Vespasian swung round, hands cupping his mouth as he bellowed, 'Send out the scouts! Get me those Druids!'
The legion's mounted men had not seen the beheading and were more alert than their stunned comrades lining the palisade. In a moment the gate was open and a dozen mounted scouts galloped out. The decurion quickly spotted the Druids on the fringe of the forest and gave the order to charge. Pounding hooves plucked up sprays of snow as the scouts fanned out, wool capes whipping out behind them. The Druid who had killed Maxentius turned his antlered head to look, then kicked his heels into the flanks of his mount, spurring his beast towards his comrades who were already melting back into the shadows of the forest.
Vespasian did not linger to observe the pursuit; he ran to the gate and out across the softly crunching snow towards the body of the navy prefect. Behind him followed the men of the Sixth Century, urged on by Macro, who feared for the safety of his commander. But some way short of the body the legionaries hung back, disgust and superstition making them uneasy, for the Druids were held in awe and dread. Many of the folk tales heard at the knees of their fathers had featured the dark and sinister powers of the Celtic magicians, and the legionaries were loath to approach too closely. They stood in silence, their breath swirling mistily in the cold air; the only sound was the distant thrum of hooves and crash of undergrowth as the cavalry scouts chased after the Druids.
Vespasian stood over the torso, lying twisted on its side. Blood still oozed from the severed blood vessels of the neck. Maxentius had worn only a belted tunic, the tattered remnants of which were now drenched and dark. A large leather pouch had been tied to his belt. Biting back the nausea that was filling his throat from the pit of his stomach, Vespasian leaned down and fumbled with the knot that held the pouch. His fingers trembled as he tried to work the cord free. He was desperate to get away from the blood glistening on the snow, and the awful presence of the prefect's head, scarcely six feet away. Mercifully, the head had rolled in such a way that it faced away from the legate and all he was aware of at the periphery of his vision was the dark, matted hair.
At last the knot slipped free. Vespasian stood up and stepped back several paces before he examined the pouch. A drawstring held the end closed and in the soft folds only a few lumps indicated that it contained anything at all. He tried not to imagine what the Druids might have left in the pouch, and forced himself to loosen the drawstring. In the dark interior of the pouch he saw a dull gleam of gold and reached inside. His fingers closed on a scrap of cloth and a pair of rings, which he drew out into the sunlight. One was quite small and plain, but broad. Inscribed on the inside, in neat block capitals, was the legend 'Filius Plautii'. The other ring was far more ornate, and bore a large onyx stone on which lay a cameo of an elephant, bone white against the polished background of dark brown. The cloth was finely spun wool, maybe from the hem of a toga. Along one edge ran a thin line of purple dye, the ancient sign that the wearer came from a senatorial family.
Vespasian suddenly felt very cold, far more so than the late winter morning warranted. Cold and sick, as the connection between the prefect and the contents of the bag registered. He must send a message to General Plautius at once. Carefully he placed the cloth and the rings back in the pouch and cleared his throat. He looked up at Macro.
'Have the body taken back to camp. Take it to the hospital tent. I want it prepared for cremation as soon as possible. And make sure that it… he, is treated with respect.'
'Of course, sir.'
The legate walked towards the gate, head down in silent contemplation as he thought through the awful implications of what he had discovered in the pouch. The general's family were now in the hands of the Druids. The same Druids who were spreading such terror through the border villages and trading settlements of the Atrebates. How had they been taken? The Britons boasted no ships that could overwhelm those of the imperial navy. In any case, Maxentius and his passengers would have been making the crossing from Gesoriacum to Rutupiae, well over a hundred miles from the land of the Durotriges and their Druid allies. A storm must have blown the ship far off course. But why hadn't the prefect made an attempt to reach the shores of the Atrebates, rather than let himself be swept so far down the coast to territory ruled by enemies of Rome? For an instant Vespasian cursed the prefect for his folly, before such unworthy feelings for a man who had died so terribly made him feel guilty. Perhaps Maxentius had tried to beach his ship on friendly soil after all, but had been prevented from doing so by the wildness of the storm.
The faint noises of pursuit from the forest abruptly took on a new note. Distant shouts and screams were accompanied by the sharp ring of clashing weapons. Vespasian, and the legionaries of the Sixth Century, turned towards the forest. The sounds of fighting quickly intensified and then died away.
'Form square!' Macro bellowed. 'Close order.' The men reacted at once, and hurried into formation around the body of the prefect. Vespasian pushed his way into the centre and drew his sword. He caught Macro's eye and motioned towards the body and head still lying on the snow. The centurion turned to his men.
