'Hmmm. Not a pretty sight,' Centurion Hortensius muttered. 'Diomedes made a pretty thorough job of it.'
The robes of the Druids had been wrenched aside and each man savagely slashed from groin to ribcage. A tangle of glistening guts and viscera lay in a pool of blood by each man. With a convulsive heave, vomit rose up in Cato's throat and he choked on the bitter taste of it. He turned away as Hortensius began to brief the other centurions.
'There's no sign of the Greek. Shame, that.' Hortensius's brow creased in anger. 'I'm looking forward to kicking seven shades out of him. No one kills my prisoners unless they've bought them off me first.'
The other officers grumbled their agreement. Prisoners who were to be sold as slaves were won at great personal risk, and were too infrequently come by to be wasted in such a profligate manner, even when vengeance was an issue. If Diomedes reappeared, Hortensius would be sure to insist on compensation.
He raised a hand to still the angry undertone. 'We're heading back to the legion with the other prisoners. There's too many of them to send back under guard – the cohort would be too weak. And without the Greek to speak for us, I doubt we'd get much of a welcome from the other Atrebate villages we're supposed to visit. So we go straight back.'
It was a breach of orders, but the situation merited it and Macro nodded with approval.
'Now then,' continued Hortensius. 'A few of those bastards and their mounts managed to slip away and you can be sure that they'll be running back to their little mates as quick as boiled asparagus. The nearest Durotrigan hill fort is a good day's ride away. If they're going to mobilise a force to come after us, we shouldn't be seeing them for at least another day. Let's make the most of it. Drive your men hard – we've got to put as much distance between this place and ourselves as possible before tonight. Any questions?'
'What about the bodies, sir?'
'What about 'em, Macro?'
'Are we just going to leave them?'
'The Durotriges can look after their own. I've made arrangements for our dead and the locals. The cavalry squadron has orders to place our men in the well with the locals and fill it in before they set off after us. That's the best we can do. There's no time for any funeral pyres. Besides, I believe the local preference is for burial.'
The Romans shuddered with distaste at the thought of subjecting the dead to gradual decay. It was one of the more disgusting practices employed by the less civilised nations of the world. Cremation was a neat and tidy end to corporeal existence.
'Back to your units. We leave at once.'
The sun inscribed a shallow parabola across a clear sky on the second day of the cohort's march back to the Second Legion. The previous night had been spent in a hastily erected marching camp and despite the exhausting effort of breaking up the frozen ground to make the ditch and inner rampart, the cold and fear of the enemy denied sleep to the men of the cohort. From first light Hortensius permitted no rest stops and watched the men like a hawk, swooping to bawl out any legionary who showed signs of slackening his pace, and freely wielding his vine cane if further encouragement was required. Even though the air was cold, and the snow compacted to ice underfoot, the men soon broke into a sweat under the burden of their equipment yokes. The British prisoners, though chained, were unburdened and had the best of it. One, who was wounded in the legs, had dropped out of the column towards the end of the first day. Hortensius stood over him and laid into the Briton with his vine stick, but the man just curled up in a protective ball and would not get up. Hortensius nodded grimly, stuck his vine into the ground and in one sweeping movement drew his sword and cut the Briton's throat. The body was left by the track as the column moved on. No more prisoners had fallen out of line since then.
Without any rest periods to relieve the pressure of the hard yoke poles on the men's shoulders, the march was an agony. The men in the ranks grumbled about their officers in increasingly bitter undertones as they forced themselves to place one foot in front of the other. Not many had slept since the night before the attack on the Durotriges. By early afternoon on the second day, as the sun began to dip towards the smudgy grey of the winter horizon, Cato wondered how much longer he could bear the strain. His collarbone was being rubbed raw under its burden, his eyes were stinging with weariness and every pace sent shooting pains up from the soles of his feet.
Looking round at the rest of the century, Cato could see the same strained expressions etched on every face. Even when Centurion Hortensius called a halt to the march at the end of the afternoon, the men would have to begin the back-breaking work of preparing a marching camp. The prospect of having to tackle the frozen soil with his pickaxe filled Cato with dread. As so often before, he cursed himself for being in the army and his imagination dwelt on the relative comforts of the life he had previously enjoyed as a slave in the imperial palace in Rome.
