They set off again in darkness, following Vellocatus down a track to the ford. The party had breakfasted on the unwarmed remains of the broth, which was scant comfort in the clammy mist that hung over the icy water and shrouded the willow trees lining the bank. At the edge of the ford Vellocatus stood to one side, watching them mount. When all was ready, Prasutagus leaned down from his saddle and quietly thanked their host, clasping him by the hand. Then as the farmer stepped back into the black shadows of the willows, Prasutagus spurred his horse and the quiet was broken by the churning splash of the horses entering the river. The shock of the freezing water startled the animals and they whinnied in protest. The water rose up the horses' flanks and over Cato's boots, adding to his misery. He tried to console himself with the thought that at least the flow would wash away some of the filth that had caked his feet for several days now. Not for the first time, Cato wished himself a slave again, in the service of the imperial palace in Rome. Liberty he might not have, but at least he would be free of the endless discomfort of being a legionary on campaign. Right now he would have given his soul in exchange for a few hours' sweating in one of the public baths back in Rome. Instead, he was shivering uncontrollably, his feet were going numb and the immediate future seemed to promise only a terrible death.
'Are we happy?' grinned Macro, riding beside him.
'Are we fuck!' Cato completed the army saying with feeling.
'This was your idea, remember? Bloody well should have let you go on your own after all.'
The river bed gradually sloped up to the far bank, and the horses eagerly emerged from the freezing water. Looking back across the disturbed surface they could see almost nothing of the far side, their last sight of friendly land. In case Cato's suspicion of Vellocatus was justified, they first went upriver, away from the strongholds of the Durotriges, and increased their pace to a quick trot so that the sound of their hoofbeats on the beaten track would carry across the water back to the farmer, if he was waiting and listening beneath the willows.
A mile down the track, they halted, turned south-west, and quietly walked their horses through the cold wetland until they rejoined the track leading inland from the ford. As the first light of day began to filter through the darkness, Prasutagus quickened the pace, anxious not to be caught in the open once dawn had broken. At a gentle canter they followed the track until the surrounding land became more firm and the wetlands gave way to meadows, and then clumps of more substantial trees. Before long they had entered a small forest. Prasutagus followed the trail a short distance and then branched off along a twisting side path that led deep into an area where pine trees grew, evergreen and straight-trunked. As the lower branches closed in on either side, they had to dismount and lead their horses on foot. At length, the narrow path opened out into a small clearing. Cato was surprised to see a small timber hut faced with turf to one side. All around it stood bare wooden frames. Above the lintel over the hut's door hung the skull of a stag with a spectacular set of antlers. Nothing moved.
'I thought we were supposed to be avoiding the locals,' Macro hissed at Boudica.
'We are,' she relayed the answer back. 'This is a Druid hunting lodge. We'll spend the day here, resting. We'll continue along the main track at dusk.'
Once the horses had been relieved of their baggage and tethered, Prasutagus pushed aside the heavy leather flap that served as a door to the hut and they went inside. There was the usual beaten earth floor and a framework of pine branches held up the tightly packed thatch of the roof. A rich scent of pine and mustiness filled their nostrils. A small hearth stood at one end below an opening in the roof, and a line of simple wooden cots lined the rear wall. The bracken in the cots was slightly damp but serviceable.
'Seems comfortable enough,' said Macro. 'But how safe are we here?'
'We're safe,' Boudica replied. 'The Druids only use the lodge in summer, and most of the Durotriges are too scared of the Druids to venture anywhere near this place.'
Macro tested one of the cots with a hand, then stretched out on the rustling bracken. 'Ahhh! Now that's what I call comfortable.'
'Better get as much rest as you can. We've quite a way to go when it gets dark.'
Cato eased himself into the next cot, eyes already heavy at the prospect of slumber. A nagging anxiety over the trustworthiness of Vellocatus had robbed him of sleep the night before and his mind was dull with exhaustion. He lay back and pulled his cloak tightly about him. His aching eyes closed and his mind quickly drifted away from the harsh discomforts of the real world.
Prasutagus regarded the Romans with a faint look of contempt, then turned back towards the low doorway. Macro quickly propped himself up.
'Where do you think you're going?'
Prasutagus made a quick gesture towards his mouth. 'Find food.'
Macro stared at the Briton, wondering how far he could be relied on.
Prasutagus held his gaze for a moment then turned and ducked out of the lodge. A flash of pearly daylight filled the interior before the leather curtain fell back across the doorway and all was still and silent in the lodge. With his veteran's instinct to snatch whatever rest he could, Macro fell asleep almost at once.
He awoke with a start, eyes snapping open, perplexed by the tangle of pine branches above his head. Then a sense of location returned and Macro remembered he was in the lodge. From the pale quality of the light filtering in from a narrow slit in the wall it was clear that dusk was approaching. He had been asleep for almost the entire day then. A snapping crackle of twigs sounded from the end of the lodge and Macro twisted his head round. Boudica was squatting down next to the hearth with a pile of kindling at her side. She reached for another handful as he watched. There was no sign of Prasutagus, and no sound from outside. Cato was still deeply asleep and lay with his mouth open, his breathing accompanied by an occasional clicking at the back of his throat.
'It's time we talked,' said Macro quietly.
Boudica appeared not to have heard him, and continued snapping twigs, arranging them in a nest around the clump of dry bracken she had pulled from one of the cots.
'Boudica, I said it's time we talked.'
'I heard you,' she replied without turning round. 'But what's the point? It's over between us.'
'Since I was betrothed to Prasutagus. We're to be wed as soon as we return to Camulodunum.'
