By the time the sun had risen above the milky horizon into a dull grey sky, they had passed deep into the forest. They rode along a well-used trail that wound past the gnarled trunks of aged oak trees whose twisted branches showed even more starkly as the light increased. Some of the highest boughs were well nested, and the raw croaking call of crows filled the air as the dark birds watched the small party passing beneath with greedy speculative eyes. The forest floor was covered with dark, dead leaves. The snow had almost disappeared and the air felt cold and damp. The gloomy atmosphere was oppressive and Cato glanced anxiously from side to side, alert for any sign of the enemy. He rode at the rear, with only a pack pony behind him, rustling through the damp leaves. Immediately ahead was the other pony, tethered to Macro's saddle. The centurion himself, bare-headed and swaying uneasily atop his cavalry mount, seemed unconcerned by the dismal surroundings. He had far more interest in the woman ahead of him. Boudica wore her hood up and, as far as Cato was aware, had not looked back since they had left the camp.
This puzzled him; he had assumed that Boudica would be keen to see Macro once again. But there had been a marked coolness in her attitude to them both during the previous evening's briefing. And now this long silence since they had left camp. At the front rode Prasutagus, looming larger than ever on the saddle of the biggest horse that could be found for him. He led the way at a calm, unhurried pace, nonchalantly regarding the track ahead. He had ignored them at the briefing, only listening and speaking to the legate through Boudica.
Cato looked at the great mane of hair on Prasutagus's head and wondered how much the giant recalled of that night back in Camulodunum when, drunk and angry, he had caught up with his cousin drinking in an alehouse full of Romans. Whatever had happened after that night seemed to have worked some change in Boudica and strained her friendship with Macro. Perhaps Nessa had been right. Boudica and Prasutagus might be more to each other than mere cousins.
Of all the Britons that might have offered to help the general, it seemed typical of the perverse fates that governed Cato's life that it had to be Prasutagus and Boudica. This mission was dangerous enough already, Cato reflected, without having to deal with tensions arising out of Macro and Boudica's fling, and the consequent affront to Prasutagus's aristocratic pride in every root and branch of his family.
Then there was Prasutagus's particular knowledge of the Durotriges and the Dark Moon Druids. Nearly every Roman child was reared on garish tales of the Druids and their dark magic, human sacrifices and blood-drenched sacred groves. Cato was no different, and had seen such a grove for himself the previous summer. The terrible atmosphere of the place still endured, in vivid detail, in his memory. If this was the world in which Prasutagus had once immersed himself, then how much of the man was still Druid, and not fully human? What lingering loyalties might Prasutagus harbour for his former masters and fellow initiates? Was his eagerness to aid the general merely a treacherous ploy to deliver two Romans into the hands of the Druids?
Cato reined in his imagination. The enemy would hardly go to such elaborate lengths to capture a mere centurion and his optio. He scolded himself for thinking like a paranoid schoolboy and monstrously inflating his own importance.
It reminded him of a time in the imperial palace, many years earlier, when he had been little more than an infant and had taken a fancy to a small carved ivory spoon he had seen on a banqueting table. It had been easy enough to pinch, and then conceal in the folds of his tunic. In a quiet spot in the garden he had examined it, wondering at the ornate work on the handle with its sinuously twisting dolphins and nymphs. Suddenly he heard shouting and the sound of running feet. He chanced a look round the side of a bush and saw a squad of Praetorians run from the doors of the palace into the garden and begin searching the topiary. Cato had been terrified that the theft of the spoon had been discovered, and now the Emperor's men were hunting the thief down. Any moment he would be taken, evidence in hand and hurled to the ground before the cold eyes of Sejanus, the commander of the Praetorian Guard. If only a little of what the palace slaves whispered to each other was true, Sejanus would have had his throat cut and his body thrown to the wolves.
The Praetorians came closer and closer to the hiding place where Cato trembled biting his lip in case a whimper should attract attention. Then, just as a thick, muscled arm groped into the bush where he crouched, there was a distant shout.
'Caius! They've found him! Come on.'
The hand withdrew, and feet pounded away across the marble flagstones. Cato nearly fainted with relief. As quietly as he could, he slipped back into the palace and replaced the spoon. Then he returned to the small chamber he shared with his father and waited, praying that the spoon's return would be noticed soon and the hue and cry would die away and the world would return to safe normality.
It was late in the evening before his father returned from the offices of the imperial secretariat. By the faint glow of an oil lamp Cato saw the anxious expression in his lined face, and then the grey eyes flickered towards his son, registering surprise that the boy was still awake.
