The hospital orderly cursed under his breath as the sound of the handbell rang down the central corridor of the Legion's infirmary. The patient was being quite impossible. Constantly demanding that messages be sent out, food and wine sent in, fussing that his leg be positioned just so – and moments later asking that it be shifted once again. If it weren't for the fact that he was a centurion, and outranked everyone in the hospital except the surgeon, the orderly would have taken the bell away and let the man stew. But, because he was a centurion, he was entitled to a separate ward, a bell and the undivided attention of any orderly unfortunate enough to be on duty. All the other ranks wounded in the recent fracas with the Germans were crammed into five-bed wards with the lack of privileges accorded to those of low status: enough food to get by and a scheduled visit by the surgeon, or one of his orderlies, to change dressings, pour off drainage and monitor their recovery. Those that had been immobilised by their injuries were provided with bedpans which the orderlies emptied three times a day; the centurion had his emptied as and when he was pleased to relieve himself.
The injury to his leg had been messy and might have been fatal had Macro not tied a tourniquet above the wound. The surgeon had stitched together the ends of the torn muscle and then the skin – leaving a small burr in place to aid drainage of pus from the wound. He had ordered the centurion to remain in bed until the wound was cleaned and well on the way to healing. Then he had calmly smiled at the consequent stream of invective and reassured the centurion that at a pinch the Second Legion could actually manage without him for a few weeks. The surgeon appointed a personal orderly and, with a nod of professional satisfaction at his handiwork, he left the fuming officer and moved on to the scores of other patients Tribune Vitellius had seen fit to provide him with. Most recovered in a few days, some died – much to the surgeon's disgust, taking each death as a personal affront to his skills – and the remainder recovered at a slower pace dictated by the severity of their injuries. He was only grateful that there were no Germans to tend to: those that hadn't committed suicide, or been killed by their own side, had been mercifully despatched on Vespasian's orders. So the hospital was quite free of any foul-smelling barbarians.
The same couldn't be said for the settlement outside the fortress, which was now swollen with the survivors from the village. The lucky ones had managed to beg for shelter from distant relatives and friends who now repaid the smug disdain they had suffered for adapting to Roman ways. The unlucky ones would be forced to spend the winter in an ugly sprawl of crude huts that sprang up on the fringes of the settlement. Many of them would not survive the harsh northern winter but there would be little sympathy for them from either the Romans or those who lived in the settlement and now bore the weight of the legionaries' rekindled suspicion of all things German.
The bell rang again, more loudly this time, and the orderly slowed his pace as he walked down the corridor towards the better-ventilated end rooms reserved for officers.
'Get a bloody move on, man!' Macro bellowed. 'I've been waving this fucking bell about for ages!'
'So sorry to keep you waiting, sir,' the orderly apologised. 'But I'm afraid one of the other patients was dying and I wanted to make sure his effects went to the right friends before he popped off.'
'And will they get them?'
'The lads and I will do our best to see that the leftovers are sent on.'
'After you've had your pickings.'
'Of course, sir.'
'Vultures?' The orderly frowned. 'Just a perk of the job, sir. Now what is it you wanted?'
'Get rid of this.' Macro shoved a bedpan at him. 'And make the fire up. It's freezing in here.'
'Yes, sir.' The orderly nodded as he carefully carried the bedpan over to a low table and set it down. 'Nice day out, sir. Clear blue sky and still air.'
'Oh, is it? Thanks for letting me know. But it's still freezing in here.'
'Not freezing, sir. Just well ventilated. It's good for you.'
'How can it be good? If the wound doesn't get me, the cold will.'
The orderly smiled at that comforting thought as he placed more fuel on the glowing embers in the brazier and blew gently on them to encourage some flames.
'Right, that's fine. Now take the bedpan and piss off.'
'Yes, sir.' The orderly collected the chamber pot and, holding it carefully, made for the door to the corridor. Without any warning, Cato strode into the room and the orderly nimbly stepped to one side without spilling a drop. He tutted at the optio as Cato closed the door behind him.
The optio stood over the bed and smiled down. 'It's good to see you, sir.'
'For the first time in three days.'
'It's been busy without you, sir. I've been trying to keep the century in good order while you recover. How's the leg?'
'Stiff, and it hurts like buggery whenever I try to move it. But the quacks seem to think I'm well on the mend.'
'You look better than the last time I saw you.'
'That was nothing, just some minor infection. The surgeon reckons it's almost gone.'
'When will you be back on duty, sir?'
The non sequitur and the anxiety behind it were not lost on the centurion. He regarded Cato silently while the wood in the brazier hissed softly.
'I'd have thought a young optio might be enjoying the opportunity of having his first command.'
'I am, sir.'
'But…' Macro coaxed.
'I had no idea how much there was to do. There's the drilling to organise, barracks inspections, equipment checks, and then there's all the paperwork.'
'You should leave that to Piso. I do.'
'Yes, he's been very helpful, sir. He insisted on handling it. But we've just had orders to conduct a full inventory of equipment and non-portable personal items. And, to make matters worse, headquarters has ordered all money above ten sestertii to be banked by the end of the week. Is it always as hectic as this, sir?' Cato asked helplessly.
So the Legion was to be moved in the near future then. The order restricting personal holdings of coinage was to limit the marching load of a legionary, and all non-portable goods would be inventoried for storage or sale. If the latter, then the Legion's transfer was likely to be long term. Interesting. But then, Macro considered, it was likely that the wounded would have to travel in carts and the prospect of the uncomfortable bumps and jolts that that implied filled him with dread. Marching might be tiring, but it was all good exercise and far more comfortable than jolting around on the flat bed of a legionary transport wagon.
