The Second Legion arrived the following day, at noon. From the tree they had been using as a watchtower Cato saw a thin screen of horsemen approaching the Great Fortress from the east. Although there was no way of being sure of their identity from such a distance, the dispersal was characteristic of the scouts sent forward in advance of a Roman army. Cato grinned with delight, and joyously thumped the tree trunk. After so many miserable days skulking through the lands of the Durotriges and sleeping in the open air, always in terror of being discovered, the thought of the Second Legion being so close at hand filled him with a warm and comforting longing. It was almost like the imminent prospect of being reunited with close family, and it moved him far more than he had expected. There was a painful, emotional, tightening of his throat to overcome before he could call down to Prasutagus. The top of the tree swayed alarmingly as the Iceni warrior clambered up to join him.
'Easy, man,' Cato grunted, tightening his grasp. 'You want everyone to know we're here?'
Prasutagus stopped a few branches lower than Cato, and pointed towards the hill fort. The legion's scouts had been seen by the enemy as well, and the last of the Durotrigan patrols was marching up to the main gate. Soon, all the natives would be bottled up in their fastness, confident that they would defy the Roman attempt to seize the Great Fortress. There was no risk to Cato and Prasutagus now; the burden of concealment was lifted from them, and Cato relented.
'All right, then. But watch you don't break the trunk.'
'Eh?' Prasutagus looked up with an uncomprehending frown.
Cato pointed at the slender breadth of the trunk. 'Be careful.'
Prasutagus playfully shook the trunk to test it, nearly dislodging Cato, and then nodded.
Cato gritted his teeth in irritation. He looked east, beyond the scouts, straining his eyes for the first sign of the main body of the Second Legion.
It was nearly an hour later before the vanguard emerged from the distant haze of rolling hills and forest. A faint rippling glitter marked the first of the cohorts as the sun caught on polished helmets and weapons. Slowly, the head of the distant legion resolved itself into a long column, like a many-scaled serpent languidly slithering across the landscape. Mounted staff officers cantered up and down each side of the column, ensuring that nothing held up the regular, disciplined pace of the advance. On each flank, some distance from the legion, more scouts guarded against any surprise attack from the enemy. Towards the rear trundled the dark mass of the baggage and artillery trains, then finally the afterguard cohort. Cato was surprised by the size of the artillery train. It was far larger than the usual complement for one legion. Somehow the legate must have wangled himself some reinforcements. Good, thought Cato, as he glanced across at the hill fort. They would be sorely needed.
'It's time we had a word with Vespasian,' Cato muttered, then tapped Prasutagus on the head with his boot. 'Down, boy!'
They hurried from the crest of the hill to find Boudica, and Cato told her the news. Then, they cautiously emerged from the forest and made their way east towards the approaching legion. They passed a handful of small hovels, where in more peaceful times peasant farmers eked out a living growing crops and raising sheep and pigs, maybe even cattle. Now they were empty, all the farmers, their families, and their animals sheltering inside the Great Fortress from the terrifying invaders who marched under the wings of their gold eagles.
Cato and his companions passed the place where the Druids' wagon had been taken a few days earlier, and saw that there was still blood, dry and dark, encrusted on the wagon ruts. Once again Cato thought of Macro, and felt uneasy about the prospect of discovering the centurion's fate when they reached the legion. It seemed impossible that Macro could die. The latticework of scars the centurion bore on his skin, and his boundless confidence in his indestructibility, bore testimony to a life that, while fraught with danger, was peculiarly charmed. It was easy to visualise Macro old and bent in some veterans' colony many years from now, endlessly recounting tales of his army days and yet not too old to get drunk and enjoy a geriatric punch-up. It was almost impossible to imagine him cold and dead. And yet that wound to his head, with all its appalling severity, threatened the worst. Cato would find out soon enough, and dreaded it.
The scouts appeared as they were crossing the trestle bridge. A cocky looking decurion – all fresh plumes and knee-high soft leather boots – cantered down the slope towards them, flanked by half of his squadron. The decurion drew his sword and bellowed the order to charge.
Cato pushed himself in front of Boudica and waved his arms. Beside him, Prasutagus looked puzzled and turned round to see who the cavalry could possibly be charging. A short distance from the bridge the decurion reined in and raised his sword to slow his men, clearly disappointed that the three ragged vagabonds weren't going to put up a fight.
'I'm Roman!' Cato cried out. 'Roman!'
The decurion's horse came to a halt inches from Cato's face, and the animal's breath stirred his hair.
'Roman?' The decurion frowned, looking Cato over. 'I don't believe it!'
