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Chapter Thirty

Early the next morning Cato and Prasutagus crept to the edge of the forest, crawling through the cold wet grass at its fringe. The trees sprawled over a gently sloping hill, and, looking down towards the track in the vale, they saw no signs of any of the Druids who had pursued them into the darkness. On the far side of the track the land sloped up to another forested hill. Beyond that, Cato knew, lay the site of the abortive rescue attempt on the wagon. A wave of anguish rushed over him at the recollection, but he swiftly pushed the thought aside and concentrated on his memory of the landscape. From the farther hill they should have a good view of the massive ramparts of the Great Fortress. Cato motioned to Prasutagus and indicated a shallow defile in the side of the hill, overgrown with gorse bushes and occasional patches of blackberry. It would provide good cover all the way down the slope. From there they would have to chance a quick dash across to the forest on the far side of the track. Although the sky was clear, it was still early spring and the sun gave little warmth at this time of day. The exertion of creeping through the thorny bushes, and the anxiety of being discovered, kept Cato from shivering, but as soon as they stopped at the foot of the hill, his body trembled with cold. Worried that Prasutagus might construe his shaking as fear, Cato fought to control his body's instincts and just managed to still his limbs. Keeping his head low, he scanned the surrounding landscape. Aside from a light breeze rippling the grass, no living thing moved. Beside him Prasutagus drummed his fingers impatiently on the ground and inclined his head towards the trees beyond the track.

Cato nodded his assent, and both of them bolted across the open ground, over the track and into the welcome shadows of the trees. They ducked down and Cato listened for any sign that they had been spotted but the pounding of blood in his ears drowned out anything he might have heard. He dragged Prasutagus further into the trees, through a dense tangle of undergrowth. The ground sloped upwards until it eventually levelled out on the crest. Both men slumped down on a fallen tree trunk, covered with the moss and lichen of ages. Breathing heavily, Cato suddenly felt very dizzy and braced himself with both hands to stop himself tumbling to the ground. Prasutagus reached over to Cato's shoulder to steady him.

'You rest, Roman.'

'No. I'm not tired,' Cato lied. He was exhausted, but more pressing than that was his hunger. He had not eaten properly for days, and the effects were becoming apparent.

'Food. We must have food,' he said.

Prasutagus nodded. 'You stay here. I find.'

'All right. But be careful. No one must see you. Understand?'

'Sa!' Prasutagus frowned at the unnecessary warning.

'Off you go then,' muttered Cato. 'Don't be long.'

Prasutagus waved a farewell and disappeared through the trees along the crest. Cato eased himself onto the ground and leaned back against the soft moss on the tree trunk. His eyes closed and he breathed in the forest-scented air deeply. For a while his mind was clear and he rested peacefully, indulging his senses as he listened to the different bird calls from the branches above. Now and then he was jarred by the sound of other animals making their way across the forest floor, but there were no voices and the sounds receded quickly enough. It was strange to be alone for the first time in months, to savour the peculiar serenity that comes from having no other person nearby. The euphoric feeling quickly faded as his mind started working on the wider situation he found himself in. Macro was gone, so was Boudica. All that remained was himself and Prasutagus. The Iceni warrior's knowledge of the area and the customs of the Druids was vital. He even claimed to have some familiarity with the hill fort where Lady Pomponia and her son were imprisoned.

The image of the terrified boy running to his mother plagued him. Cato cursed himself for not going back for Aelius, even though the Druids were only moments away, pounding down the track towards the wagon. Cato and the boy might have got away. He doubted it, but it was still a possibility. A possibility that Vespasian and Plautius would not overlook if he ever returned to the legion to tell the tale. His harsh self-judgement was burden enough, without the sidelong scorn of the men who would question his courage.

Hours passed and, as the sun began to dip from its midday position, Cato decided he had rested enough. There was still no sign of Prasutagus, and Cato felt a pang of concern. But there was nothing he could do to speed the man's return; he could only hope that he had not fallen into the hands of the Druids, and that he had found food.

Cato looked round at the nearest trees, and picked one that had plenty of branches, promising to be an easy climb. Limb by limb he pulled himself up the tree, until the trunk became thin enough to sway under his weight. With one arm wrapped round the rough bark, Cato parted the slender branches. He had lost his bearings and could not see the hill fort at first. Then, adjusting his footing, he tried another direction and gazed down on the grassy sward running beside the river. He could see the trestle bridge and followed the line of the track leading up to the hill fort.

Cato was awed anew by the scale of the ramparts. How many men had laboured for how many years to create this vast monument to the might of the Durotriges? How many men would it cost Rome to take this hill fort when the time came for the legions to march west? Of course it would be his legion, the Second, that would be tasked with storming those ramparts. The legion had only just managed to best the Britons in setpiece battles. Would they be able to storm their formidable fortresses? Cato had read of siegecraft as a child but had not been called upon to practise it since he had joined the eagles. The prospect of assaulting those towering ramparts of earth filled him with dread.

