'Your Druid friends have found a good place to hide from the world,' Macro muttered as he squinted through the dusk. At his side Prasutagus grunted conversationally and cocked an eye at Boudica, who whispered a quick translation of the centurion's words.
'Sa!' Prasutagus agreed vigorously. 'Safe place for Druids. Bad place for Romans.'
'That's as maybe. But we're going in there all the same. What d'you think, lad?'
Cato's dark eyes took in the scene through the tangle of coppice branches. They were on a slight rise, looking across a wide expanse of brackish water towards a large island. Some of it appeared to be natural, the rest was manmade, and held in place by substantial log tresses and stout piles driven deep into the soft bottom of the lake. A thick growth of mixed willow and ash towered up a short distance from the shore of the island. Under their boughs a tall stockade was visible. Beyond that, their gaze could not penetrate. Away to their right, a long, narrow causeway stretched out across the lake towards a substantial towered gate leading into the Druids' most sacred and secret grove.
'It's a good set-up, sir. The causeway is long enough to keep them out of arrow and sling range and it's narrow enough to restrict any attackers to a two or three-man front. Even against an army, with the right men the Druids could hold out for several days, maybe a month or so.'
'Good assessment.' Macro nodded approvingly. 'You've learned a lot over the last year or so. What would you recommend, in the absence of an attacking army?'
'The main entrance is out of the question under any circumstances, now that they've been alerted to the presence of Prasutagus. Looks like we've no choice. We have to try his way in, sir.'
Macro looked at the gloomy water between them and the Druids' island. There was no shore on the near ground, only a tangle of reeds and low trees rising above dark peaty mud. If they were caught wading through that lot there would be no chance of escape. He wondered at the Iceni warrior's confidence that he could find his trail again in the dark. Yet Prasutagus had sworn by all his most sacred gods that he would lead them safely across to the island. But they must trust him, and follow him precisely.
'We'll go as soon as it's dark enough,' decided Macro. 'The three of us. The woman stays.'
'What?' Boudica turned angrily towards him.
'Hush!' Macro nodded towards the island. 'If we find the general's family but don't make it back, someone has to ride to the legion and let them know.'
'And how precisely would you let me know?'
Macro smiled. 'You don't make centurion unless you can be heard at a distance.'
'He's right enough there,' muttered Cato.
'But why me? Why not leave Cato here. You'll need me to translate.'
'There won't be much need for talking. Besides, Prasutagus and me are coming to an understanding of sorts. He can speak a few words now. A few words of a proper language, that is. Ain't that right?'
Prasutagus nodded his shaggy head.
'So, keep your ears pricked. If I call your name, or if any of us does, that's the signal. We've found them. You don't wait a moment. You get back to the horses, take one and ride like the wind. Report everything to Vespasian.'
'What about you?' asked Boudica.
'If you hear any of us shout, chances are those will be our last words.' Macro raised a hand and gently held her shoulder. 'Are you clear about all that?'
'Right then, this is as good a place as any to wait. Stay here. As soon as it's dark enough, we'll strip down to tunics and swords and follow Prasutagus over to the island.'
'And just for a change,' said Macro softly, 'we're up to our balls in freezing water.'
The smell of decay that rose from the disturbed waters about their legs was so pungent that Cato thought he might throw up. This was worse than almost anything he had ever smelt before. Even worse than the tannery outside the walls of Rome he had once visited with his father. The hardy tanners, long immune to the stench, had laughed themselves silly at the sight of the small boy in the neat livery of the imperial palace heaving his guts up into a tub of sheep entrails.
Here in the mangrove the pungency of decayed vegetation combined with the odour of human waste and the sweet stench of rotting flesh. Cato covered his nose with his hand and swallowed the bile rising in his throat. At least the darkness concealed the detritus floating about his knees. Ahead of him, beyond the broad dark bulk of Macro, he could just see the tall figure of Prasutagus leading the way through the rushes. The stalks rustled as the Briton slowly waded from one coppice stake to the next. Most were still in place, and Prasutagus had lost his way only once, suddenly splashing down into deeper water with a sharp cry. All three had frozen, ears straining for any indication of alarm from the dark mass of the Druids' island above the slopping of the water. When the disturbed water had stilled again, Prasutagus gently eased himself back onto more solid ground and flashed a dim grin at the centurion.
'Long time gone before I here,' he whispered.
'All right.' Macro said softly. 'Now just keep your mouth shut and your mind on the job.'
'Get a fucking move on.'
