'Oh dear!' Nessa winced. 'Now we're for it.'
As Prasutagus glared round at the drinkers, they fell silent, and tried not to meet his eyes while carefully keeping him in clear view. Cato looked beyond the Iceni giant. In the nook by the door, Boudica and Macro were out of the new arrival's line of sight, and Boudica quickly indicated to Macro that he should get under the bench. He shook his head. She jabbed her finger down insistently, but there was no swaying the centurion. He swung his leg over the bench, ready to confront the new arrival. Boudica quickly drained her mug and dived under the bench herself, pressing into the wall furthest from Prasutagus. In doing so she jolted the table and her mug tipped off the edge and shattered on the stone floor.
Prasutagus whipped out a dagger from beneath his cloak and spun round, ready to pounce on any foe sneaking up behind him. He weighed up Macro's stocky physique as the centurion rose to his feet, and then the Iceni warrior roared with laughter.
'What you laughing at?' Macro snarled.
Nessa squeezed Cato's arm and gasped. 'Your friend's a fool!'
'No,' Cato whispered. 'It's your kinsman who's in danger. He's had a skinful and he's pissed Macro off. He'd better watch it.'
Prasutagus patted the centurion heavily on the shoulder and said something conciliatory in his native tongue. The knife disappeared back into his cloak.
'Hands off!' growled Macro. 'You may be a big bastard, but I've taken down harder men than you.'
The warrior ignored him and turned towards the other customers, resuming his search for his wayward female relatives. Nessa had risen to her feet to better view the confrontation and was too slow ducking down out of sight again.
'Ahhh!' roared the giant and he ploughed forward, roughly pushing aside anyone in his path. 'Nessa!'
Before he could consider the wisdom of his action, Cato moved to place himself between them, hand raised to stop the approaching warrior.
'Leave her alone!' His voice quavered as the stupidity of his action sank in.
Prasutagus swatted him to one side, grabbed Nessa by the shoulders and, true to her description of the man, began to bellow at her. Cato picked himself up from the floor and threw himself at the Briton. Prasutagus barely shifted. A moment later a heavy hand slapped the side of Cato's head and his world flashed white before he dropped like a stone, out cold.
By the door, Macro roused himself. 'That was way out of order, sunshine!' He thrust his way through the crowd towards the fireplace. Behind him, Boudica struggled out from under the bench.
'Macro! Stop! He'll kill you.'
'Let the bastard try.'
'Stop! I beg you!' She flew after him, making a grab for his shoulders.
'Let go of me, woman!'
Prasutagus became aware of the commotion behind him and paused in his rough handling of Nessa to spare a glance over his shoulder. At once, he thrust Nessa to one side and swivelled his great frame round, bellowing out a torrent of words in a mixture of relief and rage. Macro stopped a little short of the giant, looking around for anything he could use as a weapon to even up the odds. He seized a crutch lying on the ground beside an unconscious tribesman and held it like a cross-staff. But before he could make a move on Prasutagus, a crashing blow to the back of his head laid him out – Boudica had felled him with a pottery jug. Stunned and dizzy, Macro struggled to his hands and knees.
'Stay down!' hissed Boudica. 'Stay down and keep quiet if you know what's good for you.'
She advanced on her cousin, eyes blazing and mouth clenched in outrage. Prasutagus continued shouting and waving his great arms about. Boudica drew up in front of him and slapped him across the face, again and again, until his tongue stilled and his arms hung limp.
'Na, Boudica!' he protested. 'Na!'
She slapped him once more, and pointed a finger in his face, daring him to say another word. His eyes burned and he clenched his teeth, but he uttered not a sound. The other drinkers watched in fascinated silence for the next development in the confrontation between the hulking great warrior and the tall haughty woman who defied him so openly. At length Boudica lowered her finger. Prasutagus nodded, and spoke quietly to her, with the barest nod towards the doorway. Boudica called to Nessa and then led the way out into the street. Pausing a moment, Prasutagus glowered round at the customers, daring anyone to laugh at him. Then, kicking the prostrate optio to one side, he stormed out of the alehouse, hurrying after his charges before they could run off again.
Every drinker in the establishment watched the open doorway for any sign of the warrior's return. As conversation quietly resumed, the old Gaul nodded to his hired muscle and the man wandered over to the door and closed it. Then he casually worked his way over to Macro.
'You all right, mate?'
'Been better.' Macro rubbed his head and winced. 'Shit! That hurts.'
'Not surprised. That's quite a woman.'
'Saved your bacon though. You and the lad there.'
'Cato!' Macro hurried over to his optio, who was propped on an elbow and shaking his head. 'You still with us?'
'I'm not sure, sir. Feels like a house fell on me.'
'Not far off!' chuckled the hired muscle. 'That Prasutagus can get pretty heavy-handed.'
Cato looked up. 'Oh really?'
The Gaul dragged Cato to his feet and brushed the straw from his tunic. 'Now if you two gentlemen wouldn't mind, I'd like you both to leave the premises right away.'
'Why?' asked Macro.
