'We're not going to catch them, are we?' Cato said to Boudica as he chewed on a leathery piece of hardtack.
After Diomedes had died, they had hurried back to find Boudica to begin their pursuit of the Druids at once. Even after dawn had broken, Macro had ordered that they continue; the need to catch up with the Druids and their prisoners before they could take shelter in the Great Fortress outweighed the risk of discovery. From the rushed translation provided by Boudica, it was clear that once inside the vast ramparts of the fortress, protected by a large garrison of selected warriors – the bodyguard of the King of the Durotriges – the hostages would be beyond any hope of rescue. The general's family would either be exchanged – if Aulus Plautius allowed himself to be so humbled that it would destroy his career – or they would be burned alive in a wicker effigy under the eyes of the Druids of the Dark Moon.
So the two Romans, and their Iceni guides, had ridden their horses hard all through the night and well into the next day until it was clear that the animals were spent and would collapse and die if they were pushed any further. They hobbled the horses in the ruined pen of an abandoned farm, and gave them the last of the feed carried by the ponies. Tomorrow, before first light, they would set off again.
Prasutagus stood the first watch, while the others ate and tried to sleep, huddled in their cloaks in the cold air of early spring. Macro, as usual, fell into a deep slumber almost as soon as he had curled up under his cloak. But Cato's mind was restless, tormented by Diomedes's terrible fate and the prospect of what lay ahead, and he fidgeted and fretted. When he could take no more, he threw back his cloak and stood up. He added some wood to the glowing embers of the fire and helped himself to one of the air-dried strips of beef in his saddlebag. The meat was as hard as wood and could only be swallowed after a great deal of chewing. Which suited Cato, who needed something to occupy him. He was on his second strip of dried beef when Boudica joined him in front of the fire. They had risked a small fire, concealed by the crumbling walls of an abandoned farm. The thatch roof had fallen in and now lazy flames licked around the remains of the roofing timber Cato had chopped to bits for fuel.
'We might catch them up,' she answered him. 'Your centurion thinks we will.'
'And what happens if we do?' Cato said quietly, with a quick glance towards the bundled form of his snoring centurion. 'What will three men be able to achieve against who knows how many Druids? There'll be some kind of bodyguard as well. It'll be suicide.'
'Don't always look for the dark side of a situation,' Boudica chided him. 'There's four of us, not three. And Prasutagus is worth any ten Durotrigan warriors that ever lived. From what I know of your centurion, he's a pretty formidable fighter as well. The Druids will have their work cut out with those two. I have my bow with me, and even my small hunting arrows can kill a man if I'm lucky. Which leaves you. How good are you in a fight, Cato?'
'I can handle myself.' Cato opened his cloak and tapped his fingers on the phalerae he had been awarded for saving Macro's life in a skirmish over a year earlier. 'I didn't get these for record-keeping.'
'I'm sure you didn't. I meant no disrespect, Cato. I'm just trying to work out our chances against the Druids and, well, you don't have the build or the look of a killer about you.'
Cato gave her a thin smile. 'I try not to look like a killer, actually. I don't find it aesthetically pleasing.'
Boudica chuckled. 'Appearances aren't everything.' As she said this she turned her head to look at the sleeping centurion and Cato saw her smile. The tenderness of her expression jarred with the cool tension that had seemed to exist between her and Macro over recent days and Cato realised she still bore more affection towards Macro than she was willing to admit. Still, any relationship between his centurion and this woman was no business of his. Cato swallowed the shred of beef he had been chewing and stuffed the rest into his knapsack.
'Looks can certainly deceive,' Cato agreed. 'When I first saw you back in Camulodunum, I would never have guessed you enjoyed this kind of cloak and dagger stuff.'
'I might say the same about you.'
Cato blushed and then smiled at his reaction. 'You're not the only one. It's taken me a while to gain any kind of acceptance in the legion. It's not my fault, or theirs. It's not easy to accept having a seventeen-year-old foisted on you with the rank of optio for no better reason than that his father happened to be a faithful slave in the imperial secretariat.'