At length they emerged from the rushes and Prasutagus halted. The island still seemed some distance away but Cato noted that the rushes reached most closely towards it at this point and could see why Prasutagus had picked this route for his night-time assignations. The open water contained no more stakes to guide them. Prasutagus was shifting his position and staring hard at the island. Following his gaze, Cato could see two dead pine trunks standing out above the rest of the trees on the island. They were so close together that from certain angles they looked like a single trunk, and Cato realised that their alignment was how Prasutagus guided himself across the open water to the island. The Icenian shuffled to his left and then motioned to the others to follow him.
Moving slowly, the water gently swirling around their knees, the small party headed across towards the dark foreboding shadow of the Druids' island.
The stench slackened as they moved further out from the rushes. Cato allowed himself a few deep breaths as he carefully followed in line behind the others. Underfoot, the bottom felt strangely soft and yielding, with the occasional firmness of a branch. For a moment he wondered how Prasutagus could possibly have constructed this underwater walkway. Then he decided it must just be the tangled accumulation of dead and fallen matter which the Briton must have found by chance, and put to good use. Cato smiled to himself. Good use, maybe. But it had caused him to be expelled from the order of the Dark Moon.
Thought of the Druids drew his mind sharply back to the present. The dark outline of the island loomed closer against the fainter shadow of the night sky, and it seemed that the island floated not on water but on the ethereal mist rising from the lake. It certainly seemed sinister enough, Cato reflected. The dread in Prasutagus's expression whenever he had talked of this place over the last two days suggested there was worse to come. But what, in this world, could be terrible enough to frighten the huge warrior? Cato's imagination went to work to provide an answer and he felt a chill finger of horror trace its way up his spine. He cursed himself for this superstitious self-indulgence but as they silently glided through the dark waters, his heightened senses continued to magnify every sound and shift of shadow. It took a great effort of will to prevent his imagination conjuring up the demons lurking invisibly on the shores of the sacred Druid isle.
They were now close enough to the shore for the outermost boughs of its ancient trees to overhang them. Looking up through the twisted black tendrils of the outermost branches, Cato gazed up at the stars, cold and unblinking above the mist. Then he turned and gazed back across the gloomy water to where Boudica waited for them. He wondered if he would ever see her again, and found himself desperately wanting to see her face once more. The unbidden longing was quite shocking and Cato wondered at this instance of self-revelation.
He started as Macro grasped his arm, flinching backwards and splashing the water.
'Keep still!' hissed Macro. 'Want to let every bloody Druid in Britain know we're here?'
Macro turned back to Prasutagus, who was muttering something under his breath. The whispered words flowed with a cadence and rhythm that was not like everyday speech and Macro realised this must be some kind of charm. When the Briton paused, Macro gently touched his shoulder.
'Let's go, mate.'
Prasutagus stared at him for a moment, silent and still as a stone, before nodding gravely and then creeping forward once again. This section of the shore was lined with wicker reinforced with timber piles and stood two feet above the icy water. They heaved themselves across it as quietly as possible, but inevitably water dripped and splashed, sounding dangerously loud. Prasutagus glanced anxiously into the shadows beneath the trees, certain that they must be heard. But nothing stirred, no breath of air even lifted the lightest of the dark branches. All three were still for a while, squatting and listening. Cato shivered as he waited for Prasutagus to wave them forward. They made their way along the shore for a short distance, until they came to a track leading into the dark trees. It seemed to Cato that the night suddenly became colder, as if a breeze was blowing, but the air about him was perfectly still.
'Down there?' Macro whispered.
'Sa. You come, but shhh!'
As they made their way silently along the track, darkness closed in on them, impenetrable as ink, and the air seemed to grow yet colder, with a clammy edge to it now. Cato counted the paces he took, trying to keep a clear mental image of the island as they penetrated further. Soon after he had counted a hundred, the trees opened out, admitting a welcome faint glow from the stars. The path ended abruptly at a wooden screen, within which was a door. It was held closed by a simple latch operated by a pull rope. For a moment Prasutagus listened, but the heart of the island was as oppressively silent as its fringes, and the only sound Cato could detect above the rapid pounding of his heart was the occasional booming of a bittern away in the marshes. Prasutagus gently pulled on the rope, the latch eased up and he nudged the door open. He stepped through, leaving the two Romans squatting at the side of the entrance; a moment later his head reappeared and he beckoned to them.