'You should be asleep,' he whispered.
'I couldn't sleep, Daddy. Too much noise. What's happened?' Cato asked as innocently as he could. 'The Praetorian Guards were running about all over the palace. Has Sejanus caught another traitor?'
His father gave a grim smile in response. 'No. Sejanus will never catch any more traitors now. He's gone.'
'Gone? Left the palace?' A sudden anxiety sparked in Cato's mind. 'Does that mean I can't play with little Marcus any more?'
'Yes… yes, it does. Marcus… and his sister…' His father's face twisted into a grimace at the appalling outrage that had been wrought on the innocent children of Sejanus during the day's blood-letting. Then he leaned over his son and kissed his brow. 'They've gone with their father. I'm afraid you won't be able to see them again.'
'I'll tell you later. In a few days, maybe.'
But his father never did explain. Instead, Cato heard it all from the other slaves in the palace kitchen the following morning. At the news of Sejanus's death, Cato's first reaction was great relief that the previous day's events had had nothing to do with his theft of the spoon. All the anxiety, the dreadful anticipation of capture and punishment lifted from his childish shoulders. That was all that was important to him that morning.
Now, over ten years later, his face burned with embarrassment at the memory. That moment, and several others like it, frequently reached out to torment him into helpless self-loathing. Just as his present self-important fear did, and doubtless would again in the future. He seemed unable to escape these wearing rounds of harsh self-examination and he wondered if he would ever be able to live at ease with himself.
The sky remained a dismal grey for the rest of the day and there was not a whisper of breeze in the forest. The still and silent trees provoked a brooding nervousness in the riders. Cato persuaded himself that in less dangerous circumstances the harsh aesthetics of winter might lend the forest a kind of beauty. But for now, every rustle in the undergrowth or crack of a twig made him jump in his saddle and anxiously scan the shadows.
They followed a bend in the trail and began to pass the spiky tangle of a blackberry thicket. Without warning a great cracking and thrashing sounded from within. Cato and Macro flipped back their capes and drew their swords. The horses and ponies, nostrils flaring and eyes wide with fright, reared and retreated from the brambles. The thicket shook and bulged, and a stag burst out onto the track. Bloodied from numerous scratches and snorting its steamy breath into the clammy air, the stag dipped its antlers at the nearest horse and shook them threateningly.
'Keep clear!' shouted Macro, eyes on the sharp white ends of the antlers. 'Get out of its way!'
In the commotion of wheeling horses and ponies, the stag saw a gap and bounded through it. As the riders strove to control their mounts, the stag pounded into the depths of the forest on the opposite side of the track, kicking up great divots of fallen leaves.
Prasutagus mastered his horse first, then looked round at the Romans and burst into laughter. Macro scowled at him, then noticed he was still holding his short sword, poised and ready to thrust. In a sudden release of tension, he returned the Iceni warrior's laugh and sheathed his sword. Cato followed suit.
Prasutagus muttered something then tugged on his reins and headed down the track again.
'What'd he say?' Macro asked Boudica.
'He's not sure who jumped highest, you or the stag.'
'Very funny. Tell him he didn't do so bad himself.'
'Better not,' cautioned Boudica. 'He's a bit prickly on the pride front.'
'Is he? Then we've got something in common after all. Now tell him what I said.' Macro's gaze did not waver as he challenged Boudica to defy his will. 'Well, go on then, tell him what I said.'
Prasutagus looked back over his shoulder. 'Come! We go!' he shouted, and then continued in his own tongue, having exhausted his knowledge of Latin.
'Sir,' Cato intervened quietly. 'Please don't push the matter. He's the only one who knows the way ahead. Just humour him.'
'Humour him!' Macro snorted. 'Bastard's begging for a fight.'
'Which we can't afford to have,' said Boudica. 'Cato's right. We mustn't let petty rivalries brew up if we're to rescue your general's family. Calm down.'
Macro clamped his lips together and glared at her. Boudica just shrugged and turned her horse to follow Prasutagus. Knowing only too well how quickly Macro's temper came and went, Cato kept his silence and stared vaguely to one side, until with a muttered oath Macro kicked his horse forward and the small company continued on its way.
They emerged from the forest as dusk fell. The shadows and dark ancient trees fell behind and Cato's spirits lifted a little. Before them the ground dipped gently into a band of wetlands bestride a river that snaked away to the horizon on either side. A few sheep dotted the meadows, busily feeding on the green shoots exposed by the melting snow. The track wound down and away to the right. A mile away a thin column of smoke rose from a large round hut set to the back of a stockade. Prasutagus pointed it out and said a few words to Boudica.