Just as he surrendered to the need to shut his eyes and savour the image of a neat little desk close by the warm, flickering glow of a brazier, Cato was snapped back to reality by a sudden cry. Figulus had stumbled and fallen and was scrabbling to retrieve his scattered equipment. Gratefully dropping out of the column, Cato dumped his pack and helped Figulus back onto his feet.
'Pick up your stuff and get back in line.'
Figulus nodded and reached for his yoke.
'Sweet mother! What the fuck is going on here?' Hortensius bawled as he raced down the column towards the two men. 'You ladies are not being paid by the fucking hour! Optio, is he one of yours?'
'Then why aren't you giving him a bloody kicking?'
'Sir?' Cato blushed. 'A kicking?' He looked up the column towards Macro, in the hope of support from his centurion. But Macro was veteran enough to know when not to intervene in a confrontation and did not even glance back.
'Deaf as well as dumb?' Hortensius roared into his face. 'Only dead soldiers are allowed to fall out of line in my cohort, understand? Any other bastard who gives it a try will fucking wish he was dead! Get it?'
To one side, Figulus quickly continued hooking his equipment to the yoke. The senior centurion spun round. 'Did I say you could move?'
Figulus shook his head and the senior centurion's vine cane instantly lashed out and smashed onto the side of the legionary's helmet with a sharp clang. 'Can't hear you! You've got a bloody mouth. Use it!'
'Yes, sir,' Figulus snapped back, clenching his teeth against the ringing pain in his head. He dropped his equipment and stood to attention. 'No, sir. You did not say I could move.'
'Right! Now pick up your shield and javelin. Leave the rest. Next time you'll think twice about dropping your equipment.'
Figulus burned with the injustice of the order. It would cost him several months' pay to replace the equipment. 'But, sir. I was tired, I couldn't help it.'
'Couldn't help it!' Hortensius shouted. 'Couldn't help it? YOU CAN FUCKING HELP IT! One more word out of you and I'll cut your hamstrings and leave you here for the Druids. Now get back in line!'
Figulus snatched up his fighting equipment, and with a pained glance at his yoke and his scattered belongings, ran back towards the gap in the Sixth Century where he had been marching. Hortensius turned his wrath back onto Cato. He leaned closer, speaking in a menacing whisper.
'Optio, if I have to step in and discipline your men for you again I swear it'll be you I beat senseless and leave for the enemy. How do you think it looks to the other men if you bloody go and act like his nursemaid? Before you know it, they'll all be dropping like flies and whining that they're too tired. You've got to make 'em too terrified to even think of resting. Do that and you can save their lives. But if you piss around like I just saw you do, every straggler the enemy slaughters will be down to you. Got it?'
'I fucking hope so, sunshine. Because if there's one thing -'
'Enemy in sight!' a distant voice called out, and from beyond the head of the cohort one of the horsemen from the cavalry squadron was galloping down the line, looking for Hortensius. The beast slewed to a halt in front of the centurion. To the side, on the track, the men of the cohort continued to march past as no order to halt had been given, but the horseman's cry had raised every head and the men looked around for sign of the enemy.
'Ahead, across the track, sir.' The cavalry scout pointed up the track to where it curved round a low forested hill. The rest of the squadron, tiny dark figures set against the snowy landscape, were forming up in a line at the point where the track began to bend round the hill.
'Hundreds, sir. And they've got chariots and some heavy infantry.'
'I see.' Hortensius nodded, and bellowed the order to halt the cohort. He turned back towards the scout. 'Tell your decurion to keep them under observation. Let me know the moment they make a move.'
The scout saluted, wheeled his horse round and pounded back towards the distant figures of the squadron, hooves spraying snow into the faces of the infantry as he passed.
Hortensius cupped his hands. 'Officers! To me!'
'Not much light left,' Cato muttered, gazing anxiously at the sky.
Macro nodded but kept his eyes on the thick line of enemy warriors barring the track ahead where it passed through a narrow vale. Unusually for the Britons, these men stood still and silent, heavy infantry drawn up in the centre, light infantry to each side and a small force of chariots on each flank. Well over a thousand men, he estimated. Set against the four hundred and fifty effectives of the Fourth Cohort the odds did not look good. The cavalry squadron was no longer with them; Hortensius had ordered them to slip round the enemy and make best speed to the legion's headquarters and beg the legate to send out a relief column. The legion was nearly twenty miles distant but the scouts should reach them during the night, if all went well.
