Cato felt more wretched than he had ever felt in his entire life. The four of them, and the girl, Julia, were sitting deep in a wood they had passed earlier that day. Night had fallen when they had found the crumbling remains of an old silver mine and stopped in the diggings to rest and let their blown horses recover from their double burden. Julia was crying softly to herself. Macro lay under his and Cato's cloaks, still unconscious, his breath shallow and rasping.
The Druids had tried to track them down, fanning out across the countryside and calling to each other every time they thought they saw something. Twice they heard the sounds of pursuit, distant cries muffled by the trees, but nothing for some hours now. Even so, they kept quiet.
The young optio was in torment over the fate of Lady Pomponia and her son. The Druids had taken too many lives in recent months, and Cato would not let them have these last two. Yet how could he possibly honour his vow to rescue them? Lady Pomponia and Aelius were even now imprisoned in that vast hill fort, with its massive ramparts, high palisade and watchful garrison. Their rescue was the kind of deed that only mythic heroes could carry out successfully, and Cato's bitter self-analysis was that he was too weak and scared to have even the remotest chance of carrying it off. Had Macro not been injured, he might have felt more optimistic. What little Macro lacked in foresight and strategic initiative he more than made up for with courage and strength. The worse the odds, the more determined the centurion became to overcome them. That was the key quality of the man who had become his friend and mentor, and Cato knew it was precisely that quality he lacked. Now, more than ever, he needed Macro at his side, but the centurion lay at his feet, on the verge of death, it seemed. The wound would have killed a weaker man outright, but Macro's thick skull and physical resilience were keeping him on this side of the Styx, but only just.
'What now?' Boudica whispered. 'We must decide.'
'I know,' Cato replied irritably. 'I'm thinking.'
'Thinking's not good enough. We have to do something. He's not going to live long without proper attention.'
The emotion in her voice was barely hidden, and reminded Cato of her personal interest in Macro. He coughed to clear his throat and ease the emotion in his own voice.
'I'm sorry, I wasn't thinking.'
Boudica laughed briefly. 'That's my boy! Now then, let's talk. We have to get Macro back to the legion if he's to stand any chance of surviving. We need to get the girl out of here too.'
'We can't all go back. The horses aren't up to it. In any case, I need to be here, close to the hill fort, where I can keep an eye on things and see if there's any chance to rescue Lady Pomponia and the boy.'
'What can you do alone?' Boudica asked wearily. 'Nothing. That's what. We've done our best, Cato. We came very close to doing what we set out to do. It didn't work out. That's all there is to it. No point in throwing your life away.' She laid a hand on his shoulder. 'Really. That's how it is. No one could have done more.'
'Maybe not,' he agreed reluctantly. 'But it's not over yet.'
'What can you do now? Be honest.'
'I don't know… I don't know. But I'm not giving up. I gave my word.'
For a moment Boudica stared at the barely visible features of the optio's face.
'Be careful,' Boudica said softly. 'Promise me that at least.'
'Very well. But you should know that I'd consider the world a poorer place without you in it. Don't go ahead of your time.'
'Who says this isn't my time?' Cato replied in a grim tone. 'And this isn't the moment to philosophise about it.'
Boudica regarded him with a sad, resigned expression.
'We'll tie Macro to one of the horses,' Cato went on. 'You and the girl take the other two. Leave the forest on the opposite side we came in from – that should keep you clear of the Druids. Go east, and don't stop until you reach Atrebate territory. If Prasutagus is right, that should take you no more than a day. Get back to the legion as soon as possible and tell Vespasian everything. Tell him I'm still here with Prasutagus and that we'll try to rescue Lady Pomponia if there's a chance.'
'Then? I imagine Vespasian will have some instructions for me. Prasutagus and I will use this forest as our base. If there's any message for us, it's to come here. You'd better make a mental map of the route on your way back so Vespasian's man can find us.'
'If there's a message, I'll bring it.'
'No. You've risked yourself enough already.'
'True, but I doubt a Roman would be intelligent enough to follow my directions back here.'
'Look, Boudica. This is dangerous. I choose to stay here. I wouldn't want your life on my conscience as well. Please.'
'I'll be back as soon as I can.'
Cato sighed. There was no arguing with the bloody woman, and there was nothing he could do to stop her. 'As you wish.'
'Right then, let's get Macro in the saddle.'
With Prasutagus's help, Macro was gently lifted from the ground and onto the horse, where he was bound securely to the high horns of the saddle. His heavily bandaged head drooped, and for the first time since he had been injured he mumbled incoherently.
'Haven't heard him speak like that since the last time we went drinking,' muttered Boudica. Then she turned to Julia and gently steered the girl towards another horse. 'Up you
Julia refused to move, and stared silently at the looming shadow of the horse. Boudica was suddenly struck by a nasty thought.
'You can ride, can't you?'
'No… A little.'
There was a stunned silence as Boudica took this in. Every Celt, male or female, could ride a horse almost before they could run. It was as natural as breathing. She turned towards Cato.
'Do you people really have an empire?'
'Then how the hell do you get around it? Surely you don't walk?'
'Some of us ride,' Cato replied sourly. 'No more talk. Get going.'
Prasutagus lifted the girl onto the horse and pressed the reins into her uncertain hands. When Boudica was mounted, she took the reins of Macro's horse and clicked her tongue. Her mount was still tired and required a sharp dig from her heels before it moved.
'Take care of my centurion!' Cato called after her.
'I will,' she replied softly. 'And you take care of my betrothed.'
Cato looked round at the looming hulk of Prasutagus and wondered what he could possibly require by way of care.
'Don't let him do anything stupid,' Boudica added before the horses disappeared into the gloom.
The two of them stood side by side until the last sounds of the horses' passage through the forest had faded. Then Cato coughed and turned to the Iceni warrior, not quite certain how to impress upon Prasutagus the fact that he was now in charge.
'We must rest now.'
'Yes, rest.' Prasutagus nodded. 'Good.'
They settled back down on the soft bed of pine needles covering the forest floor. Cato pulled his cloak tightly around him and curled up, resting his head on an arm. Above him, in small gaps in the foliage, the stars twinkled through the swirling steam of his breath. Another time he would have wondered at the beauty of this sylvan setting, but tonight the stars looked as hard and cold as ice. Despite his weariness, Cato could not sleep. The memory of his enforced abandonment of Lady Pomponia and her terrified son played over and over in his mind, tormenting him with his powerlessness. When that image faded, it was replaced by the dreadful vision of Macro's wound, and much as he might pray to the gods to spare Macro's life, he had been in the army long enough to know that the wound was almost certainly fatal. It was a coldly clinical assessment, but in his heart Cato could not bring himself to believe that his centurion would die. Not Macro. Hadn't he survived that final stand in the marshes by the River Tamesis the previous summer? If he could come back from that, then surely he could survive this wound. Nearby, in the darkness, Prasutagus stirred.
'Tomorrow we kill Druids. Yes?'
'No. Tomorrow we watch Druids. Now get some rest.'
'Huh!' Prasutagus grunted, and gradually slipped into the deep regular breathing of sleep.
Cato sighed. Macro was gone, and now he was saddled with this mad Celt. He couldn't deny the man was good in a fight, but although he had the physique of an ox he had the brains of a mouse. Life, the optio decided, had a funny way of making an impossible situation effortlessly worse.