The Sixth Century had pulled the second watch of the day. After a hurried breakfast of steaming porridge, they relieved the century patrolling the walls of the fortified camp. The centurion coming off duty briefly informed Cato of the arrival of the horsemen from Calleva. Mid-morning sunlight streamed over the ramparts. Cato squinted, having climbed up from the cold shadows around the neat lines of tents. He was forced to shield his eyes for a moment.
'Nice morning, Optio!' a legionary greeted him. 'Might actually get warm today.'
Cato turned to the man; a large, round youth with a jolly face and a handful of crooked teeth that looked like the remains of one of the stone circles the legion had marched past the previous summer. Being thin with little fat on him, thanks to his nervous disposition, Cato found it difficult to keep warm and was still shivering inside his tightly belted wool cloak. He simply nodded at the legionary, not wanting to let the man see his teeth chatter. The legionary was one of the recent replacements, a Gaul by the name of Horatius Figulus. Figulus was an adequate enough soldier, and the youngster's cheerful nature had made him popular with the century.
With a sudden jolt of awareness, Cato recalled that Figulus was the same age as he was. The same age, and yet the few months longer he had served with the eagles made him look upon this recruit with the cool gaze of a veteran. Certainly, a casual onlooker might well imagine the optio to be a veteran; the scars of the terrible burns he had suffered the previous summer were clearly visible. And yet the hair on his cheeks was still so sparse that it would be risible for him to even consider a shave. Figulus, by contrast, shared the hairy physiognomy of his Celt forebears; the fine growth of light hair across his cheeks and chin needed almost daily attention from a carefully whetted blade.
'Watch this, Optio!' Figulus leaned his javelin against the rampart and fumbled inside his cloak for a moment, before pulling out a walnut. 'I've been practising this one all week.'
Cato stifled a groan. Ever since the century had been entertained by an itinerent Phoenician conjurer several weeks earlier, young Figulus had attempted to copy the conjuror's repertoire of tricks – with little success. The would-be magician was holding out the walnut for his inspection.
Cato stared at him a moment, and then rolled his eyes to the heavens with a faint shake of his head.
'It's an ordinary walnut, right, Optio?'
'If you say so,' replied Cato through gritted teeth.
'Now as we know, walnuts are not in the habit of just up and disappearing. Am I right?'
Cato nodded, once.
'Now watch!' Figulus closed his hands and flourished them about each other as he chanted the sound that best approximated the spells of the Phoenician. 'Ogwarz farevah!' With a final sweep he flicked his empty hands open in front of his optio's face. Out of the corner of one eye Cato saw the walnut sailing up in an arc before it dropped over the side of the rampart.
'Where do you suppose that walnut has gone?' Figulus winked. 'Well, let me show you!'
He reached behind Cato's ear, and frowned. Cato sighed in exasperation. The legionary tilted his head to examine the space behind Cato's ear.
'Half a mo, the bloody thing's supposed to be there.'
Cato slapped his hand aside. 'Get on duty, Figulus. You've wasted enough time.'
With a last confused glance at Cato's ear, the legionary took up his javelin and faced out across the white wilderness of Atrebate territory. Although frost had gilded the world with its sparkling lace, the snow underneath was slowly melting away and clear ground showed on the south-facing slopes of the surrounding hills. The recruit's face showed a mixture of embarrassment and confusion and Cato was moved to take pity on him.
'Nice try, Figulus. Just needs a little more practice.'
'Yes, Optio.' Figulus grinned, and Cato instantly wished he hadn't – purely on aesthetic grounds. 'More practice, I'll see to it.'
'Right, fine. But that's for later. Keep an eye out for the enemy meanwhile.'
Cato left him and continued his rounds of the sector of the fort entrusted to him. Over the other side, Centurion Macro was supervising the rest of the century. Across the ranks of tent ridges basking in the glow of the rising sun, Cato could see the short powerful figure strutting along the opposite rampart, hands clasped behind his back, his head turned towards the distant Tamesis, and Camulodunum far beyond. Cato smiled as he imagined where his centurion's thoughts lay. In spite of his laddish, hard-drinking, womanising nature, Macro had let the statuesque Boudica get under his skin. It had never occurred to the centurion that a woman could be such a complete companion, one who equalled him in almost every sphere of manly behaviour, and the affection he had for her was all too apparent to his optio, and those other men who knew him best. While other centurions and optios winked at each other and joked in low voices about life lived under the thumb of such a woman, Cato was quietly pleased for his centurion.
'Call out the guard!' cried a voice.
Cato instantly turned in the direction of the shout and saw Figulus pointing away to the west, where a forest crept up the far end of the ridge. The angle of the rampart obscured Cato's view. He swore, and ran round the walkway to Figulus's position.
'Men, sir! There!' Figulus jabbed his finger along the crest of the ridge towards the forest. Cato saw nothing unusual as his eyes swept the landscape.
'Use your drill!' he shouted. 'Indicate the direction properly!'
The recruit swung his javelin up and carefully sighted along it in the direction of the forest. 'There, sir.'
Cato moved behind Figulus and looked along the javelin's length. Past the wavering point, amid the trees at the edge of the forest, dark figures on horseback slowly emerged from the sylvan shadows within and picked their way onto the snow-patched open ground before the legion's ramparts. There they halted; ten men on horse, clothed in black, heads hidden in great hoods.
All around Cato the rest of the centuries from the stand-to cohort piled up onto the ramparts and dispersed along this side of the fortified camp, armed and ready to meet any sudden attack. A trumpet was blowing the signal for the cohort, and Macro sprinted along the walkway to join them.
