An icy blast of wind swept into the latrine with the sentry.
'Wagon's approaching, sir!'
'Shut the bloody door! Anything else?'
'Small column of men.'
'Hardly.' The sentry grimaced. 'Unless there's been some change in marching drill.'
The duty centurion glanced up sharply. 'I don't recall asking for an opinion on policy, soldier.'
'No, sir!' The sentry snapped to attention under the glare of his superior. Only a few months earlier Lucius Cornelius Macro had been an optio and was still finding promotion to the centurionate hard to handle. His former comrades in the ranks were still inclined to treat him as an equal. It was hard to register a respectful attitude to one who so recently had been seen emptying his guts of a skinful of cheap wine. But, for some months before the promotion, Macro had been aware that senior officers were considering him for the first available vacancy in the centurionate and had done his best to keep indiscretions to a minimum. For, when all his qualities were placed in the balance, Macro was a good soldier – when good soldiering was required – conscientious in his duties, reliably obedient to orders and he could be counted on to hold firm in a fight and inspire others to do the same.
Macro suddenly realised that he had been gazing at the sentry for a while and that the legionary was shifting uncomfortably under his scrutiny, as one tends to in front of a silently staring superior. And officers could be such unpredictable bastards, the sentry thought nervously, first whiff of power and they either don't know what to do with it, or they insist on giving bloody-minded and stupid orders.
'What are your orders, sir?'
'Orders?' Macro frowned for a moment. 'All right then. I'll come. You get back to the gate.'
'Yes, sir.' The sentry turned and hurriedly made his way out of the junior officers' latrine block, pulling the door to as the half-dozen centurions glared after him. It was an unwritten rule that no-one, but no-one, permitted their men to interrupt proceedings in the latrine. Macro applied the sponge stick, pulled up his breeches and apologised to the other centurions before hurrying outside.
It was a filthy night and a cold northerly wind was blowing the rain down from the German forests. It swept across the Rhine, over the fortress walls and was funnelled into icy blasts between the barrack blocks. Macro suspected that he was keenly disapproved of by his newfound peers and was determined to prove them wrong. Not that this resolution was working out terribly successfully. The administrative duties relating to the command of eighty men were proving to be a nightmare – ration-collection details, latrine rotas, sentry rotas, weapons inspections, barrack inspections, punishment ledgers, equipment procurement chits, arranging fodder for the section mules, taking charge of pay, savings and the funeral club.
The only help available for carrying out these duties came in the form of the century's clerk, a wizened old cove named Piso, who Macro suspected of being dishonest or simply incompetent. Macro had no way of finding out for himself, because he was all but illiterate. Brought up with only the most rudimentary knowledge of letters and numbers he could recognise most individually, but more than that was impossible. And now he was a centurion, a rank for whom literacy was a prerequisite. Doubtless the legate had naturally assumed Macro could read and write when he approved the appointment. If it came to light that he was no more literate than a Campanian farm boy, Macro knew he would be demoted at once. So far he had managed to get round the problem by delegating the paperwork to Piso and claiming that his other duties were keeping him too busy, but he was sure that the clerk had begun to suspect the truth. He shook his head as he trudged over to the fortress gate, pulling his red cloak tightly about him.
It was a dark night, made darker by the low clouds that completely obscured the sky; a sure sign that snow was on the way. From the gloom about him, Macro could hear a variety of sounds typical of the fortress existence that had been part of his life for over fourteen years now. Mules brayed from stables at the far end of each barrack block and the voices of soldiers, talking and shouting, drifted out through the wavering light of candlelit windows. A bellow of laughter peeled out of a barrack block he was passing, followed by a lighter female laugh. Macro halted mid-stride and listened. Someone had managed to sneak a woman into the base. The woman laughed again and then began speaking in thickly accented Latin and was quickly hushed by her companion. This was a flagrant breach of regulations and Macro abruptly turned towards the block and laid his hand on the latch. Then paused, thinking. By rights he should burst in, loudly bellowing in parade-ground fashion, send the soldier to the guard-house, and have the woman thrown out of the base. But that meant completing an entry in the punishment book – more bloody writing.
