The late afternoon sun slanted across the deck, sliced by the shadows of the mast and rigging of the army transport. In the bows, a sailor was casting a weighted line out ahead of the vessel and reading off the depth as the line touched bottom. The ship eased its way through the entrance of the channel as the captain ordered two more reefs to be put in the sail. While the sailors climbed aloft and spread out along the yardarm, Cato gingerly made his way forward to the base of the stubby bowsprit.
As soon as the transport had drawn out of the port at Gesoriacum and met the gentle swell of the channel a wave of seasickness had engulfed him. Cato had joined several other men at the side of the ship as they spewed their guts up into the foaming sea sweeping past the gently rolling vessel. Macro took the opportunity to munch his way through several pastries he had bought from the harbour market shortly before boarding. He couldn't resist offering the last one to his optio and burst out laughing at the look of pure evil that answered his gesture.
As soon as the transport entered the sheltered waters of the anchorage, Cato felt the terrible nausea subside and, with one hand on the stay, he gazed out over the channel where the invasion fleet lay at anchor. Hundreds of vessels crowded the shimmering surface of the sea; sleek warships with their high crenellated towers rising above the banks of oars lining each side, wide troop transports with shallow drafts wallowing close by the shore and hundreds of smaller craft ferrying in supplies and equipment from Gaul.
The legionaries crowded the sides of the transport to get a better view and were pushed and cursed by the sailors, who still had to handle the vessel as it slowly made its way towards the mainland under a slight breeze. The mysterious fog-ridden island of Britain, so long a part of Roman folklore, lay revealed as a dull coastline basking in the heat of a clear midsummer's day. Excitement was therefore tinged with a sense of disappointment at the gently rolling landscape of farms, fields and forest that stretched away into the distant haze. Here and there, small columns of legionaries spread out across the country while far off the faint dust cloud of the rearguard marked where the main body of the first two legions had pressed ahead inland.
During the last two days the men had heard only the sketchiest details of the progress of the invasion. The crew of the transport who had returned for the second division of the army could only report that the first two legions had managed to land unopposed. As Cato could see, there were no signs of heavy fighting, no funeral pyres of fallen comrades, no bodies of the enemy – in fact no sign of the natives whatsoever. It was hard to believe. Caesar's account made great play of the hazards of invading Britain and recorded that the first landing had been bitterly opposed by an enemy who met the Romans on the beach and almost fought them to a bloody standstill in the pounding surf. This, on the other hand, looked almost identical to the last amphibious exercise with which Plautius had engaged the army on the coast of Gaul barely two weeks earlier: Plenty of Romans but a non-existent enemy.
With a shout from the captain, the transport altered course. The great sail was hauled round at an angle to the deck and the bows swung in from the centre of the channel. The bows steadied on a gap in the lines of shipping close to the shore that had been marked out with large red pennants which lifted lazily in the dying breeze. A number of transports carrying elements of the Second Legion had already landed and Cato could see a group of horsemen riding up the beach and into the flattened grass beyond. That would be Vespasian and his command party rushing ahead to mark out the area where the Legion would assemble for the night before moving off in the wake of the Twentieth and the Ninth Legions.
Except that he would not be marching with them, Cato reflected with a sudden tremor of excitement and fear. While the rest of the Legion marched to meet the enemy, he would be with a small detachment under Macro's command carrying out a special duty. As yet the centurion had not confided the details of the mission and sat apart from his men, at the stern of the vessel staring down into the heavily silted sea. As Cato looked aft, Macro spat into the water and turned forward, immediately catching the eye of his subordinate. He paused a moment, then made his way towards the bows through the tightly packed mass of legionaries in the waist of the transport.
'Not so terrifying after all, is it?' He waved a hand at the shore.
'No, sir,' Cato replied. 'Quite pleasant, really. Looks like it'll make decent farm land once we've settled on it.'
'And what could a palace boy possibly know about horticulture?'
'Not much,' admitted Cato. 'Only what I've read of it from Virgil. He makes farming sound quite fascinating.'
'Quite fascinating,' mimicked Macro. 'Real farming's a hard life – there's no poetry in it. Only townie tossers paying the odd visit to their estates could make it sound good.'
Macro immediately regretted his harsh response and smiled as he patted his optio on the arm. 'I'm sorry, that was uncalled for. It's just that I've got things on my mind right now.'
'What things, sir?'
'Things that concern ranks higher than yours. I'm sorry, Cato, I can't say anything until we're well away from the Legion. Those are my orders.'
'Orders from whom, I wonder,' Cato said quietly. 'Our commander – or Narcissus, perhaps?'
'No use fishing for information – I can't tell you. Just be patient. I'd have thought at least the army would have taught you that by now.'
Cato frowned and turned to look at the approaching fortifications that rose above the beach and the surrounding land.
