The Sixth century marched through lush Gaul countryside bursting with the fresh buds of spring. The legionaries joked and chatted happily – with occasional raucous bursts of lewd singing to while away the day. And this mode persisted despite the pace that Macro had set, for he was eager to reach his destination as soon as possible and offload the imperial secretary before the latter tempted Macro to some act of violence. Narcissus had lost no opportunity to make barbed comments about the army in general, and its soldiers and Macro in particular. The centurion would dearly have loved to smack the smug bastard in the mouth just once, to emphasise the fact that you simply did not behave in such a fashion: 'When in Rome do as the Romans do, but when you're in the army keep your mouth shut and show some fucking respect.'
He smiled at the thought but knew it could never be voiced aloud, let alone face to face with a close friend and confidante of the Emperor. And so he had to sullenly endure the sarcasm and criticism in apparent good spirit – the fate of all those exposed to insecure arrivistes. Cato fared somewhat better at the hands of their tormentor since their common background provided a basis for conversation, even though Narcissus made it perfectly clear that, whatever the past, a huge social gulf now existed between them. Fortunately, the only opportunity for conversation occurred at rests in the march and at the end of the day when the century camped for the night. In between, Macro and Cato led the column from the front, though a smoother-tongued, more ambitious officer would have marched by the imperial secretary's litter to engage him in conversation and use every opportunity for flattery. After the first day, Macro insisted that he inspect his troop's equipment at each break in the march. The men regarded this zealous display of duty with curiosity, silently shaking their heads as the centurion tugged at equipment straps and checked that their weapons were being properly maintained.
On the evening of the third day of their escort duty Macro calculated that they would reach the coast the following evening, thanks to the extended length of the marching day that had been possible for the small formation. If they started just before dawn and really pushed the pace they should make the main body of the army by nightfall.
'Very good, Centurion.' Narcissus nodded approvingly. 'And an arrival in the darkness will attract less attention. That would be better in the present circumstances.'
Cato and Macro exchanged a look; precisely what the present circumstances were was still a mystery. Narcissus had said nothing to enlighten them over the last three days and Macro was a good enough soldier not to question his orders. He was also human enough not to want to give the imperial secretary the satisfaction of turning down a direct request for information. A more subtle tactic was required, thought Macro.
'More wine, sir?' He held out the jug, with a forced smile.
This time it was Cato and Narcissus who exchanged a look, surprised at the transparency of the centurion's approach. Narcissus laughed.
'Yes please, Centurion. But I'm afraid it'll take more wine than we have with us to loosen my tongue. You'll just have to wait.'
Macro's blush was visible even by the glow of the fire. The night air was still chilly and the fire and hot meal at the end of each day was greatly appreciated before the men turned in. The food that Piso had managed to wangle for the century had come from the staff officers' stores, as Vespasian was anxious to create a good impression on the distinguished guest. A rich stew of venison and spring vegetables was being mopped from the silver plates that Narcissus's bodyguard produced from one of the chests. Macro had eaten a double portion and smacked his lips before wiping them on the back of his hairy hand. He caught the disapproving gaze of the other two and shrugged as he knocked back the last of his wine before refilling the cup.
'It's good to see a man enjoy his food,' Narcissus remarked with a sly smile. 'Even if it is only such rude morsels as are provided for the common soldiery. I must say, I almost feel like one of you as we share the hardships of the march, iron rations and outdoor living in the wilds of untamed Gaul.'
'Untamed Gaul?' Macro's eyebrows rose. 'What's so untamed about it?'
'Did you notice any theatres as we passed through Durocortorum? Have we passed any great landscaped estates? The only things I've seen are a handful of struggling farms and a few shabby inns. That's what I mean by untamed, Centurion.'
'Nothing untamed about inns,' Macro replied gruffly.
'Not as such, no. But look at that foul beverage they sell as wine. I wouldn't even use it as a salad dressing.'
'You're drinking it now,' Macro pointed out.
'Only under the strictest sufferance. And you did rather force it on me. Maybe I'll reveal all to avoid inflicting any more on my poor stomach.'