Macro sat up and swung his legs over the side of the cot. 'Married? To him? When was all this decided? It's been less than a month since we last saw each other. You couldn't stand the sight of him then. At least, that's how you behaved. So what are you playing at, woman?'
'Playing?' Boudica repeated the word with a faint smile. Then she turned and faced him. 'There are no more games for me, Macro. I am a woman now, and I'm expected to behave like one. That's what they told me.'
'Who told you?'
'My family. After they finished beating me.' Her eyes fell to the floor. 'Seems that I caused them some embarrassment after that last night we had in the inn. When I got home to my uncle's house they were all waiting for me. Somehow, they'd found out. My uncle took me out to his stable and whipped me. He kept shouting that I had shamed him, shamed my family and shamed my tribe. And all the time he whipped me. I-I've never known a person could feel such pain…'
Macro had been beaten a few times in his younger days – at the hands of a centurion wielding a vine staff with all the brutality the officer could muster. He remembered the agony well enough, and understood what she must have endured. Rage and pity welled up inside him. He rose from the cot and went to sit beside her.
'I thought he was going to kill me,' whispered Boudica.
Macro put his arm round her shoulder and gave her a comforting squeeze. He felt her body flinch at his touch.
'Don't, Macro. For pity's sake don't touch me. I can't bear it.'
The chilling despair of rejection turned Macro's guts to ice. He frowned angry with himself for having let this woman work her way into his heart so completely. He could imagine the other centurions laughing contemptuously into their cups if they ever got wind of his infatuation with some native girl. Screwing them was one thing; forming an emotional attachment was quite another. It was just the sort of pathetic behaviour he himself had once been so critical of. He recalled the jibes he had given Cato when the lad had fallen for the slave girl Lavinia. But that had been a harmless teenage fling; just the kind of thing to be expected of youngsters before the harsh demands of adulthood closed down such experimentation with all that life had to offer. Macro was thirty-five, nearly ten years older than Boudica. True, there were relationships with greater differences in age, but they were rightly derided by most people. The gap in age that had charmed him so utterly a few months earlier now mocked him. The centurion felt like one of the pathetic old gropers who haunted the Circus Maximus, trying their hand with women young enough to be their grandchildren. The comparison made him burn with shame. He stirred uncomfortably.
'So they forced you never to see me again?'
'And you went along with it.'
She turned her face to him, twisted with bitterness. 'What else could I do? They said if I was ever caught with another Roman I'd be beaten again. I think I'd rather die than face that. Truly' Her expression softened. 'Sorry, Macro. I can't risk it. I have to think about my future.'
'Your future?' Macro was scornful. 'You mean marriage to Prasutagus? I must admit, that came as a bloody big surprise. Why did you agree to it? I mean, he's not exactly the sharpest arrow in the quiver.'
'No. He's not. But he is well-positioned for the future. An Iceni prince with a household in Camulodunum and a growing reputation in the tribe. Now he's developing a useful relationship with your general. With this mission he will win Plautius's gratitude.'
'I wouldn't put too much faith in that,' muttered Macro. He had experience of just how short-lived the general's gratitude could be.
Boudica gave him a curious glance. When he did not elaborate, she continued, 'If we manage to find the general's family, Prasutagus will have more influence with Rome than almost any other Briton. And if Rome does eventually conquer this island, those people who helped her do so are bound to be rewarded.'
'Those people, and the wives of those people.'
'I see. Well, you've come a long way over the last month. I hardly recognise you.'
Boudica was injured by his cynical tone and looked away. Macro did not regret his remark, but at the same time he could not make himself dislike Boudica enough to enjoy insulting her. He wished he could find some hint of the brassy, affectionate girl he had fallen for back in Camulodunum. 'Are you really so cold-blooded?'
'Cold-blooded?' The idea seemed to surprise her. 'No. I'm not cold-blooded. I'm just making the most of what has been forced on me. If I was a man, if I had power, then things would be very different. But I'm a woman, the weaker sex, and I have to do what I'm told. That's the only choice I have, for now'
There was a pause before Macro summoned the courage to speak. 'No, you had another choice. You could have chosen me.'
Boudica turned and looked at him closely. 'You're serious, aren't you?'
'Very.' Macro's heart soared as he saw Boudica smile. Then her eyes fell away and she shook her head.
'No. It's out of the question.'
'It would be no life for me. I'd be an outcast from my tribe. What if you tired of me after a while? I'd have nothing left. I know what becomes of such women, pathetic hags who follow the army and live off the legion's scraps, until disease or some violent drunk does for them. Would you wish that on me?'
'Of course not! It wouldn't be like that. I would provide for you.'
'Provide for me? You don't make it sound very appealing. I'd be rootless, and at your mercy, in your world. I couldn't bear that. Despite what I've learned of life beyond the lands of the Iceni, I'm still Iceni through and through. And you're Roman. I might speak your language well enough, but that's as far as I want Rome to penetrate my being – and none of your filthy innuendo, please!'
They both smiled for a moment, and then Macro raised his rough soldier's hand to her cheek, marvelling at its softness. Boudica remained still. Then, very tenderly, her lips brushed his palm in a soft kiss that sent tingles up Macro's arm. He slowly leaned forward.
There was a heavy thud outside the lodge. The leather flap hanging across the entrance was flung to one side. Macro and Boudica sprang apart. The centurion snatched up some kindling and began snapping it into pieces and thrusting it at Boudica, who resumed laying the fire. A dark figure blotted out the light from the doorway. Macro and Boudica, squinted at the silhouetted figure.
'Sa!' He moved inside the lodge, dragging the gutted carcass of a small deer after him. The light fell on the Iceni warrior's face, revealing a faint look of amusement in his eyes.