Boudica stared at him. 'Is that true?'
'Yes. You don't suppose I'm old enough to have earned such a promotion through years of exemplary soldiering, do you?'
'Did you want to be a soldier?'
'Not at first.' Cato smiled sheepishly. 'When I was a boy I was far more interested in books. I wanted to be a librarian, or maybe even a writer.'
'A writer? What does a writer do?'
'Writes histories, or poetry, or plays. Surely you have them here in Britain?'
Boudica shook her head. 'No. We have some written words. Passed down to us by the ancient ones. Only a handful know their secrets.'
'But how do you preserve stories? Your history?'
'Up here.' Boudica tapped her head. 'Our stories are passed down through the generations by word of mouth.'
'Seems a pretty unreliable method of keeping records. Isn't there a temptation to try to improve the story with each telling?'
'But that's the point of it. The tale's the thing. The better it becomes – the more it is embroidered, the more it grips the audience – the greater it is, and the more enriched we become as a people. Is it not so in Rome?'
Cato silently considered the matter for a moment. 'Not really. Some of our writers are storytellers, but many are poets and historians and they pride themselves on telling the facts, plain and simple.'
'How dull.' Boudica grimaced. 'There must be some people who are trained to tell stories like our bards do. Surely?'
'Some,' admitted Cato. 'But they are not held in the same esteem as writers. They are mere performers.'
'Mere performers?' Boudica laughed. 'Truly, you are a strange people. What is it that a writer produces? Words, words, words. Mere marks on a scroll. A storyteller, a good one, mind you, produces a spell that binds his audience into sharing another world. Can written words ever do that?'
'Sometimes,' Cato said defensively.
'Only for those who can read. And how many in a thousand Romans can do that? Yet every person who hears can share a tale. So which is the better? The written or the spoken word? Well, Cato?'
Cato frowned. This conversation was becoming unsettling. Too many of the eternal verities of his world were in danger of being undermined if he should entertain the vision Boudica offered him. As far as he was concerned, the written word was the only reliable way a nation's heritage could be preserved. Such records could speak to the generations as freshly and accurately as at the time they were written. But what was the utility of such a marvellous device for the illiterate masses that teemed across the empire? For them only an oral tradition, with all its foibles, would suffice. That the two traditions might be complementary was anathema to his view of literature, and he would have none of it. Books were the ultimate means by which the mind could be improved. Folk tales and legends were mere palliatives to beguile and distract the ignorant from the true path of self-improvement.
Which thought led him to consider the nature of the woman before him. She was clearly proud of her race and its cultural heritage, and she was also educated. How else did she come to have so ready a grasp of Latin?
'Boudica, how did you learn to speak Latin?'
'The same way anyone learns a foreign language – hard practice.'
'But why Latin?'
'I speak some Greek as well.'
Cato's eyebrows rose appreciatively. This was no small achievement in so backward a culture, and he was curious. 'Whose idea was it that you should learn these languages?'
'My father's. He saw the way things were moving years ago. Even then our shores had been penetrated by traders from all over your world. For as long as I can remember, Greek and Latin have been part of my life. My father knew that one day Rome would no longer be able to resist the temptation of seizing this island. When that day came, those who were familiar with the tongue of the eagle soldiers would profit most from the new order. My father thought himself too old and too busy to learn a new language, so I was given that task and spoke for him in his dealings with traders.'
'Who taught you?'
'An old slave. My father had him imported from the continent. He'd been teaching the sons of a procurator in Narbonensis. When they had grown to manhood the procurator no longer had any use for the tutor and put him on the market.' Boudica smiled. 'I think it came as a bit of a shock when he came to our village, after his years in a Roman household. Anyway, my father was hard on him, and he in turn was hard on me. So I learned Latin and Greek, and by the time the tutor died, I was fluent enough for my father's purposes. And now yours.'