When Vespasian had issued his orders he had placed great emphasis on the need for utmost secrecy. Of the eleven men Macro had selected for the mission Cato alone had been told about it, and even the optio knew only that he had been selected for a dangerous detached duty. As Macro gazed at the slowly approaching shoreline he recalled the previous evening in Vespasian's tent. The legate had regarded him by the dim light of an oil lamp, as rain pattered on the canvas overhead.
'You will, of course, need a cart for the return journey.'
'So make sure you draw one from the transport pool – I'll have a clerk make up the necessary orders.' Vespasian drained his cup and carefully contemplated the centurion. 'I trust you appreciate the importance of this mission?'
'Yes, sir. With that kind of money you need someone you can trust, sir.'
'Quite.' Vespasian nodded. 'But there's more to it than that. The Emperor desperately needs every scrap of gold and silver that he can find. The only thing that's keeping him in power at the moment is the support of the army, and more importantly those greedy bastards in the Praetorian guard. Claudius will last only for as long as the donatives flow to the troops. Understand?'
'So it's vital we recover the chest, and' – Vespasian continued with added emphasis – 'the men you select for the job must know nothing. It is likely that the Emperor's enemies have already got wind of this and we dare not show our own hand too openly. If one word of this leaks out to the wrong set of ears, you won't be the only ones after the chest. You have to locate it first. I think you'll find that you have enough danger to face from the natives without worrying about your own side.'
'May I ask exactly who I have to worry about, sir?'
Vespasian shook his head. 'I suspect a few of our comrades-in-arms, but right now I have no evidence.'
'I see.' Macro could see all right. He could see that this mission had an additional agenda: to expose those members of the Legion who might constitute a threat to the Emperor – even if that meant staking Macro and his men out as bait. 'And what happens when-'
'If we come across these people? What happens then, sir?'
'Then you prove to me that I've selected the right man for the job. You succeed, in either task, and I promise you that you will not find me, or the Emperor, ungrateful.'
Macro allowed the corners of his mouth to lift in appreciation. A desperately dangerous mission then, but one that should pay off well if it went according to the simple plan Vespasian had outlined. Too simple, Macro reflected.
He was to lead a small party of men and a cart south to the marshes, way beyond the protection of the main army. All contact with natives and Roman army scouts was to be avoided. Once at the marshes he was to use the map Vespasian had provided him with to locate the remains of a wagon sunk in a bog almost a hundred years earlier. Having located the wagon, the detachment was to retrieve a chest and load it aboard the cart for the return journey to the Legion where it was to be handed over to the legate in person. Under no circumstances was the chest to be opened. The sight of the treasure that lay within might well corrupt the minds of the common legionary. And if the inevitable curiosity of his men was not enough to contend with, then there was the prospect of having to fight his way through enemy territory against both the natives and men supposedly on his own side who were playing a deep political game.
'Is there anything else you need to know, Centurion?'
'One thing, sir. What happens if we fail to locate this wagon?'
'Don't even think about it,' Vespasian said simply.
'I see.' Macro nodded.
The legate was glad that he didn't see. Should the mission fail, then the chest would remain in the marsh, waiting for someone else to find it. There was no guarantee that the original map Narcissus had supplied him with was the only one, and now that he had entrusted the centurion with a copy there was no guarantee that further copies would not be made. If the mission failed, then it would be very inconvenient to have a handful of soldiers around with even the slightest inkling of what lurked in the marshes. But that contingency was taken care of.
'If that's all, Centurion?' Vespasian asked, and Macro nodded. 'Then you had better go and prepare your men. We shan't speak again until you return to the legion with the chest.'
'Good luck. And goodbye.'
Once Macro was out of the tent he carefully folded the map and tucked it inside his harness, more than a little uneasy about the tone of finality with which he had been dismissed by the legate. But the mission was now in motion and there was no turning back.
The transport's captain shouted to the crew to let go the sheets and the remaining sail was gathered in. The vessel had just enough way on her to glide forward and a slight tremor could be felt through the deck as she grounded a short distance from the beach.
From the stern the captain cupped his hands and shouted. 'Landing ramp out!'
The legionaries gave way as the crewmen lifted a long, hinged ramp and ran it forward, well beyond its fulcrum, until the end was only a few feet from the shore. A seaman gave the signal and the ramp was allowed to fall with a messy splash into the sea. The rear of the ramp was then pegged into place with two iron rods driven through the ramp into sockets on the deck.
'There you are!' The captain clapped Macro on the shoulder. 'Safely delivered across the ocean by yours truly. Hope you enjoyed the voyage.'
'It was all right,' Macro replied without enthusiasm. Like most soldiers, he thought that land was the proper place for men, and the sea was for fish and any idiots who cared to traverse it. 'But thanks.'
'My pleasure. Just make sure you give the natives a good kicking.'