The cohort had another problem as it stood to in a hollow box astride the track. In the centre, ringed by half a century of nervous legionaries, squatted the prisoners taken at the settlement. They were excited, and craned their necks for sight of their comrades, whispering urgently to one another until a harsh shout and a brutal blow of a shield stilled their tongues. But it was like damming an irresistible current and as soon as one section was silenced, the whispering flowed elsewhere.
'Optio!' Hortensius shouted to the officer in charge of the prisoners. 'Get 'em to shut their fucking mouths! Kill the next Briton who opens his trap.'
'Yes, sir!' The optio turned back to the prisoners and drew his sword, daring them to utter a sound. His posture was eloquent enough and the natives shrank back in sullen silence.
'What now, I wonder,' said Macro.
'Why don't they attack us, sir?'
'No idea, Cato. No idea.'
As the light in the sky thinned and the gloom of late afternoon thickened, the two forces stood in silent confrontation. Each waited for the other to surrender to the imperative need to do something to end me tension wearing away at their nerves. Macro, veteran though he was, found that he was rapping his fingers on the rim of his shield and was only made aware of it by the curious sidelong glance of his optio. He withdrew his hand, cracked his fingers loudly enough to make Cato wince, and rested his palm on the handle of his sword.
'Well, I've never seen the like before,' he began conversationally. 'The Durotriges must either have the best self-control I've ever seen in a Celtic tribe or they're even more nervous of us than we are of them.'
'Which do you think it is, sir?'
'I don't think I'd bet much on them being scared.'
As he spoke, the enemy line parted to let a handful of men through. With a thrill of terror Cato saw that their leader wore an antlered headpiece and that he and his mounted followers were swathed in the same black robes they had worn before the ramparts of the Second Legion when their leader had beheaded the navy prefect, Maxentius. With a slow, deliberate and menacing gait, the Druids walked their horses up towards the cohort and gently reined in, just out of javelin range. For a moment the only movement came from their horses gently pawing the ground. Then their leader raised a hand.
'Romans! I would speak with your leader!' The accent was marked, betraying the Druid's Gallic origins. His deep voice echoed flatly off the snow-covered slopes of the vale. 'Send him forward!'
Macro and Cato turned to look at Hortensius. His lips curled with contempt for an instant, before realisation of the cohort's peril restored his self-control. The nearest men saw him swallow, stiffen his spine and then step out from the cohort's ranks and stride confidently towards the Druids. As he watched, Cato felt a cold tingle of dread at the back of his neck. Surely Hortensius would not be so foolish as to risk ending up like Maxentius? Cato leaned forward, biting on his lip.
'Easy, lad,' Macro said in a low growl. 'Hortensius knows what he's about. So don't let your feelings show – you'll make the womenfolk nervous.' He tipped his head towards the nearest men of the Sixth Century and those within earshot grinned. Cato blushed, and stood still, forcing all expression from his face as he watched Hortensius approach the Druids.
The senior centurion stopped a short distance from the horsemen and stood with his feet planted apart, his hand on the pommel of his sword. The two sides conversed, but the words were too faint to make out. The exchange was brief. The horsemen remained where they were while Hortensius moved back several paces, before slowly turning and making his way to the safety of the cohort. Once inside the wall of shields, he called for his officers. Macro and Cato trotted over to join the others, all of them burning to know what had passed between Hortensius and the dark Druids.
'They say they'll let us march on unhindered,' Hortensius paused, and gave his officers a wry smile, 'provided we set our prisoners free.'
'Bollocks.' Macro spat on the ground. 'They must think we were born yesterday.'
'My sentiments exactly. I told 'em I might release their mates only when we were behind the walls of the Second Legion's camp. They weren't impressed with that, and suggested a compromise. That we free the prisoners once we're in sight of the camp.'
The officers considered the offer, each weighing up the likelihood of the cohort being able to reach the camp, unencumbered by prisoners, before the Britons reneged on the deal and tried to cut them to pieces.
'There'll be plenty of chances to take more prisoners later in the campaign,' one of the centurions suggested, and then stopped speaking as Hortensius laughed and shook his head.
'That bastard Diomedes has stitched us up nicely!'
'They don't want that sorry lot over there!' Hortensius jabbed his thumb towards the Britons squatting on the ground. 'They're talking about the Druids we took back at the settlement. The ones that little shit Diomedes killed.'