The faint pink glow in the sky cast a paler shade over the snow lying across the ruined settlement. As if the very earth itself had bled during the night, thought Cato as he rose stiffly from the corner of a wall where he had been resting under his army cloak. He had not slept. It had been too uncomfortable for that; his thin frame meant he felt the cold more keenly than the more muscled and hardened veterans of the legion, like Macro. As usual the centurion's full-throated snore had filled the night, until awakened for his century's turn on guard duty. Then, having woken the next officer on the rota, he had slipped instantly back into a deep sleep with a guttural rumbling that sounded like a distant earthquake.
A light layer of snow cascaded silently from the folds of Cato's cloak as he stood up. Wearily he brushed the remainder off and stretched his limbs. Picking his way over the rubble, he approached the huddled form of Figulus and gently poked him with the toe of his boot. The legionary grumbled and turned away without opening his eyes and Cato had to deliver a kick.
'On your feet, soldier.'
New to the army though he was, Figulus knew when he had been given an order and his body responded quickly enough, though his somewhat slower mind struggled to catch up.
'Get a fire lit,' ordered Cato. 'Make sure it's on clear ground away from anything combustible.'
Cato gave the legionary a hard look, unsure if the lad was taking the piss. But Figulus stared back blankly, not a trace of guile in his simple features, and Cato smiled. 'Don't build the fire too close to anything that might catch light.'
'Oh, I see.' Figulus nodded. 'I'll get on with it, Optio.'
Figulus ambled off, scratching his numb backside. Cato watched him and clicked his tongue. The lad was too dim and too immature for the legions. It ought to feel strange to be making that kind of a judgement about someone who was a few months older than he was, and yet it didn't. Experience brought more wisdom than age ever could, and that was what counted in the army. A sense of well-being flowed through Cato's body at this further evidence that he was becoming fully attuned to the life of a soldier.
Clutching his cloak tightly about him, Cato made his way out of the ruined huts where the Sixth Century had spent the night. A few men had already stirred and were sitting in bleary-eyed semi-consciousness, watching dawn break in a clear sky. Some of them bore the marks of the previous night's skirmish: bloodstained rags tied round heads and limbs. Only a handful of men in the cohort had been mortally wounded. By contrast, the Britons had been cut to pieces. Nearly eighty of their band lay stiffening down by the gate and over twenty more were heaped by the well. The wounded and prisoners numbered over a hundred, packed in the remains of a barn under the wary gaze of half a century assigned to guard them. A few Druids had been taken alive, and were lying, tightly bound, in one of the storage pits.
As he crunched across the frost-hardened snow towards the pits, Cato saw Diomedes squatting to one side, staring fixedly at the Druids. A strip of cloth was wound round his head and dried blood stained the side of his face. He did not look up as the optio approached and gave no sign of life apart from the regular curling wisp of exhaled breath. Cato stood a few paces to one side for a moment, waiting for the Greek to acknowledge his presence, but he did not move, just stared at the Druids.
For their part, the Druids lay on their sides, hands securely fastened behind them and ankles bound. Although they were not gagged, they made no attempt to talk and just glared angrily at their guards as they shivered on the snowy ground. Unlike the other Britons that Cato had encountered, these men wore their hair long, with no attempt at lime-styling. Thick and matted, it was tied back in a long unkempt ponytail, while their beards were left free. Each man bore a dark moon tattoo on his forehead and wore black robes.
'Nasty looking bunch,' Cato said quietly, for some reason not wishing to be overheard by the Druids. 'Never seen anything like them.'
'Then count yourself lucky, Roman,' Diomedes muttered.
'Yes,' Diomedes hissed, and turned towards the optio. 'Lucky. Lucky not to have such bloody, evil scum living on the fringes of your world, never knowing when they might appear in your midst to spread terror. I'd never imagined they would have the guts to strike so deep into Atrebates territory. Never. Now the people who lived here are all dead, every man, woman and child. All slaughtered, and dumped in that well.' Dimoedes's brow creased and his lips pressed tightly together for a moment. Then he rose to his feet and reached a hand inside his cloak. 'I don't see why these bastards should be allowed to live. Vermin like them deserve only one fate.'
Even allowing for the fact that Diomedes had helped found the settlement and had family among those whose bodies were heaped in the well, Cato was taken aback by the chilling intensity of his words. The Greek began to withdraw his arm from within the folds of his cloak and Cato, realising what he intended to do, instinctively raised his hands to restrain Diomedes.
'Morning!' a cheery voice hailed.
Cato and Diomedes turned and saw Centurion Hortensius striding up towards them. Cato stiffened to attention and saluted; Diomedes frowned and slowly took a pace back from the edge of the pit. Hortensius stood beside them, looking down at the Druids and smiling with satisfaction. 'A good haul! A small fortune for the cohort from the proceeds of selling the prisoners, and a clap on the back from the legate for capturing these beauties. One of the lowest butcher's bills I've ever had after a fight. And now a fine clear morning for marching back to the legion. We're lucky men, Optio!'
'Yes, sir. How many did we lose in the end?'
'Five dead, twelve wounded and a few scratches.'
'The gods were kind, sir.'
'Kinder to some than others,' Diomedes added quietly.
'Well, yes, that's true.' Hortensius nodded. 'Still, we've got the buggers now. That'll be an end to their games.'
'No, it won't, Centurion. There are plenty more Druids and Durotrigan warriors hovering on our borders, waiting to continue the "game". Many more of these people are going to die before you Romans finally wipe out the Druids.'