Beyond the screen, a large clearing opened out. It was roughly circular and lined with thatched huts. The ground was bare and hard; the army boots of the two Romans clumped on its surface for the first few paces before Cato and Macro took care to set each foot down as softly as possible. Dominating the centre of the clearing was a huge circular hut, in front of which was a raised platform. A carved wooden chair of immense proportions rested on the middle of the platform, and fixed to the tall backrest was the biggest pair of antlers Cato had ever seen. In front of the platform stood the remains of a fire in a huge iron grate. The dying embers imparted a faint orange hue to the wisps of smoke curling up into the night.
Nothing moved in the clearing. None of the torches was lit in the iron stands positioned in front of every hut. There was no sign of life. And yet a brooding presence seemed to hang over the clearing, as if they were being watched from every shadow. Not that Cato sensed a trap of any kind, just a feeling that their presence had been sensed by somebody, or some thing. Silently they made their way to the entrance of the first hut and crept inside. It was dark, too dark to make out any details, and Macro cursed softly.
'It's no good, we need some light,' he whispered.
'Sir, that's madness!' Cato hissed. 'We'd be seen at once.'
'Who by? There's no one here. Hasn't been for hours – look at the fire.'
'Then where are they?'
'Ask him.' Macro jerked a thumb at Prasutagus.
The Briton got the gist of the question and shrugged. 'Druids gone. All gone.'
'In that case, let's get ourselves some light to see by,' Macro insisted. 'We need to be sure we don't miss anything.'
He removed the nearest torch from its holder and thrust it into the embers, sending a swirling cloud of brilliant sparks flying into the air. The torch flared. Raising it in front of him, Macro strode back to the first hut and ducked inside. The flickering glare of the torch illuminated the interior in a wavering light. Several beds were to one side, covered with blankets and furs. On the other side was a shrine, against which leaned a pair of small harps. A set of wooden eating platters and earthenware cups was stacked by a tub of water.
'No cooking fire,' mused Cato.
'No cooking,' Prasutagus said. 'Others bring food for Druid.'
'Leeching off the common folk, eh?' Cato shook his head. 'Same the world over, as far as priests are concerned.'
Macro clicked his fingers. 'When you two have finished your fascinating theological conversation, we've got some huts to search. Look for any signs of the general's family.'
They went through each hut thoroughly, but aside from the sparse possessions of the Druids they found nothing that indicated that any Roman had ever been there.
'Let's try the big hut,' suggested Cato. 'I'd imagine that's where the chief of the Druids lives.'
'All right then,' Macro agreed.
The Romans turned to look at Prasutagus. He stood rooted outside the entrance of the last hut they had searched, a look of utter terror on his face. He shook his head imploringly.
'I not go in!'
Macro shrugged. 'Suit yourself. Come on, Cato.'
The entrance to the hut was as imposing as the hut itself. A huge timber frame, twice the height of a man, was topped by a carved lintel bearing impressions of dreadful, inhuman faces, savage and howling with jagged teeth. In their maws lay the half-consumed bodies of men and women, mouths gaping with terror. So compelling were the images that Macro paused at the threshold and raised his torch for a better look.
'What the hell is this?'
'I imagine it's what the future holds for mankind when Cruach rises up and stakes his claim, sir.'
Macro turned to Cato, eyebrows raised. 'You think so? Don't think I'd want to run into this Cruach character on a dark street.'
Just inside the entrance hung a series of heavy animal skins, totally blocking the interior from sight. Macro pushed them aside and stepped into the chief Druid's quarters. He raised the torch up and whistled.
'Quite a contrast!'
Cato nodded as his eyes swept over the furs covering most of the floor space, the great upholstered beds set to one side, and the vast oak table and ornately carved chairs. The table held the remains of a half-eaten feast. Large wooden platters lay before the chairs, covered with joints of meat still resting in their congealed juices. To the side of each platter lay chunks of bread and cheese. Drinking horns rested in intricate gold stands decorated in the Celtic style.
'Seems the senior Druids know how to live well.' Macro smiled. 'No wonder they wanted to keep prying eyes out. But what made them leave in such a hurry?'
'Sir!' Cato pointed to the far side of the hut. A small wooden cage rested on bare earth. The door was ajar. They crossed over to it. The inside was bare, apart from a piss pot, the top of which was mercifully covered. Cato looked closer, and leaned into the cage, reaching for the covering which was no more than a scrap of fabric.
'I doubt they're hiding in there,' said Macro.