Gritting his teeth, Macro released his grip and quietly stepped back into the street, just as the woman let out a shriek of laughter to prick his conscience. A quick glance about to make sure that no-one else was there to witness his failure to act and Macro hurried on towards the south gate. Bloody soldier deserved a good kicking, and if he had been in Macro's century that's how he'd have been dealt with; no paperwork needed, just a swift kick in the balls to ensure the punishment fitted the crime. Still, from her voice she could only have been one of those nasty German tarts from the native settlement that sprawled just outside the base. Macro consoled himself with the thought of the legionary concerned coming down with a bad dose of the clap.
Although the streets were dark, Macro moved instinctively in the right direction since no legionary base deviated from the standard design used in all camps and fortresses. In a matter of minutes, he had emerged on to the wider thoroughfare of the Via Praetoria and marched towards the gate where the street passed through the walls to the south of the base. The sentry who had interrupted Macro at the latrine was waiting at the foot of the stairs. He led the way into the gatehouse and up the narrow wooden staircase to the battlement level, where a lit brazier cast a warm red glow around the sentry room. Four legionaries were squatting close to the fire playing dice. As soon as they saw the centurion's head appear above the stairs they stood to attention.
'Easy lads,' Macro said. 'Carry on.'
The wooden door to the battlements sprang inwards with the wind as Macro lifted the latch and the brazier blazed momentarily as he stepped outside and slammed the door to. Up on the sentry walk the wind was biting and whipped Macro's cloak behind him, tugging at the clasp on his left shoulder. He shuddered and snatched it back, holding it tightly about his body.
The sentry peered out through the crenellations into the darkness and pointed his javelin at a tiny flickering light swinging from the back of a wagon approaching from the south. Straining his eyes as he stared into the wind, Macro could make out the outline of the wagon and, behind it, a body of men plodding along the track. At the rear of the column came the more orderly progress of the escort whose job was to stop the stragglers slowing the pace. Maybe two hundred men in all.
'Shall I call out the guard, sir?'
Macro turned towards the sentry. 'What did you say?'
'Shall I call out the guard, sir?'
Macro eyed the man wearily. Syrus was one of the youngest men in the century and, although Macro had learned the names of most of his command, he knew little of their characters or histories as yet. 'Been in the army long?'
'No, sir. Only a year in December.'
Not long out of training then, Macro thought. A stickler for regulations, which he no doubt applied in every circumstance. He'd learn in time; how to compromise between following strict procedure and doing what was needed to get by.
'So then, why do we need to call out the guard?'
'Regulations, sir. If an unidentified body of men is approaching the camp in force the guard century should be called out to man the gate and adjacent walls.'
Macro raised his eyebrows in surprise. The quotation was word perfect. Syrus clearly took his training seriously. 'And what then?'
'What happens next?'
'The duty centurion, after assessing the situation determines whether or not to call a general alarm,' Syrus continued tonelessly, then hurriedly added, 'Sir.'
'Good man.' Macro smiled and the sentry smiled back in relief, before Macro turned back towards the approaching column. 'Now then, exactly how threatening do you think that lot is? Do they scare you, soldier? Do you think all two hundred of them are going to charge over here, climb the walls and slaughter every mother's son of the Second Legion… Well, do you?'
The sentry looked at Macro, looked carefully at the flickering lights for a new moments and then turned back sheepishly. 'I don't think so.'
'I don't think so, sir,' said Macro gruffly as he punched the lad on the shoulder.
'Tell me, Syrus. Did you attend the sentry briefing before the watch?'
'Of course, sir.'
'Did you pay attention to every detail?'
'I think so, sir.'
'Then you would recall me saying that a replacement convoy was due to arrive at the base, wouldn't you? And then you wouldn't have had to haul me out of the latrine and spoil a particularly good shit.'