'So make it easy on yourself, sir,' Cato said with a grin. 'And tell us why you're going to Gesoriacum. It can't be to oversee the invasion – all the plans for that must have been made months ago. Something's gone wrong, hasn't it?'
Narcissus looked at him, carefully weighing his thoughts. 'Yes. I can't say too much. I won't. But everything is at stake. I have to reach Gesoriacum – alive. I have certain information for General Plautius. If anything happens to me, I doubt that there will be an invasion, and if there's no invasion then there might be no Emperor in short order.' Narcissus saw the incredulity that his words produced, and he leaned closer to the others, half his face thrown into flickering shadow. 'The Empire is in great danger, greater than it has ever been. Even now there are still some fools in the Senate who think they're capable of running the Empire. They never cease trying to undermine the Emperor – that's why I have to get to Gesoriacum. There are some who say Claudius is a cruel simpleton.' He smiled sadly. 'I'm sorry if it surprises you to hear me say that. And it might even be true. But he's the only Emperor we have and the Julio-Claudian dynasty may well end with him.'
'I've heard some people argue that it might be as well if it did,' Cato said.
'And then what?' Narcissus asked bitterly. 'A return to the Republic? How would that benefit us? Back to the old factions fighting it out in the Senate with words, and then letting it spill out on to the streets with violence, until the whole of the civilised world is torn apart by civil war. To read the pious nonsense republican historians write you'd think that the days of Sulla, Julius Caesar, Mark Antony and their breed marked some kind of golden age. Well, let me tell you, those "heroes" marched into history over the bodies of three generations of Roman citizens. We need the Emperors, we need the stability of one authority dominating the state. We Romans are no longer capable of anything else.'
'All right, we freedmen and the Romans,' conceded Narcissus. 'I admit that my fate is bound up with the Emperor's. Without his patronage, some senator or other would rouse the mob and I'd be torn apart in a matter of days. My destruction would just be the start. Even you people out here on the frontier would suffer the consequences.'
'Makes no difference to me who is in power,' said Macro. 'I'm just a soldier. There will always be an army and that's all that matters.'
'Maybe. But what kind of an army? If Claudius falls you'll still get your war – but it'll be fought against Romans. You may even be called upon to fight men you now regard as friends. Maybe even each other. Think about it. And then give thanks for the Emperor.'
Cato looked across at his centurion, whose eyes glinted in the light of the fire. The optio smiled unsteadily as he turned back to Narcissus.
'You're testing us, aren't you? To see how we respond.'
'Of course I am,' Narcissus readily admitted. 'A man has to know where other people stand on the fundamental issues.'
'Just as well we kept our peace,' Macro laughed.
'Silence can be every bit as incriminating as the spoken word, Centurion. But I doubt whether you, or the optio here, constitute much of a threat to the Emperor. So you're both safe… for now.'
Macro glanced nervously at his optio for reassurance that the imperial secretary was joking with them. But the frozen stare of the young lad was enough to still any attempt at obsequious laughter.
'Anyhow, enough of that.' Narcissus drained his silver cup of the last remnants and set it down in front of the flask of wine. 'One last drink for the road and then to sleep. You know, it's quite a liberating thing to be away from all the intrigues of Rome. A man could get used to this life of yours. I propose a toast,' he said as Macro half-filled the cup proffered to him, and then the centurion filled his to the brim.
'To the good life!' Narcissus raised his cup. 'To the army, who-'
An arrow whistled out of the darkness and the imperial secretary screamed as his cup flew off into the night to clatter down against a rock. Narcissus held his drinking hand tightly against his chest as his face contorted with agony.
'What?' Cato began.
'To arms! TO ARMS!' Macro roared, throwing down his cup. He sprang to his feet and ran to gather his shield and sword propped up against the litter. Only a handful of men had risen to their feet around the century's camp fires when a shower of arrows descended on them. Several were aimed at Narcissus but mercifully missed him, their feathered ends sprouting up in the grass about the fire – and one thudding against a glowing red log, sending a plume of bright sparks swirling into the blackness. The imperial secretary had recovered sufficiently to be aware of the immediate need for self-preservation and he rolled away from the light of the fire towards the century's baggage wagon where he lay flat between the protection of the wheels.