'We'll do our best.'
'Now I'd be grateful if you'd get your men off my ship. We're returning to Gaul straight away. Some horses to bring over for a Syrian cohort tonight.'
'Tonight?' Macro was surprised. 'I thought you sailors never went to sea at night if you could help it.'
'Normally, no.' The captain smiled affably. 'But we're being paid by the trip and there's money to be made. So, if you wouldn't mind?'
Macro faced forward towards the expectant eyes of his men. 'Okay, lads, off you get. Make sure you don't leave anything on board or you won't see it again.'
In single file the legionaries picked their way down the boarding ramp and, lifting their equipment clear of the sea, they jumped into the waist-deep water and surged on to the beach. By the time Macro and Cato had reached the line of shingle along the high-water mark, the ramp was already being stowed as a team of seamen strained on a long thick pole to push the transport free.
'What's the hurry?' Cato nodded at the ship.
'What men won't do for it!' Cato laughed. 'You'd think there was nothing more important in this world.'
The hard-edged expression on his centurion's face caught Cato by surprise and, as Macro turned to call the century to order, Cato stared at him. The man was understandably tense, as every officer had been, even after the mutiny slowly crumbled. Word of Narcissus's extraordinary performance quickly spread through the legions causing great hilarity whenever impromptu renditions of the bureaucrat's bravado were performed. As the wily freedman had intended, the joke could be shared by one and all and the atmosphere of mistrust and betrayal soon evaporated in the mysterious absence of Tribune Aurelius and his associates. Plautius had further soothed the situation by having the retinue of exiled British chiefs and princes let slip tales of the great wealth to be found in Britain; gold, silver, slaves – and women, just begging to be taken from the arms of a handful of benighted savages who insisted on fighting in the altogether. Their fearful appearance – painted bodies and hair stiffened into wild spikes of white – and the endless shouting all counted for little in the thick of battle. The great warriors of the legions would sweep them aside with ease and seize the fruits of victory. A firm resolve to do what legionaries do best gripped the army in the last few weeks of preparation for the invasion.
It was well after dark when the final tent had been raised and the men of the century settled down to a light supper of barley gruel and coarse loaves of bread prepared in Gaul and already stale. Around the campfires the talk was about the progress of the campaign, based on snatches of information gleaned from messengers and forward-supply orderlies returning from the front. As yet the only contact with the enemy had been a handful of skirmishes between scouts and, from all accounts, the native charioteers had so far bested the Roman cavalry. The old hands of the Legion grumpily told the new recruits that it would be a completely different story once the heavy infantry of the Romans managed to close with the Britons.
Inside the centurion's tent, Macro quietly addressed the men he had picked for Vespasian's mission. In addition to Cato, he had selected the best ten legionaries of his century for the task. They sat on the grass as he outlined the special duty they had been selected to perform.
'As some of you may have observed, our legion has been honoured by the presence of a number of the local royalty, who have been taking advantage of Roman hospitality in recent years due to some misunderstandings with their subjects.'
The men grinned at this description of the Emperor's clients. It was the same throughout the Empire; the local people threw out their despots, who fled to Rome to plead their cause, only to discover that Rome granted asylum at a high price – perpetual obedience.
'As it happens,' continued Macro, 'one of our friends – Cogidubnus by name – had been a little indiscreet in his earlier years when he first approached Rome to discuss a treaty. Apparently he was so impressed by what he saw that he pledged to completely surrender his nation to the Emperor should the Empire extend to Britain. Well, as you can see, it now has. But Cogidubnus seems to have forgotten his earlier good intentions and is holding out for an improved deal from Rome. Unfortunately for him, when he was thrown out by his people, the wagon carrying his personal papers managed to get lost in a marsh near here. Luckily, the general's spies have found out where that wagon is and it's our job to recover his personal document chests and bring them back to the safety of the Legion. Once Plautius has a record of the man's earlier promises to sell his people out to Rome he will be able to hold Cogidubnus to his word – if he gives us any problems we can threaten to let his people see precisely what he thinks of them. A neat double bind, I'm sure you'll agree.'
Macro paused, quite pleased with himself for making this complete fabrication sound so plausible. 'But first we have to retrieve those documents. And that's where we come in. The twelve of us have been detached from the legion to recover the chest.'
'Sir!' One of the legionaries raised a hand.
'Is someone really expecting us to go wandering off right in the middle of hostile territory. Twelve men alone?' The soldier spat contemptuously on to the ground. 'It's nothing short of suicide.'
'Let's hope it's something short of that.' Macro smiled reassuringly. 'Vespasian said that the scouts have found very little sign of resistance since the first two legions landed. We should be all right if it's a quick job. No more than a couple of days.'
'When do we leave, sir?'
'Tonight. As soon as the moon rises.'