When Cato woke he had a nagging headache that pounded against the inside of his forehead. It was dark outside and only a faint chink showed where the tent flap had fallen shut but not been tied. With no idea of the time, he closed his eyes and tried to sleep again. It was futile; thoughts and images crept back from the margins of his consciousness, refusing to be disregarded. He had still not recovered from the sleepless nights of march and battle, and now he was about to embark on this crazy new venture, just when he should be resting his body. Despite his anxieties after last night's lengthy briefing, he had fallen asleep very quickly once he had curled up under his blanket. The other men of his section were already out for the count, with Figulus grumbling away to himself amid his dreams as usual.
By the time the men of the Sixth Century rose at dawn, their centurion and his optio would have left the camp. That would be the least of the changes to their immediate world. It would be the last morning that they would rise as comrades within the same unit. The Sixth Century was to be broken up and what remained of its men distributed to the other centuries in the cohort to make good their losses.
Macro had been mortified when Vespasian informed him. The Sixth Century had been his ever since he had been promoted to the centurionate and Macro had developed the customary fierce pride and protectiveness typical of an officer's first command. Since landing in Britain he and his men had fought numerous bloody battles and bitter skirmishes together. Many had been killed, others crippled and sent back to Rome for early discharge. The gaps in the ranks had been filled with a stream of new recruits. Few of the faces remained from the original eighty men he had faced on the parade ground for the first time a year and a half ago. But while men came and went, the century – his century – had endured, and Macro had come to regard it as an extension of himself, responsive to his will, and he was proud of its hard-fighting efficiency in battle. To lose the Sixth Century felt like losing a child and Macro was angry and bereft.
But what else could be done? the legate had reasoned with him. The century could not be left leaderless while it waited for its commander to return, and the other centuries needed seasoned replacements. General Plautius had already drawn on all of the replacements earmarked for the legions in Britain and no more would be forthcoming for several months. When the mission was over and Macro returned to the legion, he would be given the first command that fell vacant.
Cato had glanced at Macro, and the centurion had shrugged regretfully. The army was no respecter of well-forged teams and there was nothing to be done if the legate had made up his mind.
'What about my optio, sir?' Macro had asked. 'If we make it back.'
Vespasian had looked at the tall, slender youth for a moment, and then nodded. 'He'll be looked after. Perhaps a temporary post on my staff while we wait for a vacancy on the optios' list.'
Cato had tried not to let his disappointment show; being posted to a different century to Macro's was not an appealing prospect. It had taken months to win the centurion's grudging respect and to convince him that he was worthy of the rank of optio. When he had joined the legion, Cato, a former imperial slave, had been the target of bitter resentment and much jealousy because of his instant promotion, for which he had the Emperor himself to thank. Cato's father had served with distinction on the imperial staff, and when he died, Emperor Claudius had freed the boy and sent him to join the eagles, with a kindly lift onto the first rang of the promotional ladder. It had been a well-meant gesture, but no one as lofty as the Emperor had any inkling of the bitterness with which men at the bottom of society reacted to blatant nepotism.
Cato was loath to recall his early experiences of life in the Second Legion: the harsh discipline of the drill instructors, laid more heavily upon him than any of the other recruits; the bullying at the hands of a cruel ex-convict named Pulcher; and perhaps worst of all the frank disapproval of his centurion. That had hurt him more than anything else, and driven him to prove himself on every possible occasion. Now, that struggle for recognition of his worth would begin all over again. In addition, he had a certain personal regard for Macro, at whose side he had fought through the most terrible battles of the campaign so far. It would not be easy to adjust to the style of another centurion.
Vespasian had noticed the optio's expression and tried to offer him some words of comfort. 'Never mind. You can't carry on being an optio forever. Someday, sooner than you think perhaps, you will have a century of your own.'
That he spoke to the lad's inmost ambitions, Vespasian had no doubt. Every young man he had ever known dreamed of honour and promotion, however unlikely they knew it to be. But this one just might make it. He had proved his courage and his intelligence, and with a little help from someone placed high enough to make a difference, he would be sure to serve the empire well.
Since there was little chance of either himself or Macro ever returning to the Second Legion, these kindly words from Vespasian had a distinctly hollow ring. They were so typical of the well-worn encouragement that all commanders offer to those facing certain death, and Cato had felt contempt for himself for having been momentarily taken in by the legate's guile. The bitterness of the thought stayed with him through the night.
'Fool!' he muttered to himself, turning over on his bracken-filled bedroll. He pulled the thick army blanket tightly about him and round his head to keep the chill out. Once again he tried to get to sleep, banishing all thought from his mind and once again the subtle wiles of insomnia nudged his mind back to the previous night's encounter.
Surprise at seeing Boudica and her dangerous cousin was mirrored in the faces of General Plautius and Vespasian as they realised that the new arrivals were known to the centurion and his optio.