As Cato snatched up his shield and drew his sword, an arrow took a legionary in the back as he struggled to pull his chain-mail shirt over his head. The man grunted as the breath was knocked from him by the impact and he toppled forwards, hands desperately scrabbling for the shaft sunk deep beneath the shoulder blade.
Shield held close to his body, Cato ran over and saw that the injured legionary was starting to cough up frothy gouts of blood.
'Leave him!' Macro shouted and pointed to the other men. 'Get them formed up around the wagon!'
In the flickering red light of the fires, Macro raced through the century kicking men to their feet and pushing them towards the wagon. Some were still dazed and had to have a shield and sword thrust into their hands before they recovered their wits and stumbled off in the direction of the wagon. Two more men had been hit by the time Cato had formed a rough perimeter around the century's baggage wagon, under which the imperial secretary lay, wide-eyed at the action around him. The legionaries knelt down behind their shields as they had been trained to do in the face of missile fire. Except now they wore no armour, merely woollen tunics that would stop neither arrow nor spear-thrust. Most had not been able to strap helmets on and kept their heads ducked down as the arrows continued to whirr in from the darkness, striking shields with a splintering crack. From the nearly flat trajectory, Cato knew their attackers had to be close and tensed himself for a sudden rush. Looking around he saw that he had twenty or so men with him, and more were straggling up from the main line of tents, driven on by Macro.
Suddenly the volley of arrows ceased and, an instant later, there came the wild roar of a battle cry from the darkness all about them. Dark shapes flew out of the night and, in the mid-distance, could be heard the deep thrumming of many hoof beats.
'Stand by to receive cavalry!' Cato shouted. 'Close up on me!'
His little body of men compacted around the wagon just as a score of huge men burst into the lurid glow of the fires, bearded faces contorted by their screams. They wore thick black cloaks, pointed helmets and carried curved cleaver-like swords. They moved into attack with a fierceness few of the Romans had seen before. The first three crashed into the shields and tumbled to the ground in a tangle of cloaks, shields and flailing limbs and were quickly despatched by the other men around them. The rest of the attackers arrived as one body and a desperate fight began in the flickering red and orange light.
The Roman line dissolved at once into a mass of desperate one-on-one fights and Cato, no longer in command of a cohesive body of troops, found himself facing a large, powerfully built enemy, face twisted into a snarl. Sizing up his young opponent in an instant, the attacker screamed as he feinted forward. Cato flinched momentarily, but kept his position, shield raised and short sword poised by his side. Seeing that his attempt to scare Cato into fleeing had failed, the man laughed and swung his sword in an arc at Cato's head. The raised shield took the blow at an angle and the blade clanged off into the ground, gouging up a long divot of turf. The shock of the blow shot pain down Cato's arm from fingertips to shoulder and he cried out. Then, as the momentum of the blow carried the man forward, Cato went down on one knee, twisting to one side to avoid being crushed by his enemy. Savagely, he thrust his sword deep into the warrior's side. He fell forwards on his face with a dull moan, yanking the sword from Cato's hand. Cato thrust his foot against the man's back and tried to jerk the blade free, grimacing with the effort as the dying warrior groaned in agony. But it was no use, the blade was tightly wedged in the man's ribs and would not come free easily. Glancing around, Cato saw that most of the attackers were down, together with a number of Romans.
Close by, one of his men had lost his shield and could only raise his arm against the sword about to be smashed down on his head. With a howl that bordered on an embarrassing scream, Cato threw himself behind his shield into the attacker's back, sending both of them headlong into the grass. By the time he had risen to his feet, the man he had saved had thrust his dagger into the attacker's throat.
As suddenly as the attackers had burst upon them they were gone, and the surviving Romans stood, bewildered by the speed of events.
