The edge of the night sky was washed with the pale glow of dawn by the time Cato and Boudica reached the hollow where Prasutagus was waiting. They had left her horse tied to a tree in the silver workings, with a full bag of feed to keep it company. The two Iceni embraced warmly in greeting, each obviously relieved that the other was safe and well. Although safe was pushing it a bit, Cato reflected. Being camped in a forest barely a mile from their savage enemy was not so very safe at all.
Boudica gratefully accepted some cold pork, but sniffed suspiciously before taking a bite.
'How old is this delightful morsel?'
'Nearly three days. It should be all right to eat.'
'Well, I'm hungry enough, so thanks.' She tore off a strip off the grey meat and chewed. 'Now then, my news. You'll have to excuse me if I talk while I eat.'
'Fine.' Cato nodded impatiently.
'I managed to reach an Atrebate village the night after I left you. They told me that a Roman army had passed through earlier in the day. Seemed quite awed by the experience. Anyway, I set off straight away and we caught up with Vespasian a few hours later. The Second Legion is making directly for the Great Fortress. Vespasian aims to knock it out of the campaign first, as an example to any Durotriges planning to hold him off in other hill forts.'
'Makes sense,' said Cato. 'And he'll go in hard. But how's Macro?'
'Macro was taken straight to the field hospital.'
'He's still alive?'
'For the moment. The chief surgeon didn't sound hopeful, but then I suppose they never do,' she continued quickly when she saw the look on Cato's face. 'Vespasian was delighted to see the general's daughter, but then showed me something that had been tied to an arrow and shot over the camp gate just after nightfall…' Boudica paused.
'It was a finger, a small finger. There was a message from the Dark Moon Druids on the strip of cloth that tied it to the arrow. One of the legion's native scouts translated. It said that the finger was cut off the hand of the general's son as a warning not to try any more rescue attempts.'
Cato felt sick. 'I see,' he muttered.
'No, you don't. Plautius left orders with Vespasian that if any harm befell his family, then the head of the senior Druid in Vespasian's charge was to be cut off and sent to the Durotriges. The others are to be killed at two-day intervals and their heads sent back, until the surviving members of the general's family are released.'
'They're dead the moment that first head arrives, aren't they?'
'If they're lucky.'
'Has Vespasian carried out the order?'
'Not yet. He's sent the daughter back, with a request for confirmation of the orders.'
'Which Plautius will give, the moment he hears his daughter's story.'
'I'd imagine that's how he might react.'
Cato did some quick calculations. 'That was two days back. Allow two days each way for the message to reach the general and the order to be confirmed, then a day for the head to be delivered… That means we've got two days, three at the outside. No more.'
'That's what I reckon.'
'Oh great…' Cato looked down at his folded hands, then continued thoughtfully. 'Unless Vespasian delays carrying out the order.'
'He might,' agreed Boudica. 'But I think he has other plans. Your Second Legion will arrive under the walls of the hill fort in two days' time. I think he means to storm the fortress as quickly as possible and rescue the general's family himself.'
Cato was shocked. 'The Druids would never let it happen. They'd kill the hostages the moment the wall was breached. All we'd find are the bodies.'
Boudica nodded. 'But what choice does he have? They're dead either way.' She looked at Cato. 'Unless someone gets in there and gets them out before the legion turns up.'
Cato returned her gaze steadily. Just as Vespasian had no choice in his actions, neither did he.
'We have to try it. There must be a way in. Prasutagus would know.'
The Iceni warrior raised his head at the sound of his name. He had not been able to follow the discussion and was staring into the flames, with an occasional contented glance at Boudica. She turned to him and spoke in their tongue.
Prasutagus shook his head firmly. 'Na! No way in.'
'There has to be something!' Cato replied desperately. 'Some small opening. Anything. Just a way inside the palisade. That's all we'd need.'
Prasutagus stared at the optio, bemused by the look of utter despair in his face.
'Please, Prasutagus. I gave my word. If there is a way, all you need do is lead me to it. I'll go alone from there.'
After Boudica translated, Prasutagus considered a moment, spat into the fire, and nodded slowly before he replied to his cousin.
'He says there might be a way. A drainage outlet on the far side of the fort, opposite the main gate. It might be possible to climb through it and get inside. He'll take you there, tomorrow night, but that's it. Then you're on your own. He'll wait at the drain but the moment he hears any commotion, he'll go.'
'Fair enough,' agreed Cato. 'Tell him I'm grateful.'
Prasutagus laughed when Boudica translated. 'He says he doesn't want gratitude from a man he's leading to his death.'
'Thank him anyway.'