Hortensius ignored the slight. The legions would only begin campaigning when it was prudent to do so. No amount of enemy provocation or appeals to Rome to honour the integrity of their alliance with the Atrebates would change that. But when the time came to take the sword to the Durotriges and their Druid leaders, there would be no mercy as the iron-shod legions rolled forward the new frontier of the empire. Hortensius smiled sympathetically at the Greek and laid a firm hand on his shoulder.
'Diomedes, you'll have your revenge, in time.'
'I could have my revenge now…' Diomedes nodded his head towards the Druids, and Cato saw the murderous darkness in the Greek's expression. If the cohort's commander allowed him to have his way, Diomedes would be sure that his revenge was as protracted and painful as possible. For a moment the memory of what he had seen in the well made Cato incline to support the man's thirst for bloody vengeance, but then he recoiled from the prospect with disgust. A fearful awakening of self-knowledge caused him to shudder at this will to violence he had discovered in himself.
Hortensius shook his head. 'Not possible, Diomedes. We're taking them back to the legate for questioning.'
'They won't talk. Believe me, Centurion, you'll learn nothing from them.'
'Maybe.' Hortensius shrugged. 'Maybe not. We've got some lads at headquarters trained in the art of loosening tongues.'
'They won't achieve anything.'
'Don't be so sure.'
'I'm telling you, they won't. Better to make an example of the Druids here and now. Kill them, mutilate them as they have mutilated others. Then we can leave their heads on stakes as a warning to their followers of what they can expect.'
'Nice idea,' Hortensius agreed. 'It might discourage their mates, but we can't do it. I've got orders concerning these lads. All Druids who fall into our hands are to be taken back for questioning. The legate needs 'em in good condition if he's thinking of trading them for that Roman family the Druids have got. Sorry, but there it is.'
Diomedes moved closer to the centurion. Hortensius raised his eyebrows in surprise but did not flinch or recoil at the fierce expression on the face now inches from his own.
'Let me kill them,' Diomedes said quietly through clenched teeth. 'I can't bear to live while those monsters still draw breath. They must die, Centurion. I must do it.'
'No. Now be a good fellow and calm down.'
Cato watched as Diomedes glared into the centurion's face, lips trembling as he tried to control his rage and frustration. Hortensius, by contrast, calmly returned the look with no hint of any emotion in his expression.
'I hope you won't live to regret your decision, Centurion.'
'I'm sure I won't.'
Diomedes's lips shifted into a thin smile. 'An ambiguous choice of words. Let's hope the gods are not tempted by your carelessness.'
'The gods will do as they please.' Centurion Hortensius shrugged, then turned to Cato. 'Get back to your century. Tell Macro to get his men ready to march as soon as possible.'
'After breakfast, sir?'
Hortensius stabbed a finger into Cato's chest. 'Did I say anything about fucking breakfast? Well, did I?'
'Right. Never interrupt an officer before he's finished giving orders,' Hortensius spoke in the low menacing tones of a drill instructor, and continued to stab his finger to emphasise his point. 'Do it again and I'll have your fucking balls for paperweights. Got that?'
'Good. Now then, I want the cohort formed up outside the gate as soon as the sun has fully risen.'
'Yes, sir!' Cato saluted, turned and trotted away. He glanced back once, and saw Hortensius having one last quiet word with Diomedes.
'There you are, Optio!' Figulus grinned as he stood up. By his feet a thin trail of smoke curled gently into the chill morning air. 'Fire's going nicely. Weren't easy though.'
'Leave it,' Cato snapped. 'We're on the move.'
'But what about breakfast?'
For an instant Cato was sorely tempted to subject Figulus to the same roasting he had just had from Hortensius. But that would have been churlish, and against the odds the legionary had managed to get a fire started.
'Sorry, Figulus. No breakfast. Put the fire out and get ready to move.'
'Put the fire out?' Figulus's expression took on the kind of pained expression usually associated with the death of a cherished family pet. 'Put out my fire?'
Cato sighed, and then quickly used the side of his boot to scrape a small mound of snow over the heap of smouldering twigs. With a spit of steam and a hiss the tiny lick of flame was extinguished.
'There. Now get moving, soldier.'
Macro had only just awakened when Cato returned to the Sixth Century's billet. He nodded in response to the orders, and then stretched his shoulders with a deep growl before he turned to bellow at his men.
'Up, you idle bastards! On your feet! We're moving out!'
A low chorus of groans and complaints rippled round the ruins.
'What about breakfast?' someone piped up.
'Breakfast? Breakfast is for losers,' Macro replied irritably. 'Now move!'
As the men raised themselves and wearily pulled on their armour, Macro stamped around delivering encouraging kicks to those whose lack of haste was most obvious. Cato hurried back to his marching yoke. Once his mess tin and the rest of the field equipment was securely fastened to the yoke, Cato struggled into his chain mail vest and was fastening his sword belt when a man from one of the other centuries came running up.
'Where's Macro?' the man panted.
'Centurion Macro is over there.' Cato pointed over the remains of a wall and the runner began to move.
'Wait!' Cato shouted. He was angry at the way some of the men of the other centuries were inclined to let their resentment of his youth override the respect due to his rank.
The man paused, then reluctantly turned round to face the optio and came to attention.
'That's better.' Cato nodded. 'You address me as Optio, or sir, next time you speak to me. Understand?'
'Very well. You can carry on.'
The man disappeared round the end of the wall and Cato continued to put on his equipment. Moments later the runner reappeared, heading back towards the gate, and then came Macro, looking for his subordinate.
'What's the matter, sir?'
'It's that bloody fool Diomedes. He's done a runner.'
Cato smiled at the apparent foolishness of the statement. Where would the Greek run to? More importantly, why would he flee the safety of the cohort?
'That's not all,' Macro continued with a grim expression. 'He knocked out one of the lads guarding the Druids, and then gutted them before he disappeared.'