'Well, Rome's. It seems that older and wiser heads among the Iceni elders think we must tie our future to that of Rome. So we do our best to become loyal allies and serve Rome in her wars against those tribes foolish enough to resist the legions.'
Cato did not miss the resentful edge to her words. He reached out to the small pile of wood and placed another splintered length of roof beam on the small fire. The dry timber caught at once, cracking and hissing, and the flare lit up Boudica's features in a fiery red that made her look quite beautiful and terrifying at the same time, and Cato's heart quickened. He had not found her attractive before, as she had been Macro's woman, and he had been grieving for Lavinia. But now, as he gazed furtively at Boudica, he felt an unaccountable yearning for her. Almost at once he cautioned himself against such feelings. If Prasutagus suspected that he had taken a fancy to his future wife, who knew how he would react? If the unpleasant scene back in that inn at Camulodunum was anything to go by, Boudica was a woman best left alone.
'I take it you don't wholly approve of the policy of your tribal elders?'
'I've heard how Rome is inclined to treat its allies.' Boudica looked up from the fire with glinting eyes. 'I think the elders are out of their depth. It's one thing to make a treaty with a neighbouring tribe, or to grant trade rights to some Greek merchant. It's quite another to play politics with Rome.'
'Rome is usually grateful enough to its allies,' Cato protested. 'I think Claudius would like to see his empire as a family of nations.'
'Oh really?' Boudica smiled at his naivety. 'So your Emperor is a kind of father figure, and I suppose you strapping legionaries are his spoiled sons. The provinces are his daughters, fertile and productive, mothers to the empire's wealth.'
Cato blinked at the absurd metaphor, and nearly laughed.
'Don't you see what being an ally of Rome means?' Boudica continued. 'You unman us. How do you think that goes down with people like Prasutagus? Do you really think he'll meekly slip into whatever role your Emperor provides for him? He'd rather die than hand over his weapons and become a farmer.'
'Then he's a fool,' replied Cato. 'We offer order, and a better way of life.'
'On your terms.'
'They are the only terms we know.'
Boudica looked at him sharply, and then sighed. 'Cato, you have a good heart. I can see that. I'm not having a go at you. I merely question the motives of those who direct your energies. You're bright enough to do that for yourself, surely? You don't have to be like most of your countrymen, like your centurion there.'
'I thought you liked him.'
'I… I did. He's a good man. As fiercely honest as Prasutagus is proud. He's attractive too.'
'He is?' Now Cato was truly astonished. Never would he have described Macro as handsome. The weathered, scarred face had frightened him when he had first met the centurion as a new recruit. But there was an easy, honest charm about him that made the men of his century steadfastly loyal. But where was the attraction for women?
Boudica smiled at Cato's astonished and confused expression. 'I mean what I say, Cato. But that's not enough. He's Roman, I'm of the Iceni, the difference is too great. Anyway, Prasutagus is a prince of my people, and may one day be king. He has slightly more to offer than the billet of a centurion. So, I must do as my family wish and wed Prasutagus, and be true to my people. And I must hope that Rome is true to her word and lets the kings of the Iceni continue to rule their own people. We're a proud nation, and we can stomach the alliance our elders have negotiated with Rome only as long as we're treated like equals. If the day ever comes when we are dishonoured in any way, then you Romans will learn just how dreadful our wrath can be.'
Cato regarded her with open admiration. She would be wasted as an army wife; there was no doubt about that. If ever there was a woman born to be queen, it was Boudica, though her casual, even cynical, dismissal of Macro pained him greatly.
Boudica yawned and rubbed her eyes.
'Enough talk, Cato. We should get some rest.'
While he built up the fire, Boudica pulled her thick riding cloak about her and punched her haversack into a tight rest for her head. Satisfied that it would be comfortable enough, she winked at Cato and, turning her back to the fire, curled up and went to sleep.