The sentry was crestfallen and he could not bear the long-suffering expression on his centurion's face. 'I'm sorry, sir. Won't happen again.'
'You see that it doesn't. Or I'll have you on double duties for the rest of the year. Now get the rest of the lads ready at the gate. I'll deal with the recognition call.'
Shamefaced, the sentry saluted and went back into the gatehouse. Soon Macro could hear the sounds of the guard rousing themselves and descending the wooden stairs to the main gate. Macro smiled. The lad was keen and felt guilty about his mistake. Guilty enough to make sure that it never happened again. That was good. That's how dependable soldiers were made – there was no such thing as a born soldier, Macro reflected.
A sudden blast of wind buffeted Macro and he retreated into the shelter of the gatehouse. Inside he positioned himself close to the glowing brazier and let out a sigh of relief as the warmth soaked into his body. After a few moments, Macro opened the small viewing shutter and looked out into the night. The convoy was nearer now and he could make out the wagon in detail as well as the individual men in the following column. A miserable bunch of recruits, he thought, not an ounce of spirit in them. You could tell that by the apathetic way they trudged along, even though they were in sight of shelter.
Then it began to rain, quite suddenly, large drops flung diagonally by the wind that stung the skin. Even that failed to increase the pace of the convoy and, with a despairing shake of the head, Macro began the formalities. He opened the main shutter, leaned his head out of the window and filled his lungs.
'Halt there!' he shouted. 'Identify yourselves!'
The wagon reined in a hundred feet from the wall and a figure beside the driver rose to reply. 'Reinforcement convoy from Aventicum and escort, Lucius Batiacus Bestia commanding.'
'Password?' Macro demanded even though he knew Bestia well enough, the senior centurion of the Second Legion and therefore very much his superior.
'Hedgehog. Permission to approach?'
With a crack of the whip the wagoneer urged the bullocks up the rise that led to the gateway and Macro crossed over to the shutter that opened on to the inside of the fort. Down below, the sentries were clustered by the sidegate trying to keep out of the rain.
'Open the gate,' Macro called down. One of the soldiers quickly drew out the locking pin and the others slid the beam back into the recess. With a heavy wooden groan, the gates were pulled open just as the wagon reached the top of the rise, its momentum carrying it through the gate into the base. Looking down from the guardhouse, Macro watched the wagon draw up to one side. Bestia jumped down from the driver's bench and waved his vine cane at the sodden procession of new recruits passing by.
'Come on, you bastards! Move! Quickly now! The sooner you're in, the sooner you can get warm and dry.'
The recruits, who had followed the wagon for over two hundred miles, automatically began to mill round it once inside the gate. Most wore travelling cloaks and carried their few belongings in blankets tied across the shoulder. The poorest recruits had nothing, some didn't even have cloaks, and they shivered miserably as the wind drove the freezing rain at them. At the rear stood a small chain-gang of criminals who had opted for the army rather than remain in prison.
Bestia immediately waded into the growing crowd with his cane, beating a clear space for himself.
'Don't just stand there like a herd of sheep! Make way for some real soldiers. Get over to the far side of the street and line up facing this way. NOW!'
The last of the recruits stumbled in through the gate and followed the rest to take up an uneven line opposite the wagon. Finally the escort marched in, twenty men in step, who halted simultaneously at one word of command from Bestia. He paused for effect to let the implicit comparison sink in as Macro ordered the sentries to shut the gate and return to their duties. Bestia turned back to the recruits, legs astride and hands on hips.
'Those men,' Bestia nodded over his shoulder, 'belong to the Second Legion – the Augusta – the toughest in the entire Roman army, and you'd better not forget it. There is no barbarian tribe, however remote, who hasn't heard of us and who doesn't live in mortal fear of us. The Second has killed more of these scum, and conquered more of their land, than any other unit. We have been able to do this because we train men to be the meanest, dirtiest, hardest fighters in the civilised world… You, on the other hand, are soft, worthless piles of shit. You are not even men. You are the lowest fucking form of life that ever claimed to be Roman. I despise each and every last fucking one of you, and I will weed out every worthless piece of scum so that only the best join my beloved Second Legion and serve under our eagle. I've watched you all the way from Aventicum – and, ladies, I'm not impressed. You signed up and now you are all mine. I will train you, I will hurt you, I will make men of you. Then – if and when I decide you are ready – then I will let you become a legionary. If any one of you doesn't give me every last shred of energy and commitment then I will break him – with this.' He held the gnarled vine cane aloft for all to see. 'Do you shits understand?'