'Any word on where we're being sent?'
'Nothing official, sir, but I've heard rumours that we're going to join an army being assembled to invade Britain.'
'Britain! What emperor in his right mind would want to add that dump to the Empire? Wild, savage and filled with bogs – if what I hear is true. Britain! That's ridiculous.'
'That's what I heard,' Cato said defensively. 'And in any case, what emperor is in his right mind these days?'
'Fair point!' Macro lightened up. 'Look, all this admin you're complaining about. It's what running a century is all about. You're just going to have to cope with it, or get Piso to.'
'It's not really the paperwork that's getting me down, sir,' Cato said uncomfortably.
'What is it then?'
'Well, it's the command side of things. I just can't seem to carry off the business of giving people orders.'
'What do you mean?'
Cato shuffled his feet, shamefaced, as he attempted to formulate the problem. 'I know I'm an optio and that means the men have to obey me, but that doesn't mean that they take kindly to having a – well, if I'm honest – a kid telling them what to do. It's not that they don't obey me, they do. Nobody's calling me a coward any more, but they haven't got much respect for me.'
'I'm sure they haven't. It doesn't come automatically – it has to be earned. It's the same for every new officer. The men will obey because they are accustomed to. The trick is to get them to obey willingly and to do that you need to earn their trust. Then they'll respect you.'
'But how do I do that, sir?'
'You stop whining for a start. Then you begin to act like an optio.'
'I can't, sir.'
'What do you mean can't? Can! Fucking will!' Macro propped himself up on his elbows, wincing as he shifted his leg to a more comfortable position.
'Now then, put some more wood on that fire – some dry stuff – before the bloody thing goes out. And shut the window.'
'Are you sure, sir? Fresh air's supposed to speed recovery.'
'Maybe air that's not quite so fresh. The only thing that window's speeding is exposure, so shut it now.'
'Yes, sir.' Cato quickly obeyed the order and then carefully selected the driest wood he could find for the brazier.
'Did you notice?' Macro asked.
'How you instantly did what I said?'
'That's what I'm talking about. It's the tone of voice. You need to practise giving orders a while before it feels natural. But once you're there it's a doddle – comes as easy as breathing.'
'If you say so, sir.'
'I do. Now then, what's the news?' Macro eased himself back on the bed so that he was propped up against the bolster. With the window closed the red glow of the brazier added to what little light there was filtering through the shutters. 'Pull up the stool and fill me in. What else have you been up to?'
Cato shifted uneasily. 'I was summoned to headquarters this morning by the legate.'
'Oh yes?' Macro smiled. 'And what did Vespasian have to say?'
'Not much… He's investing me with a decoration, a grass crown. I'm not quite sure why.'
'Because I recommended it,' smiled Macro. 'You saved my life, remember? Even if you did nearly lose the standard while you were at it. You deserve it, and once you get the phalera attached to your harness I think you'll find the men will go easier on you. All good soldiers respect well-earned decorations. How's it feel to be a hero?'
Cato blushed, grateful that the uncomfortable glow in his cheeks was lost in the flickering orange of the brazier. 'Frankly, I feel a bit of a fraud.'
'Why on earth?'
'I can't be a hero on the strength of one battle.'
'Hardly a battle. More of a skirmish actually.'
'Precisely, sir. A skirmish, and one in which I only managed to injure an enemy by accident. Hardly the stuff of heroes.'
'Killing men in battle doesn't necessarily make you a hero,' Macro gently reassured him. 'Admittedly it does help and the more bodies you pile up the better. But there are other ways to be heroic. All the same, I wouldn't go around blabbing about not having knocked a few Germans on the head if I were you. Look, you didn't have to come back for me but you chose to – against the odds. In my book that takes guts and I'm glad you're with us.'
Cato stared at him, searching for the least sign of irony in his superior's face. 'Do you really mean that, sir?'
'Of course. Have I yet said anything to you I didn't mean?'
'There you are then. So take it at face value and don't get sentimental on me. I take it there'll be an investiture?'
'Yes, sir. The legate's holding a parade two days from now. There are a number of decorations to hand out, including one for Vitellius.'
'Oh really?' Macro interrupted sourly. 'I'm sure that'll look good on his CV when he gets back to Rome.'
'Then there's a private dinner in the evening. He's invited all officers who served with the Third cohort that day in the village, those of us who survived, that is.'
'Should be rather cosy and intimate then. Typical of Vespasian; always the grand gesture on the cheap.'
'He insisted that you be there as well, sir.'
'Me?' Macro shrugged and pointed at his leg. 'And how am I supposed to attend?'
'That's what I asked the legate, sir.'
'You did? What did he say?'
'He'll send a litter for you.'
'A litter? That's great. I get to play the invalid all night long and have to chase up some social conversation. It'll be a bloody nightmare.'
'Then don't go, sir.'
'Don't go?' Macro raised his eyebrows. 'My lad, a polite invitation from a commander of a legion carries somewhat more weight than a writ issued by Jupiter himself.'
Cato smiled and rose to his feet. 'I'd better go now. Is there anything I can get you for next time? Some reading matter perhaps?'
'No thanks. Need to give my eyes a break. You might bring me a jar of wine and a dice set. I need to improve my technique.'
'Dice.' Cato was vaguely disappointed as he disapproved of those who refused to accept that dice fell randomly – straight dice at least. He nodded and made to leave.
'One more thing!' Macro called after him as he strode out of the ward.
'Remind Piso he owes me five sestertii.'