'You two! Figulus and Sertorius! Over here.' The selected men broke ranks and trotted over to their centurion.
'Figulus, put him on your shield. The two of you'll have to carry him back to the gate. I'll carry the other shield.'
Figulus looked down at the prefect's bloody body with a look of disgust on his face.
'Don't worry, lad, the blood will come out of the shield lining easily enough. It'll just need a good scrub. Now get to it!'
While the two men bent to their grisly work, Macro turned to Cato. 'You can carry the head.'
'The head?' Cato went pale. 'Me?'
'Yes, you. Pick it up,' Macro snapped, then recalled the legate's presence. 'And, er, make sure you carry it with respect.'
He ignored Cato's glare and hurried over to the legate who was now standing at the edge of the square to get a better look at the forest.
Gritting his teeth, Cato leaned down and reached out a hand towards the prefect's head. At the first touch of the dark wavy hair his fingers recoiled. He swallowed nervously and forced himself to grasp enough hair to ensure a good grip. Then he slowly straightened up, holding the head away from his body, face out. Even so, the glutinous tendrils of sinew and clotting blood hanging from the severed neck made the bile rise in his throat and Cato quickly looked away.
A riderless horse burst out of the trees and galloped back towards the Second Legion's camp. Two more followed, and then another, this time with a scout in the saddle, bent low and kicking his heels, urging his beast towards the Sixth Century. Nothing else emerged from the trees, which remained still and silent.
'I shouldn't have ordered a pursuit,' Vespasian said quietly.
The legate turned towards Macro, eyebrows clenched together angrily at the implied criticism. But he knew the centurion was right. He should have thought. Vespasian felt sickened by the ease with which he had ordered the scouts to their doom.
Just short of the shields of the Sixth Century the surviving scout savagely reined in his horse, which reared up with a terrified whinny and kicked up a spray of snow. The scout released the reins and tumbled from his saddle.
'He's wounded!' shouted Macro. 'Get him behind the shields! Quickly!'
The nearest men ran out, grabbed the scout and dragged him inside the square. He slumped down, clasping a hand to his stomach where the bloody tear in his tunic revealed a long slash, cutting deep enough to expose some intestines. Macro knelt down to examine the injury. He grabbed the hem of the scout's cloak and made a cut in it with his dagger. Then he sheathed the blade and tore off a broad strip. Hurriedly, he worked it round the scout and tied the ends tightly. The man cried out and then clamped his teeth shut.
'There! That'll do until we can get him to the surgeons.'
'What happened?' Vespasian bent over the scout. 'Report, man! What happened to you?'
'Sir, there was scores of 'em… waiting for us inside the forest… We was following them down a trail… then suddenly they came at us on all sides, shrieking like wild animals… Didn't stand a chance… Cut us to pieces.' For a moment the scout's eyes widened in terror at the vivid memory of the terrifying enemy. Then his eyes refocused on the legate. 'I was at the back of the column, sir. Soon as I saw we'd had it, I tried to turn my mount. But the trail was narrow, my horse was scared and wouldn't turn. Then one of them Druids burst out of the forest and swung his sickle into me… I got him with my spear, sir! Got him good!' The scout's eyes gleamed with savage triumph before twisting shut as a wave of pain wracked him.
'That's enough now, lad' Vespasian said gently. 'Save the rest for your official report, once the surgeons have sorted you out.'
Eyes tightly clenched, the scout nodded.
'Centurion, give me a hand here.' Vespasian reached under the scout's shoulders and carefully lifted the man. 'Help me get him onto my back.'
'On your back, sir? Shall I get one of the men to do it instead, sir?'
'Damn it, man! I'll carry him.'
Macro shrugged, and did as he was told. The scout put his arms round the legate's neck and Vespasian leaned forward and supported the man's legs.
'That's it. Macro! Detail a man to lead that horse, then let's get moving.'
Macro gave the order for the century to move towards the camp. In close formation, the century's pace was necessarily slow, however much the men wished to hurry back to the shelter of the camp. In the centre of the square the legate staggered under his burden. To one side Figulus and Sertorius carried the body of Maxentius on Figulus's shield. Beside them walked Cato, staring directly ahead, his aching arm outstretched to keep the head he held as far from his body as possible. Macro, marching at the rear of the square, kept looking back towards the forest, watching for any sign of the Druids and their followers. But nothing moved along the dark treeline and the forest remained absolutely silent.