'No, sir.' Cato retrieved the material and held it up for closer inspection by the light of the torch. It was silk, with an embroidered hem. The middle was soiled.
'Nice smell you've uncovered!' Macro wrinkled his nose. 'Now put it back.'
'Sir, this is the proof we're looking for. Look!' Cato held the material out for his centurion to see. 'It's silk. Patterned in Rome, and the maker has stitched a small emblem in the corner.'
Macro stared at the neat design: an elephant's head – the family motif of the Plautii.
'That's it then! They're here. Or were here, at least. But where are they now?'
'Must have gone with the Druids.'
'Maybe. We'd better just check the site for any other signs of the general's family – or what might have become of them.'
Outside the hut Prasutagus could not hide his relief at being in the company of other humans again. Macro held out the silk.
'They were here.'
'Sa! Now we go, yes?'
'No. We keep looking. Is there any other place on the island they might have been taken to?'
Prasutagus looked at him blankly. Macro tried to make his meaning simpler.
'We keep looking. Another place? Yes?'
Prasutagus seemed to understand, and turned to point at a track leading into the trees directly opposite the antlered chair.
'What's up that way?'
Prasutagus did not answer, and continued staring towards the track. Macro saw that he was trembling. He shook the warrior's shoulder. 'What's up there?'
Prasutagus wrenched his gaze from the track and turned to face him, eyes wide with terror.
'Cruach? That dark god of yours? You're taking the piss.'
'Cruach!' Prasutagus insisted. 'Sacred grove of Cruach. His place in this world.'
'Quite talkative when you're shitting yourself, aren't you?' Macro smiled. 'Come on, mate. Let's have a little word with this Cruach. See what he's made of.'
'Sir, is that wise?' asked Cato. 'We've found what we came for. Wherever the general's family are, they're not here now. We should get moving before we're discovered.'
'Not until we check the grove,' Macro replied firmly. 'No more nonsense. Let's go.'
With Macro at their head, the three men strode across the clearing and started down the track. With the torch flickering before them, they could see the gnarled trunks of oak trees lining the route on either side.
'How far to the grove?' asked Macro.
'Near,' Prasutagus whispered, keeping close to the flickering torch.
The trees were silent all about them; nothing stirred, not an owl or any other creature of the night. It was as if the island was under some kind of spell, Cato decided. Then he realised the smell of decay was back again. With every step along the track, the scent of death and putrid sweetness grew stronger.
'What was that?' Macro stopped abruptly.
'What was what, sir?'
'Shut up! Listen!'
The three of them paused, ears straining to hear anything above the unnaturally loud crackle and hiss of the torch. Then Cato heard it: a low moan that rose and fell to a whimper. Then a voice muttered something. Strange words that he could not quite make out.
'Draw swords,' Macro ordered quietly, and the three men eased the blades from their scabbards.
Macro stepped forward, and his companions followed nervously, senses straining for any sign of the source of the noise. Ahead of them, the track began to widen, and out of the darkness loomed a stake with a lumpen shape jammed on top. As they approached, the light of the torch illuminated the dark stains running down its length, and the head impaled on the end.
'Shit!' muttered the centurion. 'I wish the Celts wouldn't do that.'
They came upon more stakes, each bearing a head, in varying stages of decay. All of them were arranged to face the track so that the three trespassers were walking under the gaze of the dead. Once again the air felt colder than it should to Cato, and he was about to comment on it when a fresh moan broke the silence. It came from the far side of the grove, beyond the wavering pool of light cast by the torch. This time the moan increased in intensity, and became a piercing wail of agony that tore through the darkness and froze the blood of the three mortals.
'We go!' Prasutagus whispered. 'We go now! Cruach comes!'
'Bollocks!' replied Macro. 'No god makes a sound like that. Come on, you bastard! Don't chicken out now.'
He half dragged the Briton towards the sound and Cato followed reluctantly. In truth, he would have gladly turned and run from the grove, but that would have meant leaving the security of the glow cast by the torch. The thought of being lost and alone in this terrible dark world of the Druids made him stick as close to the others as possible. Another cry rose through the night, much closer now, and ahead of them loomed the flat stone of an altar, and beyond it the being giving voice to the cries of agony that seemed so much a part of this dreadful place.
'What the hell is that?' Macro cried out.