'That's where we'll spend the night. There's a ford not much further on where we can cross the river in the morning. We should be safe enough for the night. Prasutagus knew the farmer a few years ago.'
A few years ago?' said Macro. 'Things can change in a few years.'
'Maybe. But I don't want to spend the night in the open before I really have to.'
As Boudica's mount stepped forward, Macro leaned from his saddle and held her shoulder.
'Wait a moment. We have to talk sometime.'
'Sometime.' Boudica nodded. 'But not now.'
'I don't know. When the time's right. Now, let go of me please, you're hurting me.'
Macro searched her eyes for some sign of the affection and lightness of spirit he had once known, but Boudica's expression was weary and empty of any emotion. His hand fell away and with a quick kick Boudica urged her horse on.
'Bloody women,' Macro muttered. 'Cato, my lad, a word of advice. Don't ever get too closely involved with them. They can do funny things to a man's heart.'
'I know they can, sir.'
'Of course. Sorry, I forgot.'
Reluctant to dwell on the painful memory of Lavinia, Cato tugged the reins of his pony and headed down the track towards the distant farm. The leaden skies grew ever darker in the failing light and the landscape faded into hazy shades of grey. The stockade and the hut became indistinct, except for a brilliant pinprick of orange showing through the doorframe of the hut, which beckoned to them with a promise of warmth and shelter against the chill of night.
At their approach the stockade gates quickly swung shut and a head emerged from the shadows above the sharpened stakes to shout a challenge. Prasutagus bellowed a reply, and when they were close enough for his identity to be confirmed, the gates were opened again and the small party urged their beasts inside. Prasutagus dismounted and strode over to a short, thickset man who did not seem to be much older than Cato. They grasped each other by the forearms in formal but friendly greeting. It emerged that the farmer Prasutagus had once known was three years dead and buried in a small orchard behind the stockade. His eldest son had died the previous summer, fighting the Romans in the battle for the Medway crossing. The younger son, Vellocatus, now ran the farm, and remembered Prasutagus well enough. He glanced at Prasutagus's companions and said something quietly. Prasutagus laughed, and replied with a quick jerk of his head at Boudica and the others. Vellocatus stared at them for a moment before nodding.
Beckoning them all to follow him, he led the way across the muddy interior of the stockade towards a line of crudely constructed pens. Two other men, much older, were busy forking winter feed into cattle byres and paused for a moment to watch the newcomers as they led their mounts into a small stable. Inside, the riders wearily removed the saddles from their mounts, taking care to leave the blankets strapped over the legion's brand. Once the tack, provisions and equipment had been carefully stowed to one side of the pen, their host provided them with some grain and soon the horses were champing contentedly, their steamy breath curling about them in the cold air.
It was fully dark before they picked their way across to the large round hut with its thick, insulating thatch. The farmer ushered them inside and drew a heavy leather cover across the entrance. After the sharp freshness of the air outside, the smoky stench of the interior made Cato cough. But at least it was warm. The floor of the hut sloped towards the hearth where wood cracked and hissed amid flickering orange flames rising from the wavering glow of the fire's base. Above the flames a blackened cauldron hung from an iron tripod. Bending towards the steam rising from the cauldron was a heavily pregnant woman. She supported her back with a spare hand as she stirred the contents with a long wooden ladle. At their approach she looked up and smiled a greeting to her husband before her eyes flashed towards their guests and her expression became wary.
Vellocatus indicated the comfortably wide stools arranged to one side of the hearth and invited his guests to sit. Prasutagus thanked him and the four travellers gratefully eased their stiff and aching limbs down. While Prasutagus talked to the farmer, the others gazed contentedly into the flames and absorbed the warmth. The rich aroma of stewing meat rising from the cauldron made Macro feel desperately hungry and he licked his lips. The woman noticed and raised the ladle. She nodded towards him and said something.
'What's she saying?' he asked Boudica.
'How should I know? She's Atrebatan. I'm Iceni.'
'But you're both Celts, surely?'
'Just because we're from the same island doesn't mean we all speak the same language, you know.'
'Really?' Macro adopted a look of innocent surprise.
'Really. Does everyone in the empire speak Latin?'
'No, of course not.'
'So how do you Romans make yourselves understood?'
'We talk more loudly.' Macro shrugged. 'People usually get the gist of what you're saying. If that fails, we lay into them.'
'I don't doubt it, but for the Lud's sake don't try that approach here.' Boudica shook her head. 'So much for the sagacity of the master race… As it happens, I know this dialect well enough. She's offering you some food.'