Cato looked down and saw Prasutagus's swirling patterns through the open front of his tunic, and then touched his face, realising that it, too, must still bear the remains of the disguise he wore the previous night.
'Oh, I see. Forget this stuff, sir. I'm the optio of the Sixth Century, Fourth Cohort. On a mission for the legate. I need to speak to him at once.'
'Oh, really?' The decurion was still far from convinced but he was too junior to bear the responsibility of making a decision about this miserable looking wretch and his two companions. 'And these are Romans too, I suppose?'
'No, Iceni scouts, working with me.'
'I need to speak to the legate urgently,' Cato reminded him.
'We'll see about that when we get back to the legion. For now, you'll mount up with my men.'
Three rather unhappy scouts were detailed for the task and grudgingly helped Cato and the others up behind them. The optio reached his arms round his rider and the man growled.
'Keep your hands on me saddle horn, if you know what's good for you.'
Cato did as he was told, and the decurion wheeled the small column and led them back up the slope at the trot. As they crested the hill, Cato smiled at the progress the legion had already made, despite having arrived here only an hour before. Ahead of them, at least a mile away, he could see the usual screen of skirmishers. Behind them the main body of the legion was toiling to construct a marching camp, already piling the soil from the outer ditch inside the perimeter where it was packed down to make a defence rampart. Beyond the camp, the legion's vehicles were still trundling into position. But there were no surveyors marking the ground around the hill fort.
'No circumvallation?' Cato asked. 'Why?'
'Ask your mate, the legate, when you speak to him,' the scout grumbled.
For the rest of the short ride Cato kept his silence and, with more difficulty, his balance. The decurion halted the scout patrol just inside the area marked out for one of the legion's four main gates. The duty centurion rose from his camp desk and strode over. Cato recognised him by sight, but didn't know his name.
'What on earth have you got there, Manlius?'
'Found 'em heading for the hill fort, sir. Young lad there reckons he's Roman.'
'Oh, does he?' The duty centurion smiled.
'Speaks good Latin anyway, sir.'
'Make a valuable slave then.' The centurion grinned.
Cato saluted. 'Optio Quintus Licinius Cato reporting, sir. Returning from a mission for the legate.'
The centurion looked closely at Cato, then clicked his fingers as he made the connection. 'You serve under that nutcase, Macro, don't you?'
'Macro is my centurion, yes, sir.'
Cato felt a chill course through him, but before he could ask after Macro, the duty centurion ordered the decurion to report directly to headquarters and waved the patrol through. They trotted up the wide avenue between rows of tent markers set out for the legionaries to erect their goatskin tents the moment the camp's ditch and rampart were complete. In the middle of the site the legate's headquarters tent was already standing, and several horses belonging to the staff officers were tethered to a makeshift rail. The decurion halted his patrol and dismounted, signalling Cato and the others to follow suit.
'This lot want to see the legate,' he announced to the commander of Vespasian's bodyguard. 'Duty centurion passed 'em through.'
Moments later an exhausted Cato, Boudica and Prasutagus were ushered inside by Vespasian's private secretary. At first Cato blinked. It was quite hard adjusting from the hardships of the last days to the luxury of the accommodation afforded the commander of the Second Legion. Floorboard sections had been laid down, and on them, in the centre of the tent, was Vespasian's large campaign table, surrounded by padded stools. A small brazier glowed in each corner, warming the interior of the tent nicely. On a low table to one side lay a platter of cold meats and a glass jug half filled with wine. Behind his desk Vespasian finished signing a form and handed it back to a clerk with a quick dismissal. Then he looked up, smiled a greeting and waved his hand towards the stools on the other side of the table.
'I would change my appearance as soon as possible, if I were you, Optio. Don't want some fool of a recruit mistaking you for a local and poking you with his spear.'
'I expect you could do with a good meal and some other home comforts.'
'Yes, sir.' Cato gestured to Prasutagus and Boudica. ' We could.'
'As soon as I've debriefed you,' Vespasian replied curtly. 'Boudica gave me some details a few days ago. I assume she told you what's been going on in the wider world. What has changed at your end?'
'The Druids have still got the general's wife and son up in the hill fort, sir. I saw them last night.'
'Last night? How?'
'I went in there. That's why I've got this stuff all over me, sir.'
'You went inside? Are you mad, Optio? Do you know what would have happened if you'd been caught?'
'I have a pretty good idea, sir.' Cato's brow furrowed as he recalled the fate of Diomedes. 'But I promised the Lady Pomponia that I would rescue her. I gave her my word, sir.'
'Bit rash then, weren't you?'
'Never mind. It's my intention to storm the hill fort as soon as possible. We'll get them back that way.'