No more than fifteen paces away, on the far side of the altar, the figure of a man slowly writhed. He was suspended from a wooden beam, his forearms lashed to its rough surface. From below he was impaled on a long shaft of wood which entered his body just behind his testicles. As they watched, the man tried to raise himself, straining at the ropes that bound his arms. Astonishingly he managed to do this for a moment, before his strength gave out and he slid down again, causing him to let loose another terrible wail of agony and despair. The inhuman noise subsided into prayers and curses, in a language that was almost as familiar to Cato as his own Latin.
'That's Greek he's speaking!'
'Greek? That's not possible… Unless…' Macro strode closer to the man, raising the torch as he approached. 'It's Diomedes…'
The Greek stirred at the sound of his name, and forced his eyelids to open. He stared down at them with a desperate glint in his eyes.
'Help me!' he mumbled in Latin through tightly clenched teeth. 'For pity's sake, help me!'
Macro looked round at his comrades. 'Cato! Get up that beam and cut him free. Prasutagus! Keep his weight off that stake!'
The Briton tore his gaze from the terrible spectacle and stared blankly at Macro who quickly mimed a lifting action with his spare hand and pointed at Diomedes. Prasutagus nodded and hurried over. He grasped the Greek's legs and eased him up, bearing Diomedes's full weight in his powerful arms without difficulty. Meanwhile Cato, never terribly athletic, was struggling to shin up one of the supporting posts. With a sigh of impatience, Macro came over and stood with his back to the post.
'Use my shoulders to get up!'
Up on the crossbeam Cato crawled along to the first binding. His sword cut through the coarse rope with some difficulty before the Greek's left arm came free, flopping down to his side. Cato reached over to the other binding and a moment later the other arm was freed. The optio dropped down from the crossbeam.
'Now then, let's get him off the stake. Lift him up, you idiot!'
Prasutagus understood, and with straining arms he began to raise the Greek up the stake that penetrated deep into his body. There was a wet sucking sound from the wound, then a muffled grating of bone. Diomedes threw his head back and shrieked to the heavens.
'Shit! Be careful, you fool!'
With a heave Prasutagus lifted the Greek clear of the point and gently set him down on the altar. A dark gush of blood spilled out of the gaping wound where Diomedes's anus had once been and Cato winced at the sight. The Greek trembled fitfully and his eyes rolled in their sockets as he fought the terrible, mortal agony. He was very close to death.
Macro leaned close to the Greek's ear. 'Diomedes. You're dying. Nothing can stop that. But you can help us. Help us get back at the bastards who did this to you.'
'Druids,' Diomedes gasped. 'Tried to… make them pay… Tried to find them.'
'You found 'em all right.'
'No… Caught me first… Brought me here… and did this.'
'Did you see any of the other prisoners?'
A spasm of pain twisted his features. When it subsided a little, he nodded. 'The general's family…'
'Yes! You saw them?'
Diomedes clenched his teeth. 'They were… here.'
'Where are they now? Where have they been taken?'
'They've gone… Heard someone say… they'd take shelter in… the Great Fortress. They call it Mai Dun … Only safe place… once they found out they'd been… betrayed by a Druid.'
'The Great Fortress?' Macro frowned. 'When was this?'
'This morning… I think,' Diomedes whispered. His strength was fading fast as his blood pumped from the open wound. He convulsed as another spasm of agony ripped through his body. One of his hands grabbed the centurion's tunic.
'For pity's sake… kill me… now,' he hissed through his teeth.
Macro stared down into the wild eyes for a moment and then replied gently, 'All right. I'll make it quick.'
Diomedes nodded his gratitude and clenched his eyes shut.
'Hold the torch,' Macro ordered and passed it to Cato. Then he lifted the Greek's left arm to one side, exposing the armpit, and looked into Diomedes's face.
'Know this, Diomedes. I swear by all the gods that I'll get revenge for you and your family. The Druids will pay for all they've done.'
As the Greek's expression softened, Macro thrust his sword deep into his armpit and through to his heart with an animal grunt of effort. Diomedes's body tensed for an instant and his mouth opened with a gasp as the impact of the blow drove the dying breath from his lungs. Then his body went limp, and his head rolled to one side, eyes glazed in death. No one spoke for a moment. Macro wrenched the blade free, and wiped it on the dirty remnants of the Greek's tunic. He raised his eyes to look at Prasutagus.
'He said the Great Fortress. Do you know it?'
Prasutagus nodded, hearing the words but unable to tear his gaze from Diomedes.
'You can take us there?'
Prasutagus nodded again.
'Then we'd better get moving. The Druids have a day's head start on us. If we push it, we might catch them before they reach this Great Fortress of theirs.'