'Because I fucking say so,' replied the hired muscle, with a smile. Then he relented a little. 'You just don't mess with a high-ranking Iceni warrior. Especially a drunk one. I'd hate to think what will happen to my master's business if Prasutagus comes back with a few friends and finds you two still here.'
'Do you think he will?' asked Cato, eyeing the door nervously.
'Just as soon as he works out some kind of connection between his lady friends and you two. So best be off, eh?'
'Fair enough. Come on, Cato. Let's find somewhere else to drink.'
Tugging their cloaks tightly about their shoulders, Macro and Cato ducked under the lintel into the street. The shaft of orange light slanting across the snow in the alley was abruptly cut off as the door was firmly closed behind them. There was no sign of Prasutagus and the two women, save for the disturbed tracks in the snow leading up the alley.
'What now?' asked Cato.
'There's another place I know. Not quite as nice as this. But it'll do.'
'Not quite as nice…'
'Do you want a drink or not?'
"Then shut up and follow me.'
Hot on the trail of the Roman army had come traders in luxuries and vices to satisfy every taste. Phoenician pimps had arrived and set up their travelling brothels in the grimmest quarter of Camulodunum. Ramshackle barns and warehouses were bought cheaply and gaudily painted with graphic depictions of what was on offer inside, together with the prices. The more ambitious of the pimps also sold alcohol at inflated prices to the men waiting their turn. This led to a growth in the number of small drinking houses, all of them vying to attract custom. And then there were the usual quacks and magicians who guaranteed to cure every ailment from syphilis to impotence, and pedlars who offered an unlimited range of goods – swords that never blunted, charms to ward off arrows, pairs of dice that 'magically' always landed on VI, protective sheaths made of the finest kid goat stomach linings. Cato was all too familiar with this kind of tack and tat; the less salubrious districts of Rome were packed with such traders who offered an even wider range of carnal pleasures and miracle remedies.
Macro led Cato to a low wooden building in a dimly lit street where a trickle of human waste ran down the middle of the narrow way; an unpleasant dark streak in the churned-up snow. Inside, the air was heavy with the stench of cheap scent designed to take the minds of the customers off the even less pleasant odours that curled into their nostrils. The two legionaries pushed through the doorway into a dim room with a slatted wooden floor. Several tables and benches were arranged haphazardly around the place and a bar counter rested on two barrels. The proprietor and two of his tarts sat with bored seen-it-all expressions that did not quite square with the wall decor which displayed garish cartoons of laughing men and women engaged in anatomical experiments of mind-bending complexity.
Only two of the tables were occupied by a handful of legionaries who had come for a drink immediately after returning from patrol. They were wearing some of the new segmented armour as they huddled over a large jug of wine. In the far corner sat a group of junior officers from the Second Legion. One of them looked up at the new arrivals, a wide smile instantly spreading across his face.
'Macro, my lad!' he bellowed, rather too loudly, and the trio at the bar looked up in irritation. 'Come over here and share a brew.'
As the others squeezed up, Macro made the introductions.
'Lads, this is my optio. Cato, this lot of wine-sodden louts are the cream of the legion's officer corps. In a kinder light you might just recognise one or two faces. Please make the acquaintance of Quintus, Balbus, Scipio, Fabius and Parnesius.'
The men looked up Wearily and nodded a greeting. Clearly a great deal had already been drunk.
'A good bunch of lads,' Macro said heartily. 'I served with them before they were all made up to centurions. First time we've had a chance for a get-together since I was promoted. One day, if you live long enough, I'm sure you're going to join us in the centurionate, eh lads?'
As the others roared out their agreement, Cato did his best not to look too appalled at the prospect, and helped himself to a drink. It proved to be another variety of the rough wine imported from Gaul and Cato winced as the sour liquid burned its way down his throat.
'Heady stuff, eh?' Balbus grinned. 'Just the sort of thing to set you up for some hand-to-hand with the tarts.'
Cato had no intention of coming that close, if the women at the counter were anything to judge the profession by. Besides, the only woman on his mind was Lavinia, and the best way to rid his mind of her for the moment was to drink.
Several cups of wine later his eyes felt as if they were perpetually swinging round and round, and it was worse when he shut them. Some kind of focus was needed and his gaze wobbled over to the group of legionaries at the other table, and the segmented armour they were wearing.
He jabbed a finger at Macro. 'Is that stuff any good, sir?'
'Stuff? What stuff?'
'That kit they're wearing. Instead of chain mail.'
'That, my lad, is the new issue of armour the legions are being equipped with.'
Parnesius stirred his head from where it rested on his folded arms and shouted out in a parade-ground way, 'Body armour, segmented, legionaries for the use of! Get it fucking right, son!'
'Ignore him,' Macro whispered to Cato. 'He works in the quartermaster's office.'
'Oi! You lot!' Macro called out to the other table. 'Let's be having you. The optio here wants to see your new armour.'
The legionaries exchanged looks. Finally, one of them replied. 'You can't tell us what to do. We're off duty.'
'Don't give a shit. Get your arse over here,' Macro shouted. 'I mean NOW!'
First one, then the others, meekly rose from the table and came over. They stood at the side of the table while the officers examined their equipment with some curiosity.
