In the failing light Centurion Hortensisus formed a dull silhouette, almost devoid of detail as he leaned his hands on the stonework and peered into the well. Macro and his men hung back, keeping as far from any lingering spirits of the dead as possible. Diomedes sat alone, his back against the blackened stonework of a ruined building. His head was bowed, face buried in his arms, body wracked with grief.
'He's taking it a bit hard,' muttered Figulus.
Cato and Macro exchanged a look. Both had seen the twisted pile of mutilated bodies that almost filled the well. Given the extent of the settlement, there must have been hundreds of them. What horrified Cato more than anything was that no living thing had been spared. The tangle of bodies included even the villagers' dogs and sheep, as well as women and children. The raiders had made it clear what fate would befall those who sided with Rome. The young optio had reeled before the dark vision in the well, and had felt a chilling pang of horror and despair as his eyes fell on the face of a young boy, barely more than an infant, sprawled on top of the heap. Beneath a wild thatch of straw-blond hair, a pair of startling blue eyes stared up in wide-eyed terror. The boy's mouth hung open to reveal tiny white teeth. He had been killed with a spear thrust to the chest and his coarse wool top was stained black with dried blood. Recoiling from the charnal pit, Cato had turned, bent over and thrown up.
Now, half an hour later, he felt cold and weary with the profound sorrow of those who have seen the utter grimness of life for the first time. Violent death was something he had lived with ever since he had joined the eagles. That was barely more than a year ago. So little time, he reflected. The army had succeeded in hardening him without his really being aware of it, but in the face of the bloody handiwork of the Druids of the Dark Moon cult, he was consumed with horror and despair. And as his mind tried to come to terms with the actions of men who so outraged every civilised standard, a steadily swelling urge to wreak savage revenge upon them threatened to overwhelm him. The image of the boy's face flashed through his mind once more and instinctively his hand twisted and tightened on the pommel of his sword. Now the same Druids had their hands on a Roman family, no doubt destined for the same fate as the inhabitants of Noviomagus.
Macro noticed the movement. For a moment he was almost moved to place a fatherly hand on his optio's shoulder and try to comfort him. He had grown used to the optio's presence and tended to forget that Cato lacked experience of the absolute brutality of war. It was hard to believe that the clumsy bookworm who had turned up with the other bedraggled recruits back in Germany was the same man as the scarred junior officer standing silently beside him. The lad had already won his first decoration for bravery; the polished phalera gleamed on the optio's harness. There was no doubting his courage and intelligence, and if he survived the harsh life of the legions for long enough, a good future lay ahead of him. Yet he was still little more than a boy, inclined to a painful degree of self-consciousness that Macro could not understand. Any more than he could understand the depths of the lad's occasional moods, when he seemed to shrink into himself and wrap himself up in a tangle of unfathomable threads of thought.
Macro shrugged. If the boy would only stop thinking so much, he'd find life a lot easier. Macro had little time for introspection, it merely confused the issue and prevented a man from doing things. Best left to those idle intellectuals back in Rome. The sooner Cato accepted that, the happier he'd be.
Figulus was still tutting at Diomedes's shameless display of emotion. 'Bloody Greeks! They turn everything into a drama. Too much tragedy and not enough comedy in their theatres, that's their problem.'
'The man's lost his family,' Macro said quietly. 'So do him a favour before he overhears you, and fucking shut up.'
'Yes, sir.' Figulus waited a moment, and then casually wandered off, as if looking for something else to divert his attention while the century waited for orders.
Centurion Hortensius had seen enough, and briskly strode over to join Macro.
'Bloody mess in there,'
'Best get your lads to fill it in. We haven't got time for a proper burial. Anyway, I don't know what the drill is for the local version.'
'You could ask Diomedes,' suggested Macro. 'He'd know.'
They both turned to look at the Greek guide. Diomedes had raised his head, and was staring towards the well, his features twisted and trembling as he struggled with his grief.
'I don't think so,' decided Centurion Hortensius. 'Not for a while at least. I'll take care of him while you see to the well.'
Macro nodded, before another thought occurred to him. 'What about the loot my optio discovered?'
'What about it?'
Cato looked up irritably at the senior centurion's failure to grasp the significance of his find. Before he could give voice to any insubordinate explanation, Macro intervened.
'The optio reckons the raiders intend to return for their spoils.'
'Oh, does he?' Hortensius glared at the young optio, angered that so young and inexperienced a soldier should presume to understand the enemy's intentions.
'Otherwise, what would be the point of putting them to one side, sir?'
'Who knows? Maybe it's some kind of offering to their gods.'
'I don't think so,' Cato responded quietly.
Hortensius frowned. 'If you've got something to say, you say it properly, Optio,' he snapped.
'Yes, sir.' Cato stood to attention. 'I merely wished to suggest that it looks to me as if the raiders have put aside anything they can carry with them when they retreat back into the territory of the Durotriges. That's all, sir. Other than the fact that they could pass back this way at any moment.'
'Any moment, eh?' Hortensius mocked him. 'I doubt it. If they've any sense they're already safely tucked up back where they came from.'
'Even so, sir, the lad might have a point,' said Macro. 'We ought to post a watch on some high ground.'
'Macro, I wasn't born yesterday. It's taken care of. The cavalry scouts are screening the approaches to the village. If anyone comes, they'll be spotted long before they threaten us. Not that I believe the raiders are still out there.'
He had barely stopped speaking when a thrumming of hooves sounded in the dusk. The three officers turned, and moments later a scout galloped his horse into the centre of the settlement. He reined his beast in and slipped from its side. 'Where's Centurion Hortensius?'
'Over here. Make your report!'
The man ran over, saluted and took a deep breath. 'Column of men approaching, sir! Two miles off.'
The scout turned and pointed towards the east, beyond a dip between two hills, where a track wound its way along the coast.
'Two hundred, maybe more.'
'Right. What's your decurion doing?'
'He's pulled the squadron back into the trees on the nearest hill. Except for two men, unmounted. They're keeping an eye on the column.'
'Good.' Hortensius nodded with satisfaction and dismissed the scout. 'Off you go. Tell the decurion to stay under cover. I'll send a runner with orders as soon as I can.'
The scout ran back to his mount and Hortensius turned to his officers. He forced himself to smile slightly.
'Well, young Cato. Seems you might be right. And if you are, then those Druids and their friends are in for a great big fucking surprise.'