'I see you're already acquainted.' Plautius smiled. 'That should make things easier all round.'
'I'm not so sure, sir,' replied Macro, warily sizing up the British warrior towering over him. 'Last time we met, Prasutagus here didn't seem to have much affection for Romans.'
'Really?' Plautius looked steadily at Macro. 'Not much affection for Romans, or not much for you?'
'You should know, Centurion, that this man volunteered to help in any way that he could. Once I made known to the Icenian elders that my family was being held, this man came forward and volunteered to do all in his power to help me recover them.'
'Do you trust him, sir?'
'I have to. What other choice do I have? And you will work closely with him. That's an order.'
'I thought we'd volunteered, sir.'
'You have, and now that you have, you'll obey my orders. You're to co-operate fully with Prasutagus. He knows the country and customs of the Durotriges, and a great deal about the practices and secret places of the Dark Moon Druids. He's the best chance we have. So look after him, and pay close heed to what he tells you – or rather to what the lady here translates for you. You appear to have met her before as well.'
'You might say that, sir,' Macro replied quietly, and nodded his head formally at Boudica.
'Centurion Macro,' she acknowledged him. 'And your charming optio.'
'Ma'am.' Cato swallowed nervously.
Prasutagus glared at Macro for a moment, and then helped himself to a goblet of the legate's wine which he drank so fast that from either side of the rim drops of red liquid spilled down the thick blond hair of his ornate moustache.
'How quaint,' Vespasian muttered, eyebrows rising anxiously as the Briton went back to the glass jug for a third goblet.
'Since you seem to approve…' Boudica joined Prasutagus and poured herself a goblet, filling it to the brim. 'To a safe return.'
She raised the goblet to her lips and drank until the last drop had been drained, then thumped the goblet down. Boudica grinned at the scandalised expressions of the general and his legate. This was a world away from the prim codes of behaviour they were used to among the better class of Roman women.
Prasutagus muttered something and nudged Boudica to translate.
'He says the wine's not bad.'
Vespasian gave a tight-lipped smile and sat down.
'Well then, enough of the formalities. We haven't much time. Centurion, I will brief your team as fully as I can, and then you need to rest. I'll have some horses, provisions and weapons made ready so that you can leave the camp before dawn. It's important that your party is not seen leaving the legion. You'll be travelling by night mostly, and laying up during the day. If you happen to run into anyone you'll need a cover story. Your best chance is to pretend to be travelling entertainers. Prasutagus will play the part of a wrestler, offering to take on all-comers, for a fee. She will pose as his wife. You two are going to be a pair of Greek slaves, ex-soldiers bought to provide protection in this wild land. The southern tribes of Britain are used to the comings and goings of merchants, traders and entertainers.'
An image of the slaughtered victims of the burned village flickered into Cato's mind. 'Excuse me, sir, given the way they treat the Atrebates, what makes you think they won't just kill us out of hand?'
'It's a tribal convention; you don't piss on your own doorstep. By all means raid other tribes, but you don't want to discourage trade from outside. That's how it works with all the tribes on the edges of the empire. However, you're right to be cautious. The Druids are an unknown element in this. We don't know what the Durotriges will do under their influence. Prasutagus is best placed to deal with any situations you encounter. Watch him carefully, and follow his lead.'
'I'll be watching carefully right enough,' Macro said quietly.
'You really think that'll work, sir?' asked Cato. 'Aren't the Durotriges going to be just a little suspicious of strangers, now that there's a Roman army camping on their doorstep?'
'I admit it won't stand up to much scrutiny, but it might buy you time, should you need it. Prasutagus may be remembered in some parts, which should count for something. You and the optio should stay out of sight as far as possible and let Prasutagus and Boudica approach the Durotriges or any settlements you come across. They'll listen for news of my family. Follow up any leads for as long as it takes, and find them.'
'I thought we only had twenty odd days left, sir. Before the Druids' deal is off.'
Plautius answered him. 'Yes, that's right. But once the deadline has passed and… and if the worst has happened, I'd like to be able to give them a decent funeral. Even if all that's left is ash and bone.'
A hand grasped Cato's shoulder and shook him roughly. His eyes flickered open and his body, stiffened at the sudden waking.
'Shhh!' Macro hissed from the darkness. 'Keep it quiet! It's time to go. Got your equipment?'
Cato nodded, then realised that it was still too dark for Macro to see him. 'Yes, sir.'
'Good. Then let's go.'
Still tired, and reluctant to quit the relative warmth of the tent, Cato shivered as he quietly crept outside, dragging the bundle he had prepared before going to sleep. Wrapped inside a spare tunic was his mail armour and leather harness, together with sword and dagger. Helmet, shield and everything else would be collected by the headquarters staff and kept safe from pilfering until they returned. Cato had little doubt that they would become someone else's property in the near future.