'What the fuck are you doing?' Macro shouted from close at hand as he ran up to the wagon with the remainder of the men. 'You heard the optio! Close up to face cavalry!'
For a moment, Cato had forgotten about the horses but now they were close and the legionaries hurriedly closed ranks around the wagon, shields interlocking, with swords and javelins held ready.
As suddenly as the first attack had come, the second raced out of the night; a line of horsemen in the same equipment, some still holding horse-bows while others carried long spears, thrusting out from under their arms, all of them crying out their terrifying battle-cry. Macro quickly looked across at Cato to make sure the optio was unhurt.
'Pick up a fucking sword, you idiot!'
Cato realised that he was unarmed and hastily snatched up the nearest weapon – one of the attackers' curved cleavers. It felt strange to a hand used to the weight and balance of the legionary's short sword, but reassuringly heavy.
'Hold steady, lads!' Macro called out. 'Hold steady and we'll live.'
When the horsemen were almost on them they drew up; those who still carried bows drew arrows and waited for a chance to pepper any Roman foolish enough to expose himself while the spear-carriers moved in on the ring of shields. They brought their horses slamming up against the shield wall, throwing the legionaries back against the wagon, while stabbing down with their long bladed spears. The bulk of their horses and fear of the archers kept the Romans crouched down through sheer instinct for self-preservation. A few of them took every chance to thrust their swords into any part of man or horse that came within reach and an occasional cry or shrill neigh told when a blow had struck home. But time was not on the Romans' side; already four men were down on the ground around the wagon and blood was making the grass slippery.
It was all too obvious to Macro what the outcome of the fight would be if they fought defensively; a whittling away of their numbers and one final rush that would overrun the survivors. Just as he realised this, fate intervened in a peculiar way. Two of the horsemen suddenly spied the imperial secretary sheltering beneath the wagon and hurled their horses through the Romans. Leaning down from the saddle, they thrust under the wagon. Narcissus rolled away from their spear tips with a scream. Up jumped Macro, teeth parted in a savage snarl, as he automatically leaped to the imperial secretary's defence. He caught one man by the arm and hauled him bodily from his saddle. A slash of the sword into the man's eyes left him helpless as the centurion snatched up the fallen spear and plunged it into the small of the other attacker's back.
Then Cato, too, was on his feet, kicking at the men nearest him. 'Up and at 'em! Come on, get up! Charge!'
Now all the Romans were running at their attackers echoing Cato's call to the charge. The attackers were momentarily shocked into stillness – a fatal failure of nerve, as it turned out. Moments later, the Roman infantry were in amongst them, knocking them from their saddles and finishing them off as they lay helpless on the ground. The bloody skirmish was quickly over, only a handful of the enemy managing to break away and flee into the night.
Cato leaned on his shield, blood pounding through his veins as he breathed heavily. All about him bodies were strewn around the century's camp fires. Legionaries quickly moved among the prostrate forms to finish off the wounded enemy.
'Stop that!' Narcissus shouted as he scrabbled out from under the wagon. 'Don't kill them!'
The shrill tone of his voice caused the men to pause in their grisly work, swords poised, waiting for Macro to countermand this ridiculous instruction.
'Don't kill them?' Macro was astonished. 'These bastards were about to gut you. And us!'
'Centurion, we must have prisoners! We must find out who is responsible for the attack.'
Macro could see the sense of what Narcissus was saying. He wiped his sword clean on the cloak of one of the attackers before sliding it back into his scabbard. 'Lads! If any of these bastards are still breathing drag them over here. Section leaders! Call the roll of your men, all returns to the optio at once!'
Later, while the Roman injured groaned and cried at the rough first-aid that was meted out to them by their inexpert comrades, Macro gazed down angrily at the three warriors sitting sullenly at his feet. Cato emerged from the night.
'What's the butcher's bill?'
'Eight dead and sixteen wounded, sir.'
'Right. Get the seals off the dead and tell off a burial detail.'
'What about my litter bearers? My bodyguard?' asked Narcissus, nursing his injured hand.
'One dead, one missing and the bodyguard's still unconscious – someone said he'd been kicked by a horse.'