There was a murmured assent from the recruits, some of whom were so tired they just nodded.
'What was that supposed to be?' Bestia shouted angrily. 'I can hardly fucking hear you!'
He moved into the crowd and grabbed a recruit roughly by the collar of his travelling cloak. Macro noticed for the first time that this recruit was dressed differently from the others. The cut of his cloak was unmistakably expensive – no matter how much mud was caked on to it. The recruit was taller than the rest, but thin and delicate-looking – just the kind of victim to make an example of.
'What the hell is this? What the fuck is a recruit doing with a better cloak than I can afford? You steal it, boy?'
'No,' the recruit replied calmly. 'A friend gave it to me.'
Bestia slammed his vine cane into the boy's stomach and the recruit doubled over and slumped to the ground, hands splashing into a puddle. Bestia stood over him, cane raised for another blow.
'Whenever you open your mouth you call me sir! Understand?'
Macro watched the young man gasp for air as he tried to reply, then Bestia swung the cane down on his back and the boy yelped.
'I said, do you understand?'
'Yes, s-sir!' the recruit cried out.
'That's better. Now, let's see what else you've got.'
The centurion grabbed the blanket carrier and wrenched it free. The contents spilled out on to the muddy ground; some spare clothes, a small flask, some bread, two scrolls and a leather-bound writing set.
'What the…?' The centurion stared down at the last of the contents. Then he slowly looked up at the new recruit. 'What's this?'
'My writing materials, sir!'
'Writing materials? What does a legionary want with writing materials?'
'I promised my friends in Rome I'd write, sir.'
'Your friends?' Bestia grinned. 'No mother to write to? No father, eh?'
'Know his name?'
'Of course, sir. He was…'
'Quiet!' Bestia interrupted. 'I don't give a toss who he was. Here, you're all bastards as far as I'm concerned. So then, what's your name, bastard?'
'Quintus Licinius Cato… sir.'
'Well then, Cato, I know only two types of legionary who can write – spies and those who think they're so bloody wonderful they're going to be officers. Which are you?'
The recruit eyed him warily. 'Neither, sir.'
'Then you won't need this stuff, will you?' Bestia kicked the writing kit and the scrolls towards the drainage gully in the middle of the street.
'What did you say?' The centurion spun round, cane at the ready. 'What did you say to me?'
'I said careful, sir. One of those scrolls is a personal message for the legate.'
'A personal message for the legate! Well, I…'
With a grin, Macro saw that the grizzled centurion was momentarily floored; he'd heard it all before, every excuse, every explanation – but not this one. What on earth could a recruit be doing with a letter for the legate? A first-class mystery, and one that had knocked Bestia off his perch. Not for long though – the centurion stabbed his cane towards the scrolls.
'Bloody well pick that stuff up and bring it here. Just arrived here and you're already messing the base up! Fucking recruits,' he grumbled. 'You make me puke. Well, you heard me. Pick it up!'
As the tall recruit leant down to retrieve his belongings Bestia barked out a series of orders, assigning batches of recruits to members of the escort to be guided to their units.
'Now, get moving! NOT YOU!' Bestia shouted at the lone recruit, who had managed to stuff his belongings back into his pack and had turned towards the safety of the others standing in the pouring rain. 'Over here! What are the rest of you staring at?'