As he followed Macro through the dark lines of tents towards the stables, fear of what lay ahead began to unravel his determination to see the mission through. It was tempting to make himself trip over a guy rope and fake a twisted ankle. In the darkness it might pass for a credible excuse. But he could imagine the contemptuous doubt that Macro and the legate would be sure to feel, if not express. This shaming prospect made him dismiss the plan and tread more warily in case the accident happened for real. Besides, he couldn't let Macro go blundering about in the depths of enemy territory with only Prasutagus and Boudica for company. It would be all too easy for the Iceni warrior to slit Macro's throat while he slept. But not so easy if they took turns to watch over each other. There really was no way out of this, he concluded glumly. If only Macro hadn't been so rude to the general, then he wouldn't have had to intervene. Now they were both for the chop, thanks to Macro.
Grumbling silently to himself, Cato forgot to pay attention to where he was putting his feet. The guy rope caught his shin and he tumbled head first with a sharp cry. Macro whipped round.
'Quiet! You want to wake up everyone in the fucking camp?'
'Sorry, sir,' Cato whispered as he struggled back to his feet, the heavy bundle in both arms.
'Don't tell me, you've gone and twisted your ankle.'
'No, sir! Of course not!'
Someone stirred inside the tent. 'Who's there?'
'No one,' snapped Macro. 'Get back to sleep… Come on, lad, and watch your step.'
Beside the horse pen, a dim light glimmered inside the large tent where the riding tack and cavalry weapons were stored. Cato followed Macro through the flap into the dull glow of a hanging oil lamp. Prasutagus, Boudica and Vespasian stood waiting.
'Best change right now,' said Vespasian. 'Your horses and pack animals are ready.'
They dropped their bundles and stripped down to their loincloths. Under the curious gaze of Boudica, Cato hurriedly covered himself with a fresh tunic and pulled his mail shirt over the top. He slipped into his harness, attached the sword and dagger scabbards and reached for his military cloak.
'No!' Vespasian interrupted the gesture. 'Not that. Wear those.' He indicated a pair of grimy brown cloaks, well-worn and spattered with mud. 'Best not look too much like a pair of squaddies when you reach Durotrigan territory. And wear these thongs round your heads.'
He handed them two lengths of leather, broad at the front and tapering at the ends. 'The Greeks wear them to hold their hair back. Your military cut is an instant giveaway, so keep these on, and your hoods up, and you might just pass muster as a couple of Greeks – from a distance. Just don't try and engage anyone in conversation.'
'All right, sir.' Macro grimaced at the thong, then tied it round his head. Prasutagus watched Macro while Boudica grinned at Cato.
'Somehow you look more convincing as a Greek slave than you've ever done as a legionary.'
'Thank you. Much appreciated.'
'Save it for later,' ordered Vespasian. 'Come with me.'
He beckoned to Prasutagus and led them outside. Over at the tethering posts stood four horses with plain blankets spread across their backs, covering the legion's brand. Saddlepacks hung over each flank, and to one side stood two ponies carrying more provisions.
'Right then, you'd best be off. The watch officer on the gate is expecting you, so you can slip out without some idiot shouting a challenge.' The legate looked them over one last time and then quickly slapped Macro on the shoulder. 'Good luck!'
'Thank you, sir.'
Macro took a breath and threw his leg up over his horse, swinging his body after it. A graceless moment of subdued curses followed before he was properly seated and had a good grasp of the reins. Being taller, Cato managed to mount his horse with a little more style.
Prasutagus muttered something to Boudica and Macro swung round. 'What did he say?'
'He wondered if it might be better if you and your optio travelled on foot.'
'Oh really? Well, you tell him -'
'That's enough, Centurion!' Vespasian snapped. 'Just go.'
The Iceni warrior and woman mounted with familiar ease and turned their horses towards the camp gate. Behind them, Macro and Cato tugged on the long reins of the pack animals and followed on. As the hooves thudded on the frosted mud of the track, Cato took a last look over his shoulder. But Vespasian was already marching back towards the warmth of his quarters and was quickly swallowed up by the darkness.
Ahead loomed the gate, and at their approach a quiet order was given. The locking bar squealed back into its receiver and one gate swung inwards. As they passed through, a handful of legionaries watched them in silence, curious but obedient to the strict instructions not to utter a word. Beyond the ramparts, Prasutagus twitched his reins and led them down the slope towards the forest from which the Druids had emerged with the fleet prefect several days earlier.
Without his helmet and shield, and the comforting security of the camp around him, Cato suddenly felt horribly exposed. This was worse than going into battle. Much worse. Ahead lay enemy territory. And the enemy was unlike any other that the Romans had faced. Looking to the west, where the land was so dark it almost merged with the night, Cato wondered if his eyes were deceiving him, or was the blackness there made yet more black by the shadows of the Druids of the Dark Moon?