'Food! Well, why didn't you say so?' Macro nodded vigorously at the farmer's wife. She laughed and reached into a large wicker basket by the hearth and lifted out some bowls which she set down on the hard earth floor. She ladled the steaming broth into the bowls and handed them round, guests first, as custom dictated. The wicker basket yielded up some small wooden spoons and moments later a hush fell over the hut as they all set to their meal.
The broth was scalding hot, and Cato had to blow over each spoonful before putting the spoon into his mouth. Looking more closely at the bowl he realised that it was Samian ware, the cheap crockery manufactured in Gaul and exported across most of the western empire. And beyond, it seemed.
'Boudica, could you ask her where these bowls came from?'
The two women struggled to converse for a moment before the question was fully understood and an answer given.
'She traded for them with a Greek merchant.'
'Greek?' Cato nudged Macro.
'Sir, the woman says she got these bowls off a Greek merchant.'
'I heard, so?'
'Was the merchant's name Diomedes?'
The woman nodded and smiled, then spoke quickly to Boudica in the singsong tones of the Celtic tongue.
'She likes Diomedes. Says he's a charmer. Always has a small gift for the women and a quick enough wit to pacify their menfolk afterwards.'
'Beware Greeks bearing gifts,' mumbled Macro. 'That lot'll jump anything that moves, male or female.'
Boudica smiled. 'From my own experience I'd say you Romans are only marginally more discriminating. Must be something they put in all that wine you southern races are so fond of drinking.'
'You complaining?' asked Macro, watching Boudica closely.
'Let's just say it was an education.'
'And you've learned all you need about the men of Rome, I suppose.'
'Something like that.'
Macro's eyes glinted angrily at Boudica, before he returned to his broth and continued eating in silence. An awkward tension filled the air. Cato stirred his broth and brought the conversation back to the less touchy subject of Diomedes.
'When was the last time she saw him?'
'Only two days ago.'
Cato stopped stirring.
'Came through on foot,' Boudica continued. 'Just stayed for a meal and passed straight on, heading west into Durotrigan territory. Doubt he'll find much trade there.'
'He's not after trade,' Cato said quietly. 'Not any more. Did you hear, sir?'
'Of course I heard. This bloody mission is dangerous enough as it is, without that Greek stirring things up. Just hope they find him and kill him quickly, before he causes us any trouble.'
They continued eating in silence, and Cato made no further attempt to keep the conversation going. He pondered the implications of the news about Diomedes. It appeared that killing the Druid prisoners was not enough for the Greek. His thirst for revenge was leading him towards the Dark Moon Druids' heartland. On his own he stood little chance, and he might alert the Durotriges to be on the lookout for strangers. That could only magnify the risk the four of them already faced. Gloomily Cato ate another spoonful of broth, chewing hard at a lump of gristle.
The hospitality of Vellocatus and his wife extended to a silver platter of honeyed cakes when they had eaten their fill of broth. Cato lifted a cake and noticed a geometric pattern on the platter beneath it. He dipped his head to look more closely.
'More of the Greek's trading, I imagine,' said Boudica as she helped herself to a cake. 'Must be making a fine living out of it'
'I bet he is,' said Macro and took a bite of cake. His eyes instantly lit up and he nodded approvingly at their hostess. 'Good!'
She beamed happily and offered him another.
'Don't mind if I do,' said Macro, spilling crumbs down his tunic. 'Come on, Cato! Fill up, lad!'
But Cato was lost in thought, staring fixedly at the silver platter, until it was taken away and returned to the wicker basket. He was certain he had seen it before, and was greatly disturbed to see it again. Here, where it had no reason to be. While the others happily ate the cakes, he had to force himself to chew his. He watched Vellocatus and his wife with a growing sense of unease and anxiety.
'Are you sure they're asleep?' whispered Macro.
Boudica took a last glance at the still forms huddled beneath their furs on the low bier and nodded.
'Right, you'd better let Prasutagus have his say.'
Earlier, the Iceni warrior had quietly asked Boudica to let the others know he wanted a word before they passed into Durotrigan territory the next day. Their host had insisted on broaching a cask of ale and had made enough toasts to ensure his happy inebriation before he staggered over to his wife and fell asleep. Now he breathed with the regular deep rhythm of one who would not wake for many hours yet. Against the occasional rumbling of snores from the shadows, Prasutagus briefed the rest of his party in low, serious tones. He watched the others closely as Boudica translated, to make sure that the gravity of his words sank in.
