. Boudica would not be the first woman he had met who placed social advancement before emotional fulfilment. Cato decided he would not tell his centurion about this. If Boudica was going to ditch Macro and marry someone else, then she could tell Macro herself. 'A shame. She deserves better.'
'Of course she does. That's why she's messing around with your centurion. Might as well have as much fun as she can, while she can. I doubt Prasutagus will give her much of a free rein once they're married.'
A sudden crash sounded from behind them. Cato and Nessa turned and saw that the door to the alehouse had been kicked open. Squeezing through it was one of the largest men Cato had ever seen. As the man straightened up, rather awkwardly, his head met the thatch. Swearing angrily in his native tongue, he ducked and moved forward to where he could stand erect and have a good look round at the customers. He was well over six feet tall, and broad to match. The bulging muscles under the hairy skin of his forearms made Cato gulp as with a sick sense of inevitability he guessed who the new arrival was.