The escort legionaries started to tell off their charges. While the recruits were cajoled and herded into groups, Bestia snatched the scroll Cato held out to him. Taking care to keep it out of the rain as much as possible, he read the address waxed on to it. He checked the seal as well, rechecked the address and paused a moment to consider his next step. He happened to glance up at the gate and saw Macro grinning. That settled it.
'Macro! Get your arse down here.'
Moments later, Macro was standing to attention in front of Bestia, blinking as the rain dripped down from the brim of his helmet into his eyes.
'This seems genuine.' Bestia wagged the scroll under the junior officer's nose. 'I want you to take this and escort our friend here to headquarters.'
'I'm on sentry duty.'
'Well then, I'll relieve you till you get back. Get going.'
Bastard! Macro swore silently. Bestia had no idea of the letter's significance, or whether it was even genuine. But he dare not take the risk. Communications to legates took strange routes these days, even from the highest sources. Better to let someone else take the blame if the letter proved to be worthless.
'Yes, sir,' Macro replied bitterly as he accepted the scroll.
'Don't be too long, Macro. I've got a warm bed waiting for me.'
Bestia strode off to the gatehouse and climbed the stairs to the shelter of the sentry room. Macro glared after him. Then turned to have a good look at the new recruit who was causing him to make a long trek to the headquarters building through the driving rain. He had to look up to examine the lad who was nearly a foot taller man himself. Under the brim of the travelling cloak, a mop of black hair had been flattened into straggling trails by the rain. Below a flat brow, a pair of piercing brown eyes in deep sockets glinted either side of a long thin nose. The boy's mouth was clamped shut, but the bottom lip trembled slightly. Although the clothes were soaked and splattered with mud from the long journey from the depot at Aventicum, they were of a surprisingly good quality. As for the writing set, the books and this letter for the legate… Well, this recruit was something else. Clearly no stranger to money but, if so, then why the hell join the army?
'Cato, wasn't it?'
'I'm also called sir.' Macro smiled.
Cato stiffened into an approximation of the attention position and Macro laughed. 'At ease, boy. At ease. You're not on parade until tomorrow morning. Now let's get this letter delivered.'
Macro gave the boy a gentle push away from the gate in the direction of the centre of the base, where the headquarters block loomed in the distance. As they walked, he looked at the letter in detail for the first time and let out a low whistle.
'Know what this seal is?'
'Yes – sir. The imperial seal.'
'And why would the imperial service use a recruit as a courier?'
'I've no idea, sir,' Cato replied.
'Who is it from?'
Macro choked back an exclamation. The boy really had his attention now. What the hell was the Emperor doing sending an imperial despatch via a bloody legionary recruit? Unless there was more to this boy than met the eye. Macro decided an uncommonly tactful approach was required if he was to discover more.
'Forgive my asking, but what are you doing here?'
'Doing here, sir? Joining the army, sir.'
'But why?' Macro persisted.
'It's to do with my father, sir. He was in the imperial service before his death.'
'What did he do?'
When the boy didn't answer, Macro turned and saw that his head was bowed low and his expression troubled. 'Well?'
'He was a slave, sir.' The embarrassment of the admission was clear, even to a bluff fellow like Macro. 'Before Tiberius manumitted him. I was born shortly before.'
'That's tough.' Macro sympathised; freed status did not apply to existing heirs. 'I take it you were manumitted soon after. Did your father buy you?'
'He wasn't allowed to, sir. For some reason Tiberius wouldn't let him. My father died a few months ago. In his will, he begged that I be set free on condition that I continue to serve the Empire. Emperor Claudius agreed, provided that I join the army, and here I am.'
'Hmmmm. Not much of a deal.'
'I don't agree, sir. I'm free now. Better than being a slave.'
'You really think so?' Macro smiled. It seemed like a poor exchange in status: the comforts of the palace with the hardship of life in the army – and the occasional opportunity to risk life and limb in battle. Macro had heard that some of the wealthiest and most powerful men in Rome were to be found amongst the slaves and freedmen employed in the imperial service.
'Anyway, sir,' Cato concluded, with a touch of bitterness. 'I didn't have any choice in the matter.'