A heavy thump from below startled him and he nearly let go of the trunk. Cato looked down through the branches and saw Prasutagus searching around for him. By the tree trunk lay the body of a dead pig with a bloody tear in its throat.

'Up here!' Cato called.

Prasutagus tilted his head back, then laughed as he caught sight of Cato. He reached for one of the lower branches.

'No. Stay there. I'm coming down.'

On the ground, Cato eyed the pig appreciatively. 'Where did you get it?'


'Where?' Cato pointed at the pig.

'Ah!' Prasutagus pointed along the ridge, and mimed a valley, and another ridge. Then he paused, frowning, as he tried to think how to mime the next part. The word suddenly came to him. 'Farm!'

'You took this from a farm?'

Prasutagus nodded, smiling widely.

'Where was the farmer?'

Prasutagus drew a line across his throat.

'Oh great! That's all we need,' Cato said angrily.

Prasutagus raised a calming hand.

'I hide body. No one find.'

'I'm glad to hear it. But what happens when he's missed? What then, you fool?'

Prasutagus shrugged his huge shoulders, as if that was no concern of his. He turned to the pig.

'We eat?'

'Yes.' Cato's stomach rumbled. Both men laughed spontaneously at the sound. 'We eat. Now.'

With long-practised skill Prasutagus gutted the pig with his dagger, placing the inedible organs in a glistening pile. Then he shoved the lot down the hollow interior of the tree trunk, saving the liver for a little snack later. After wiping his bloodstained hands with clumps of damp moss, he started gathering branches.

'No fire,' ordered Cato. He pointed upwards, then towards the hill fort. 'No smoke.'

Prasutagus had obviously fixed his heart on roast pork and for a moment he baulked at the prospect of eating the pig raw. But then he shrugged and drew his dagger again. He hacked strips of flesh from the pig's loin and tossed one to Cato. The pink flesh had blood and white membrane on it, but Cato hungrily sank his teeth into the still warm meat and forced himself to chew.

After they had eaten their fill, Prasutagus pushed the carcass into the hollow trunk and covered the end with some branches. Then they rested in turns until nightfall, when they moved down the slope, carrying the pig with them. They headed away from the hill fort until they discovered a small hollow where an ancient oak had fallen, wrenching up the earth attached to its myriad roots. There they toiled to light a small fire with dry moss and flints from Cato's haversack. When the kindling had finally caught, they carefully built the fire up and roasted the pig. In the red glow of the warming flames, Cato sat with his arms round his knees savouring the sizzle of fat and the rich aroma of meat. At length, Prasutagus stood up and carved it, placing a large steaming pile on a stone beside Cato. They feasted till they could not eat another scrap and fell asleep with warm, full bellies.

For the next two days they took turns to keep watch on the hill fort, and saw a steady stream of tribespeople making their way towards it. There were wagons too, and small herds of animals, including sheep, driven up from their spring pastures, even though the lambing season was imminent. Clearly, the Durotriges were preparing their people for a siege, which meant they had had news of an approaching enemy. Right now that enemy could only be Rome; the Second Legion must be on the march. Cato's pulse raced at the realisation. In days, perhaps, the legionaries would throw a ring of steel round the hill fort and the Druids and their prisoners would have nowhere to flee. The general's wife and son would be used as bargaining counters to ameliorate the terms of the hill fort's surrender – unless the Durotriges were every bit as mad as the Druids and opted to fight Rome to their last breath. In that case there was little hope for Lady Pomponia and Aelius.

Cato had agreed with Prasutagus that on the third day one of them should return to the place Boudica had left them; that was the earliest she could be expected to return. So at dusk Cato slipped back across the track and headed towards the forest. Despite his certainty that he could recall the route by which he and Prasutagus had travelled, the trees seemed strange in the dark, and he failed to find the ruins of the silver mine. He tried to retrace his steps and only succeeded in becoming even more lost. As the night wore on, caution gave way to speed and the undergrowth crackled and rustled under his feet. He was on the point of calling out for Boudica when a dark figure stepped out from behind a tree directly in front of him. Cato flipped his cloak back and drew his sword.

'Why not just sound a trumpet next time you want to attract some attention?' Boudica chuckled. 'I thought I must have discovered one of Claudius's lost elephants.'

For a moment Cato just stared at Boudica's outline, then with a nervous laugh he lowered his blade and took a deep breath.

'Shit, Boudica, you scared me!'

'You deserved it. Where's my cousin?'

'He's fine. He's keeping watch on the hill fort. Unless he's gone hunting for pig farmers again.'

'What? Never mind. Explain later. Now listen to me. There's not much time, and I've got something really scary to tell you.'

Chapter Twenty-Nine | When the Eagle Hunts | Chapter Thirty-One