The distant horsemen parted, and from within the group a man on the ground staggered forward, his arms tightly bound behind him. A rope curved up from a halter round his neck and into the hand of the rider walking his beast alongside. The mounted man, like his companions, was thickly robed in black and wore a strange headpiece that bore an elaborate pair of antlers that made him look like a thin tree stripped for winter. The two figures approached the fort, the man on foot stumbling to retain his balance without choking on the tether held tightly by his captor.
'What's going on?' Macro had arrived, breathing hard. 'Who are they?'
'Don't know, sir.'
'Who called out the guard?'
Macro turned and looked for the recruit. 'Figulus! Over here! Smartly does it, lad!'
Figulus doubled along the rampart and drew up in front of his centurion with a thud as he grounded his javelin and stood stiffly at attention. Macro surveyed him with a harsh expression. 'Did you call out the guard cohort?'
'Yes, sir.' The legionary steeled himself for a stiff bollocking from his centurion. 'Sorry, sir.'
'Sorry? What are you fucking sorry for, lad? You've done well. Now back to your position.'
It took a moment for the slow-witted youngster to realise that he had been praised, and his face split into a gap-toothed grin.
'Today, Figulus! Today!'
'Oh, right, sir!' He turned and trotted away, leaving his centurion shaking his head in thin-lipped wonder at the quality of some of the men he had been forced to take into his century to bring it up to strength. Beyond Figulus he caught sight of the red crest of a tribune bobbing above the cluster of helmets, brightly gilded in the sunlight. Plinius pushed his way through the throng on the rampart and leaned up against the palisade, staring at the two figures now little more than half a mile from the outer ditch. The man on foot wore the tattered remains of a red tunic fringed with gold thread. Plinius turned and caught sight of Macro.
'That man in front's a Roman! Pass the word for the cavalry scouts to be mounted and ready for pursuit. I'm going to get the legate.'
'Yes, sir!' Macro turned to Cato. 'You heard him. Go find the scouts' centurion and give him his orders. I'll take charge of the men up here. Can't have them behaving like a bunch of louts at a chariot race.'
As Macro started bawling out curses and orders to the men milling along the rampart, Cato made for the stables, up by the legate's tent. By the time he returned, the men on the wall were evenly dispersed and watching the distant figures making their way across the snow towards the fort. The legate and the breathless senior tribune had arrived moments before, and were staring silently at the spectacle.
'What the bloody hell has that man got on his head?' muttered Vespasian.
'I can see they're bloody antlers. But why has he got them on his head? Must be awkward.'
'Yes, sir. Some kind of religious apparatus.' Plinius shrank back from the glare his superior shot at him. 'Probably…'
Just beyond the range of slingshot, the horseman yanked hard on the halter and those on the wall could clearly hear the sharp cry of pain from his prisoner. The rider climbed down from his horse and tossed the halter aside. The Roman sank to his knees. He was clearly exhausted, and his head slumped forward onto his breast. But his respite was momentary. The rider struck him on the head and pointed towards the fort. The men on the rampart could hear shouted words, but could make no sense of them. The Roman raised his head, steadied himself and cried out to those on the wall.
'Hear me!… I have a message for the commander of this legion… Is he there?'
Vespasian cupped his hands and called back, 'Speak! Who are you?'
'Valerius Maxentius… prefect of the naval squadron at Gesoriacum.'
The men on the rampart gasped in surprise that so senior an officer was in the hands of the Druids, and anxious exchanges rippled out along the palisade.
'Silence!' Vespasian roared. 'The next man to speak will be flogged! Centurion, make sure you get their names!'
Beyond the wall, Maxentius was calling out to them again, his voice strained and thin, deadened by the snow lying on the ground. 'I have been told to speak for the Druids of the Dark Moon… My ship was wrecked on the coast, and the survivors, a woman, her children and myself, were taken by a Durotrigan raiding party… They handed us over to the Druids. In exchange for the release of these prisoners, the Druids want some of their comrades returned to them. Five Druids of the first ring were taken by the general last summer… This man, the High Priest of the Dark Moon, is their leader. He gives you until the Feast of the First Budding – thirty days from now – to respond to his demand… If the Druids are not released by the time of the feast, he will burn his prisoners alive as a sacrifice to Cruach.'
Vespasian recalled the words of Centurion Albinus and shuddered. The thought of his own wife and son screaming amid crackling flames filled his mind's eye and his fingers gripped the palisade tightly as he fought off the terrible image.
The rider leaned down, close to Maxentius's head, and appeared to be saying something to him. Then he stepped back and parted his black cloak. Maxentius called out to them once more.
'The Druid wishes you to have a… token of his determination in this matter!' Behind him, something flashed in the sunlight. The Druid had pulled a huge, broad-bladed sickle from the folds of his cloak. He gripped it with both hands, braced his feet widely, and swung the sickle back.
At the last moment, Maxentius sensed the terrible fate the Druid intended for him, and started to twist round. The sickle flashed through the air, into and through the side of the prefect's neck. It was so quickly done that for a moment some of those watching from the ramparts thought the Druid must have missed. Then the prefect's head rolled to one side and fell into the snow. An arterial spray gushed from the stump of his neck and splattered the white ground. The Druid wiped his bloodied blade in the snow. Then, sheathing it beneath his cloak, he kicked the prefect's torso over, casually mounted his horse, and spurred it back towards his comrades waiting at the edge of the forest.