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Chapter Twenty-Three

For the next five days they travelled deeper into Durotrigan territory, cautiously riding along trails by night and finding somewhere to hide and rest during the day. Prasutagus seemed tireless, never sleeping more than a few hours. Each stage of their journey was planned by him to bring them close to a village. He rested until midday, and then slipped into each village to look for any signs of Roman hostages. At dusk he returned with meat for the others, which they cooked over a low fire, huddling round to draw as much warmth as they could from the flames in the bitter night air. Once they had eaten, they put the fire out and followed Prasutagus as he picked his way along well-used trails. Every farmstead and small settlement was carefully circumvented and there were frequent stops while the Iceni warrior made sure that the way ahead was clear before they continued. Just before dawn he led them off the tracks into the nearest woodland, and would not let them stop until they had discovered a dip in the forest floor where the party could rest for the day unobserved.

They covered themselves with cloaks and the blankets from their mounts and slept as well as they could in such uncomfortable conditions. A watch was kept throughout the day, and all four of them took their turn, standing quietly in the shadows of the forest, a short distance from the camp.

Cato, younger and thinner than the others, suffered most from the cold, and his sleep was fitful and broken. The temperature had dropped below freezing on the second day and the penetrating cold of the frozen earth made his hip joints so stiff that he could barely move his legs when he woke up.

On the fifth day, a mist closed in. Prasutagus left them as usual to scout round the next village. While they waited hungrily for him to reappear with the day's meal, Boudica and the two Romans prepared a small fire. A light breeze was blowing through the forest, and they had to build a turf windbreak round the fireplace. Cato collected some fallen branches from beneath the nearest trees, every so often pausing to rub his hips and ease the stiffness in his joints. When he had amassed enough fuel to maintain the fire for the few hours it would be needed, he slumped down between Boudica and his centurion, who sat opposite each other on either side of the fireplace. At first no one spoke. The wind steadily strengthened and they clutched their cloaks more tightly about them against the biting cold. A few paces away the horses and ponies stood in sullen silence, lank manes lifting and flapping with each gust.

There were now only fifteen days left before the Druids' deadline. Cato doubted that they would find the general's family in time. There was no point in their being here. There was nothing they could do to prevent the Druids from murdering their hostages. Nothing. Five nights of tense scrambling through enemy territory had taken their toll and Cato did not think he could cope with much more. Cold and filthy, exhausted in mind and body, he was in no condition to keep looking for the hostages, let alone to rescue them. This was a fool's errand, and the hostile glances Macro increasingly threw his way convinced Cato that he would never be forgiven for his stupidity – assuming they ever made it back to the Second Legion.

Above the dark interlace of tossing branches, the sky dimmed into dusk, and still there was no sign of Prasutagus. At length Boudica rose to her feet and stretched her arms behind her back with a deep grunt.

'I'll just go a little way down towards the track,' she said. 'See if there's any sign of him.'

'No,' Macro said firmly. 'Sit tight. We can't take the risk.'

'Risk? Who in their right mind would be abroad on a day like this?'

'Besides us?' Macro chuckled mirthlessly. 'I dread to think.'

'Well, I'm going anyway.'

'No, you're not. Sit down.'

Boudica remained on her feet and spoke quietly. 'I really thought you were a better man than this, Macro.'

Cato shuffled himself deeper inside his cloak and stared into the unlit fire, wishing he could make himself disappear.

'I'm only being careful,' Macro explained. 'I expect your man will be back soon enough. You don't have to worry about him. So sit still.'

'Sorry, I need a shit. Can't wait any longer. So, if you won't let me go somewhere discreet, I'll have to do it here.'

Macro went red with embarrassment and anger, knowing it would be foolish to accuse her of lying. In frustration he balled his hands into fists.

'Go on then! But don't go far and come straight back.'

'I'll be as long as it takes,' she spat back and stamped off into the shadows of the forest.

'Bloody women!' mumbled Macro. 'Bloody liabilities, all of 'em. Want a word of advice, lad? Never have anything to do with them. They're just trouble.'