The next morning they ate some biscuits and clambered stiffly onto the backs of their horses. The ponies were no longer required, and were set free to fend for themselves. To the south, several miles away, a thin haze of smoke lifted lazily into the clear sky, and below lay the dark shapes of huts in the bend of a stream. That was where the Druids had spent the night, Prasutagus told them. In the distance, a group of horsemen escorting a covered wagon was visible. It was still not clear to Cato how the four of them could take on a much larger party of Druids and still emerge from the fight victorious. Macro, for his part was frustrated by the way they could do no more than tail their enemy, passively hoping for a chance to attempt a rescue to present itself. And all the time the Druids drew closer to the impregnable earthworks of the Great Fortress.
The spring day wore on as Prasutagus led them along narrow tracks, all the while keeping the horsemen and their wagon in view, and closing the distance only when there was no risk of being spotted. It called for an exhausting degree of vigilance. By late afternoon they were still some way behind the enemy, but close enough to see that the wagon was protected by a score of mounted Druids in their distinctive black cloaks.
'Bollocks!' said Macro, squinting into the distance. 'Twenty on three isn't good odds.'
Prasutagus merely shrugged and urged his horse along an overgrown track winding up the side of a hill. The Druids were obscured for a moment behind a line of trees. The others trotted after him, until they stopped in an overgrown track just below the crest from where they could see the Druids below, still heading south-east. Macro was riding at the back, watching the column, when Cato suddenly reined in, causing Macro to yank on his reins savagely to avoid riding into the backside of Cato's mount.
'Oi! What the fuck are you playing at?'
But Cato ignored his centurion.
'Bloody hell…' he muttered in awe at the panorama stretching out before him.
As Macro eased his beast alongside, he too could see the vast expanse of multi-tiered earthworks rising up from the plain ahead of them. With a recently developed eye for ground, Cato took in the neatly overlapping ramps that defended the nearest gateway, and the well-placed redoubts from which any attacker would fall victim to enfilading volleys of arrows, spears and slingshot. On the highest tier of the hill fort a stout palisade ringed the enclosure. From end to end Cato estimated the hill fort must measure nearly half a mile. Below the fortress, the rolling wooded landscape was divided by a serenely meandering river.
'We've had it,' Macro said quietly. 'Once the Druids get the general's family safely inside that lot, nobody'll be able to get to them.'
'Maybe,' replied Cato. 'But the bigger the line of defence, the more thinly spread the watchmen,'
'Oh, that's good! Mind if I quote you some day? You idiot!'
Cato had the grace to flush with embarrassment at his precocious remark, and Macro nodded with satisfaction. Didn't do to let these youngsters get too full of themselves. Up ahead Prasutagus had wheeled his horse round and now raised his arm to point at the hill fort. He was grandly illuminated by a halo of bright sunshine against the blue sky as he spoke.
'The Great Fortress…'
'No, really?' Macro growled. 'Thanks for letting us know.'
Despite his sarcastic response, Macro was still running a professional eye over the structure and wondering if it might yet be taken, once the Second Legion set to it. Despite the clever layout of the approach route through the ramparts, there was no sign that the fortress was designed to withstand the attentions of a well-equipped modern army.
'Sir!' Cato interrupted his line of thought and Macro raised an angry eyebrow. 'Sir, look there!'
Cato was pointing away from the Great Fortress, back towards the Druids and the small covered wagon they were escorting. Only they weren't escorting it any more. In sight of their haven, the Druids had urged their mounts into a trot and already the column of horsemen had drawn well ahead of the wagon. They were making straight for the nearest gate in the ramparts. In front of them the track curved round a small forest towards a narrow trestle bridge that spanned the river. Cato's excitement rose as he quickly estimated the relative speeds of the mounted Druids, the wagon and themselves. He nodded. 'We could do it.'
'There's our chance!' Macro barked. 'Prasutagus! Look there!'
The Iceni warrior quickly grasped the situation and nodded vigorously. 'We go.'
'What about Boudica?' asked Cato.
'What about her?' Macro snapped. 'What're we waiting for? Come on!'
Macro kicked his heels into the flanks of his horse and headed down the slope in the direction of the wagon.