'How's it wear?' Macro asked, rising from the bench for a closer examination.
'Well enough, sir,' the first one to rise from his seat responded. 'Lighter than chain mail. And it's tougher. It's made up of these solid strips.'
'It looks like shit. How can you move in that?'
'It's articulated, sir. It adjusts to your movements.'
'You don't say?' Macro tugged at the armour, and then lifted the cloak at the back. 'Fastened by these buckles, I take it.'
'Easy to get on?'
'Cheaper than the mail.'
'How come you lot in the Twentieth are the only legions to get this issue? It's not as if you do much fighting.'
The officers laughed as the legionary fumed at this slight. He barely managed to recover his temper enough to reply, 'Dunno, sir. I'm just a squaddie.'
'Stop calling him sir,' one of the other legionaries hissed. 'We don't have to now.'
'I can't help it.'
'Don't do it!' the legionary said firmly. 'Otherwise what's the point in being off duty?'
'You!' Macro thrust a finger into the man's chest. 'Just shut it! You talk when you're fucking told to and not before. Understand me?'
'I understand,' the man replied firmly. 'But I'm not obeying orders.'
'Yes you fucking are!' Macro swung a fist into the man's midriff, and swore violently as it connected with the new armour. With his other hand he smacked the man in the face, sending him reeling into his comrades. Macro's follow-through swung him round and he collapsed onto the man he had hit with a howl of laughter.
'OK, lads, rank doesn't apply. Let's ruck!'
Every officer, except Cato, lurched to his feet and piled into the legionaries who, like Cato, just stared dumbfounded – until the first few blows had landed. Then, drunken wits recovered, the legionaries fought back and the bar was filled with the sound of crashing tables and benches. The barman hurried his women out of the room.
'Come on, Cato!' Macro called out from beneath a legionary. 'Get stuck in!'
Wobbling to his feet, Cato took aim at the nearest legionary and swung his fist as hard as he could. He missed completely and struck the wall instead, badly grazing his knuckles. He tried again, and this time the blow landed on the side of a man's head with a painful jarring sensation. Cato became aware of a fist flying in towards his face, and for the second time that night the world went white. With a grunt he sagged to his knees and tried to shake his head clear. When his vision returned, Cato saw a legionary standing over him with a stool raised above his head. Instinctively he thrust his head forwards and smashed it into the man's crotch. The legionary folded under the impact and crumpled to one side with a howl of pain, both hands clutched between his legs.
'Nice move, son!' Macro bellowed.
The blow to his head and the excess of wine he had consumed made Cato's head swim horribly. He tried to get to his feet, and failed, but through the shouts and crashes of furniture he became aware of the distant pounding of footsteps.
'Provosts!' someone shouted. 'Get out of here!'
Abruptly the fighting stopped and there was a mad scramble for the back of the bar. The main door opened and a squad of soldiers with black cloaks appeared. Cato was dragged to his feet by Macro and thrown bodily in the direction of the small rear door that the other brawlers were spilling out through. In a whirl of images Cato found himself out in the street, running clumsily after Macro. The centurion broke away from the main group and went weaving down an alleyway. The sounds of pursuit had faded when Cato became aware that he had lost track of Macro. He stopped and leaned against a wooden wall as he fought to catch his breath. The world around him was spinning sickeningly and he desperately wanted to throw up, but there was nothing apart from bile rising in his throat.
'Macro!' he called out. 'Macro!'
In the near distance a voice shouted, and the sound of jostling armour grew louder.
'Shit! What have I done?'
A hand grabbed hold of his arm and yanked him to one side, through a door and into the darkness of a building. Something hit him hard in the stomach and Cato dropped to his knees, gasping for breath. Outside, footsteps crunched through the snow and then died away.
'Sorry about that,' said Macro, helping Cato to his feet. 'But I needed to shut you up for a moment. No harm intended. You all right?'
'N-no!' Cato gasped. 'Feel sick!'
'Save it for later. We've got better things to do. Come here.'
Cato was shoved through a doorway into a small room lit by a single lamp. Two women were sitting on a pair of seedy looking beds, and they smiled as Macro appeared through the door.
'Cato, this is Broann and Deneb. Say hello girls.'
'Hello, girls,' Cato mumbled. 'Who are they?'
'Don't really know. Only just met them. As it happens, the girls are free at the moment. Broann's mine. You get Deneb. Enjoy.'
Macro went over to Broann who smiled with trained warmth, an effect somewhat marred by several missing front teeth. With a wink at Cato, Macro withdrew with Broann behind a tattered curtain.
The optio turned to face Deneb and saw a woman whose face was so painted with make-up that her age was anybody's guess. A few wrinkles at the corners of her mouth hinted at a maturity in years nearby double that of her customer. She smiled and took his hands, pulling him down to her bed. As Cato knelt between her legs, Deneb raised a hand to her loose silk gown and parted it down the length of her body, revealing a large pair of breasts with dark brown nipples and a sparse, wiry brush of pubic hair. Cato looked her up and down for a moment. She beckoned him closer. As he learned forward towards her purple painted lips, the wine finally got the better of him and he pitched forward, unconscious.