'He says, once we cross the river, we must be seen as little as possible. This may well be the last night we can enjoy shelter. There will be no fires at night if there is any chance of them being seen by the enemy and we will make as little contact with the Durotriges as possible. We will search for another twenty days, until the Druids' deadline has passed. Prasutagus says that if we find nothing by then we head back. To stay any longer would be too dangerous, given that your legion will be marching against the Durotriges in only a few days' time. The moment the first legionary sets foot on Durotrigan soil, every stranger travelling their lands will be regarded as a potential spy.
'That wasn't the deal,' Macro protested quietly. 'The orders were to find the general's family, alive or dead.'
'Not if the deadline has passed, he says.'
'He'll follow his orders, like the rest of us.'
'Speak for yourself, Macro,' said Boudica. 'If Prasutagus goes, then I go, and you're on your own. We didn't agree to suicide.'
Macro glared angrily at Boudica. 'We? Who is this "we", Boudica? The last time we were together this one was just some lunk of a relative who couldn't resist playing the father figure to you and your mate. What's changed?'
'Everything,' Boudica replied quickly. 'What's past is past, and whatever's to come must not be tainted by the past.'
'Tainted?' Macro's eyebrows rose. 'Tainted? Is that all I was to you?'
'That's all you are to me now'
Prasutagus hissed. He nodded his head towards their hosts and wagged his finger at Macro, warning him to lower his voice. Then he spoke quietly to Boudica, who relayed his words.
'Prasutagus says the route he has planned will take us through the heart of Durotrigan territory. That's where we'll find the bigger villages and settlements, the most likely places where your general's family might be held.'
'What if we're caught?' Cato asked.
'If we're caught, and handed over to the Druids, then you two and I will be burned alive. He'll face a far worse death.'
'Worse?' Macro sniffed. 'What could be worse?'
'He says he'll be skinned alive, and then fed piece by piece to their hunting dogs while he still draws breath. His skin, and head, will be nailed to an oak outside their most sacred glade as a warning to Druids of all levels of the fate that will befall any who betray the brotherhood.'
A short silence fell. Then Prasutagus told them to get some sleep. Tomorrow they would be in enemy country and would need all their wits about them.
'There's just one more thing,' Cato said softly.
Prasutagus had started to rise to his feet, and shook his head at the optio. 'Na! Sleep now!'
'Not yet,' Cato insisted, and with a hiss of anger Prasutagus sat down again. 'How can we be sure this farmer can be trusted?' whispered Cato.
Prasutagus explained impatiently, and nodded to Boudica to translate.
'He says he has known Vellocatus since he was a young boy. Prasutagus trusts him and will stand by that trust.'
'Oh, that's reassuring!' said Macro.
'But I don't understand why Vellocatus can live here, right on the doorstep of the Durotriges, and not be afraid of cross-border raids,' Cato persisted. 'I mean, if they wipe out an entire settlement well inside Verica's lands, why leave this place alone?'
'What's your point?' Boudica asked wearily.
'Just this.' Cato reached into the wicker basket by the hearth and quietly withdrew the silver platter, careful not to disturb the crockery. He showed the platter to Macro. 'I'm almost certain I've seen this before, in the storage pit at Noviomagus. We left the booty there, if you recall, sir. No space in the wagons.'
'I remember.' Macro sighed regretfully. 'But if this is the same platter, how did it get here?'
Cato shrugged, reluctant to voice his suspicions. If he accused Vellocatus of working for the enemy, Prasutagus might not react too well. 'I suppose it might have been traded by Diomedes. But if it is the same platter, then Vellocatus can only have been given it by the raiding party. Once we had moved out, I imagine the surviving Durotriges went back for their spoils.'
'Or maybe Vellocatus was in the raiding party himself,' Macro added.
As Boudica translated from the Latin, Prasutagus looked hard at the platter, and then suddenly rose to his feet, turned towards Vellocatus and started to draw his sword.
'No!' Cato jumped up and clasped Prasutagus by his sword hand. 'We've no proof. I might be wrong. Killing them serves no purpose. It'll just alert the Durotriges to our presence if they find him dead.'
Boudica translated and Prasutagus frowned, softly uttering a string of oaths. He released his grip on the sword handle and folded his arms.
'But if you're right about this Vellocatus,' Macro pointed out, 'then we can't let him live to tell any passer-by that he's seen us. We'll have to kill him and the rest of them here before dawn.'
Cato was shocked. 'Sir, we don't have to do that.'
'You got a better idea?'
The young optio thought fast under the cool gaze of the others.
'If Vellocatus is working with the Durotriges, we might yet turn that to our advantage by making sure that whatever he tells anyone else serves our ends.'