'Right then, you bastards,' growled Macro, and as he kicked the nearest one on his broken arm a shrill scream of agony split the air. 'Eight of my men are dead. Don't think for a moment you aren't going the same way. But we can make it quick for you, or slow and painful. Depends on how you answer this gentleman here.'
He jerked a thumb at Narcissus and stepped to one side. The imperial secretary stared hard at them, hands on hips, but stood beyond arm's reach.
'Who ordered you to kill me?'
'Kill you?' Cato asked. 'I thought they were bandits.'
'Bandits!' Macro laughed harshly. 'Ever heard of bandits attacking a full century? No? Well then, don't be stupid. Besides, look at them, look at the clothes and armour. This lot belong to something far more organised.'
'Like an army unit?'
Narcissus raised a hand for silence and asked his question again. 'I said, who ordered you to kill me?'
None of the three looked up, even when he repeated the question more forcefully.
Macro stepped up and delivered another kick, this time to the head. The man went down on his back with a sharp cry.
'Well, are you going to tell me?'
The man who had escaped the kicking thus far glared up through bushy brows and said something in a language Cato had not heard before. He emphasised his point by spitting on to the hem of Narcissus' tunic. Macro drew back his boot.
'No!' Narcissus raised his hand. 'There's no need for that. I think I know this tongue. They're from Syria. If they're who I think they are, they won't talk for a while.'
'I wouldn't bet on that, sir,' Macro replied coldly. 'There are ways…'
'I haven't got time. We mustn't be delayed in reaching the army. These men will come along as prisoners. When I get to Gesoriacum there'll be plenty of time to go to work on them. See that they're securely bound. They can march behind my litter tomorrow.'
When the century set out the next morning, the full scale of the action became clear. Twelve more bodies were found, as well as the Roman dead, and all were buried in a hastily dug trench before the unit broke camp. Macro had ordered his men to march in full battledress and they moved wearily down the road to Gesoriacum in a box shape around Narcissus's litter and the wagon now carrying the Roman wounded. All surplus baggage had been abandoned to make room for the wounded. That had not endeared the prisoners to the centurion, who had them tied to each other by the ankle, and fastened the line to the back of the wagon. There was no stop for a rest, despite the weariness brought on by a sleepless night, as the column picked its way along the road to the coast. A pair of horsemen appeared in the distance from time to time as they shadowed the century, evidently frustrated by the lack of opportunity to continue the action. Shortly before dusk the horses wheeled away and disappeared over the brow of a narrow ridge that ran alongside the line of the road. As night fell the century's pace quickened and the men glanced nervously into the shadows looming around them, fully expecting the ambush to be renewed the instant darkness could provide enough cover for their strange attackers.
At last they marched over the brow of a hill and Cato let out a gasp of astonishment. Below them was a vast military camp stretching, it seemed, for miles, lit by thousands of camp fires and braziers. Four full legions were concentrated in the area, together with an equal number of specialist auxiliary cohorts, engineers, shipbuilders and staff planning-officers – over fifty thousand men all told. But as they approached the gates Macro sensed that something was wrong. Small pockets of men roamed outside the camp, unarmed and out of uniform, others played at dice or just sat drinking themselves insensible.
Before the Sixth century came within speaking range of any of the other legionaries they were intercepted by a staff officer on horseback, escorted by several centurions, who commanded them to halt. Once the identity of the imperial secretary had been confirmed, the officer issued immediate orders for the removal of the prisoners to a secure place, while he escorted the imperial secretary to army headquarters. And that was the last Cato and Macro saw of Narcissus. They received no thanks for their success in preserving his mission and no acknowledgement of the lives that had been lost in his cause.
The camp prefect of the Ninth arrived to arrange for the movement of the wounded to the Ninth Legion's hospital. Then he led the remnants of the century out of the camp to a cleared area some miles distant where the lines for the Second Legion had already been laid out.
The Sixth century set up its tents as quickly as possible and, once the pickets had been positioned, the men fell into an exhausted sleep.