'Excuse me, Legate,' Boudica interrupted. 'Prasutagus knows the Druids. He tells me they will not let them live. If it looked like the legion was close to taking the place, they'll have no reason to spare them.
'Maybe, but if Plautius confirms his order for the execution of our Druid prisoners then they're dead anyway. At least we might save them in the confusion of an attack.'
'I've seen the layout inside the hill fort. You'll be assaulting the main gate?'
'Of course.' Vespasian smiled. 'I assume that meets with your approval?'
'Sir, the Druid's compound is at the other end of the hill fort. They'd see the game was up in plenty of time to get back to the compound and kill the hostages. We couldn't hope to beat them to it, sir. Boudica's right. The moment we take the main gate, they'll be killed.'
'I see.' Vespasian contemplated a moment. 'I don't have a choice then. I have to wait for Plautius's reply. If he's rescinded the execution order, then we might still be able to negotiate some kind of a deal with the Druids.'
'I wouldn't pin your hopes on it,' said Boudica.
Vespasian frowned at her, and then turned back to Cato.
'Not looking very good then, is it?'
'What can you tell me about conditions inside the hill fort? How many are we facing? How are they armed?'
Cato had anticipated the question and had his answers ready. 'No more than eight hundred warriors. Twice as many noncombatants, and maybe eighty Druids. They were working on something that looked like catapult frames, so we might be facing some pretty heavy fire when we go in, sir.'
'We'll match them at that game, and more,' Vespasian said with satisfaction. 'The general transferred the artillery from the Twentieth Legion to me. We'll be able to bring more than enough down on their heads to keep them back while the assault cohorts close on the gate.'
'I hope so, sir,' Cato, replied. 'The gate's the only option. The ditches are heavily staked.'
'Thought they might be.' Vespasian stood up. 'There's nothing else to be said. I'll pass the word for some hot food and baths to be prepared. I can offer you that at least as a reward for the work you've done.'
'Thank you, sir.'
'And my profound gratitude to you and your cousin.' The legate bowed his head to Boudica. 'The Iceni will not find Rome ungrateful for your assistance in this matter.'
'What are allies for?' Boudica smiled wearily. 'I would expect Rome to do the same for me, if ever I have any children and they are placed in danger.'
'Well, yes.' Vespasian nodded. 'Quite.'
He accompanied them to the exit of his tent and graciously held the flap open. Cato paused at the exit, a concerned expression on his face.
'Sir, one last thing, if I may?'
'Of course, your centurion.'
Cato nodded. 'Has he… Did he survive?'
'Alive, last I heard.'
'He's here, sir?'
'No. I sent our sick back to Calleva in a convoy two days ago. We've set up a hospital there. Your centurion will have the best possible care.'
'Oh.' The renewed uncertainty weighed heavily on the optio's heart. 'Best thing, I suppose.'
'It is. You'll have to excuse me.' Vespasian was about to turn away and walk back to his desk when he became aware of raised voices outside his headquarters tent.
'What the hell is going on out there?'
Brushing past Cato he strode out through the wide flaps and squelched across the mud outside. Cato and the others hurried after him. There was no need to ask what the reason for the commotion was; every man in the Second Legion could see it. Up on the plateau of the Great Fortress, some kind of structure was slowly rising above the palisade. The sun was low in the sky to the west, silhouetting the vast mass of the hill fort and the strange contraption in a fiery orange glow. It rose very slowly into place, manoeuvred by invisible hands heaving on a series of ropes. As he watched, the terrible realisation of what he was witnessing suddenly hit Cato like a blow and his guts turned to ice.
The construction was nearing the vertical and it became clear to everyone what it was: a vast wicker man, crude in form but unmistakable, black against the sunset except where it was pierced through by shafts of dying light.
The legate turned to Boudica and spoke quietly. 'Ask your man when he thinks they'll set fire to that thing.'
'Tomorrow night,' she translated. At the Feast of the First Budding. That's when your general's wife and son will die.'
Cato edged closer to the legate. 'I don't think the general's message matters any more, sir.'
'No… We'll attack first thing in the morning.'
Cato well knew that any attack would have to be preceded by a lengthy bombardment of the defences. Only then could the legionaries attempt to force a breach. What if the defenders proved resolute enough to drive the Romans back?
A desperate thought struck Cato; his mind raced, quickly sketching out a crazy plan, fraught with terrible risks, but it might give them one last chance to save Lady Pomponia and Aelius from the flames of the wicker man.
'Sir, there might still be a way to rescue them,' Cato said quietly. 'If you can spare me twenty good men, and Prasutagus.'