'Yes, sir. Shall I get the fire started?'

'What? Oh, yes. Good idea.'

As Cato struck the flints in his tinder pan, Macro continued to watch for the return of Boudica and Prasutagus. A small lick of orange flame caught the dry shreds of moss in the pan and Cato carefully transferred it to the fire, taking care to shield the delicate flame from the wind with his body. The kindling caught quickly and soon he was warming his hands in front of a crackling blaze as the fire got to work on the larger pieces of wood he had fed into the flames. A faint orange glow wavered on the surrounding trees as night began to close in.

Boudica did not reappear and Cato began to wonder if anything had happened to the two Britons. Even if nothing had happened, would Boudica be able to find her way back to them in the dark? What if they had been captured by the Durotriges? Would they be tortured for information about accomplices? Were the Durotriges already looking for him and his centurion?

'Sir?'

Macro turned his face away from the dark woods. 'What?'

'Do you think anything's happened to them?'

'How should I know?' snapped Macro. 'They might have gone off to negotiate a price for us with the locals as far as I know.'

It was a foolish thing to say, and Macro regretted it almost immediately. He spoke out of anxiety for Boudica, and concern for what would happen to them if Prasutagus never returned. The prospects were not hopeful for two Roman legionaries stranded in a dark forest in the middle of enemy territory.

'He seemed trustworthy enough to me,' Cato said anxiously. 'Don't you trust him, sir?'

'He's a Briton. These Durotriges may be from a different tribe to our man but he has far more in common with them than he does with us,' Macro paused. 'I've seen people sell out their countrymen to Rome on almost every frontier I've served. I tell you, Cato, you've seen nothing until you've served in Judaea. They'd sell their own mothers if they thought it might help them score the smallest point against some rival or other. This lot aren't much better. Look how many of those exiled British nobles have done a deal with Rome in order to regain their kingdoms. They'd prostitute themselves to anyone in exchange for a bit of power and influence. Prasutagus and Boudica are no different. They'll stay loyal to Rome only as long as it's in their interests to do so. Then you'll see their true value as friends and allies. You mark my words.'

Cato frowned. 'You really think so?'

'Maybe.' Macro's weathered face suddenly broke into a good-humoured grin. 'But I'd be more than happy to be wrong!'

A twig snapped nearby. The Romans were on their feet, swords drawn, in an instant.

'Who's there?' Macro called out. 'Boudica?'

With a rustling of dead leaves and further cracking of twigs, two figures emerged from the dark shadows and into the wavering amber glow of the fire. Macro relaxed and lowered his sword.

'Where the bloody hell have you two been?'

Prasutagus was grinning, and he talked excitedly as he strode up to the fire and clapped Macro on the shoulder. True to form he had brought some meat with him – a butchered suckling pig hung from a thong on his belt. Prasutagus flung the carcass down by the fire and continued talking. Boudica translated as quickly as she could.

'He says he's found them – the general's family!'

'What? Is he sure?'

She nodded. 'He got talking to the local chief. They're being held in another village only a few miles away. The chief of that village is one of the Druids' most loyal followers. He trains their personal bodyguard. Recruits the most promising of the young boys from all the outlying settlements, then trains them to be fanatically loyal to their new masters. By the time he's finished with them they'd rather die than disappoint the chief. A few days ago he was in the village Prasutagus just visited. He'd come to claim his quota of new recruits. He was drinking with the local warriors, and that's when he let slip that he was guarding some important hostages.'

Prasutagus nodded his head, eyes blazing with excitement at the prospect of action. He put a broad hand on Macro's shoulder.

'Is good, Roman! Yes?'

For a moment Macro stared up into the Iceni warrior's beaming face, and all the discomfort of the last few days was swept away in a wave of relief that their mission had achieved its first goal. The next step would be far more perilous. But for the moment Macro was content and he returned Prasutagus's excited expression with a warm smile.

'Is good!'


Chapter Twenty-Two | When the Eagle Hunts | Chapter Twenty-Four



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