Cato knew the risk in what he planned to do was appalling. They might be discovered as they clambered up the ramparts, the drain was likely to be guarded, especially after the rescue attempt on the wagon. And once inside, then what? Where would he look inside that vast fortress filled with Durotrigan tribespeople and Dark Moon Druids? If he escaped their notice, and actually located the general's wife and son, could he really free them on his own and lead them to safety, from the very heart of the enemy's greatest fortification?
In a more rational world Cato would have dismissed the idea out of hand. But he had given his word to Lady Pomponia. He had seen the terror in the boy's eyes. He had witnessed the terrible atrocities that the Dark Moon Druids had visited on Diomedes, and on the peaceful village of Noviomagus. The blond child's face, submerged in his memories these last few days, loomed forth again, cold and beseeching. Then there was Macro. The centurion was all but dead, and he had been prepared to give his life to rescue the general's family.
The moral burden of all he had seen and experienced was overwhelming. Reason had nothing to do with it. He was driven by a compulsion far stronger. There was no reason in the world, he reflected somberly – just an endless sea of unreasonable compulsions, shifting with the tides and carrying its human flotsam where it willed. He could no more turn his back on a final attempt at rescuing the general's wife and son than he could reach up and stroke the face of the moon.
When he rose in the morning, Cato prepared himself for his fate. Numbly he chewed the last of the cold pork, then he climbed to the top of the bill. More Durotrigan warriors were streaming into the hill fort, and he marked them down in the small waxed tablet he carried in his haversack. The information might at least be of some use to Vespasian if he did not return. Boudica would carry it to the legate.
While Boudica took her turn in the tree, Prasutagus mysteriously disappeared, and for a while Cato wondered if the Iceni warrior could not face the night's impossible task. But even as he wondered, he knew this was not the case. Prasutagus had proved himself a man of his word. If he said he would lead the way to the hill fort's drainage outlet, then he would.
Shortly before the sun dipped beyond the trees and plunged the forest into gloom, Prasutagus at last reappeared, carrying a bag filled with roots and leaves. He lit a small fire and began to boil the plants in his skillet, producing a sharp odour that irritated Cato's nostrils. Boudica came and joined them.
'What's he doing?' Cato nodded towards the bubbling brew.
She spoke to Prasutagus a moment, then replied, 'He's making some dyes. If you get into the fortress you'll need to blend in with the tribesmen, as far as you can. Prasutagus is going to paint you and lime your hair.'
'It's that or be killed on sight.'
'All right then,' Cato relented.
In the light and warmth of the fire he stripped off his tunic and stood in only his loincloth as Prasutagus knelt before him and traced a series of swirling blue patterns across his torso and arms. He completed the work with smaller, more intricate patterns on Cato's face, painting with an intensity of concentration that Cato had never seen in him before. While he worked, Boudica prepared the lime and plastered it on his hair. He flinched at the tingling sensation on his scalp and then forced himself to be still when Boudica tutted.
Finally, the two Iceni stood back and admired their handiwork.
'How do I look?'
Boudica laughed. 'Personally, I think you'd make a great Celt.'
'Thanks. Can we get going now?'
'Not quite. Take off the loincloth.'
'You heard me. You need to look like a warrior. Wear my cloak fastened over your body. Nothing else.'
'I don't recall seeing any of the other Durotriges in the altogether. Can't imagine it's habitual.'
'It isn't. But spring has begun. It's the time we Celts call the First Budding. In most tribes the menfolk walk naked for ten days in honour of the Goddess of Spring.'
'Naturally the Iceni are exceptions.' Cato looked at Prasutagus.
'Bit of a voyeur, this goddess.'
'She likes to weigh up the talent,' Boudica explained light-heartedly. 'In some tribes, a young man is picked each year for his looks and becomes her groom.'
'How does that happen?'
'The Druids cut his heart out and let the blood fertilise the plants around her altar.' Boudica smiled at his horrified expression. 'Relax, I said some tribes, some of the wilder ones. Just try not to be too good-looking.'
'There are wilder tribes than the Durotriges?'
'Oh yes. That lot on the hill are nothing compared to some of the tribes of the north-west. I expect you Romans will discover that in due course. Now then, your loincloth please.'
Cato untied it, and with an embarrassed glance at Boudica, let it fall away. Her eyes could not help flickering down and she smiled. At her side Prasutagus chuckled and whispered something in Boudica's ear.
'What did he say?' Cato asked angrily.
'He wonders if Roman women ever notice they're having it off.'
'Oh, he does, does he?'
'Now then, boys, that's enough. You've got work to do. Here's my cloak, Cato.'
He took it, and handed her the loincloth. 'Look after it.' He fastened the shoulder clasp and was given a last inspection by Prasutagus.
He nodded and punched the optio on the shoulder. 'Come! We go!'