It was clear that the Britons would be upon them before they even made the ridge. There was no hope of outrunning the enemy, that much was evident to Macro as he frantically scanned the immediate area, and found a faint possibility of hope.
'Over there!' He thrust his arm out to one of the larger folds in the land away to the left of the track. In the dim light of a new moon the mist forming in the dip had a cold luminosity that was far from welcoming, but it offered the only hope of quick concealment. 'Get the cart off the track, quick as you fucking can!'
As the men turned the horses into the long grass and hurried across the slope towards the hollow, Macro followed and tried to conceal the worst of the grooves the cart had crushed into the wet grass. Praying that the marks would be missed in the dark, and fearing that the Britons might march into view at any moment, Macro dashed after the cart which had reached the rim of the dip and was being man-handled down the reverse slope. The thrumming of shod hooves in the near distance spurred him on and when he reached the dip he threw himself down and lay there for a moment, panting.
The slope was steep and the cart was well below the level of the mist that covered the ground in a thick unbroken layer. Ordering the others to stay with the wagon and make sure the animals and the injured remained silent, Cato scrambled up the slope to join the centurion.
'We were lucky there, sir. Wagon nearly went over when we came down this.' He thumped the slope.
'Really?' Macro said, and yawned before he could help it. Then he flipped himself over and propped his chin up with his hands. 'Keep down, and do nothing… absolutely nothing. On my orders only'
Cato nodded and lay as still as he could, waiting nervously for the enemy to emerge from the swamp. And then, suddenly, a small column of cavalry trotted into the dim moonlight barely a hundred paces away, a blend of man and horse in the dark shadows. Cato was surprised to see British cavalry since Caesar had claimed that they preferred to use their animals for chariots. Either the Great General was wrong or the Britons had finally discovered the value of cavalry. The horsemen fanned out on either side of the track and trotted up towards the ridge. The left-flank scout passed within twenty paces of their hiding place and Macro and his optio pressed themselves into the ground, hardly daring to breathe. Their tired eyes strained to detect any sign that the passage of their cart across the slope had been discovered. But the scout passed by without breaking his pace.
From the swamp came the sound of jingling and a dark mass of chariots and infantry spilled out on to the track and snaked their way up the slope. The chatter of their queer lilting language carried softly to the ears of the terrified Romans and Cato found himself comparing the sound favourably with the harshness of the German he had grown used to. A sharp order was given as a chariot passed down the line, and the column obediently fell silent until the chariot had passed beyond the line of scouts and over the brow of the hill, then laughter rippled down the line and they continued talking as before.
There seemed to be no end to the soldiers streaming from the marsh, and now the head of the dark mass had passed over the hill. On and on they came, until at long last the rearguard emerged from the swamp. Macro and Cato watched as the last ranks of the enemy marched over the crest of the hill and merged into its dark silhouette as they passed out of sight down the reverse slope.
'How many do you think there were, sir?' Cato whispered, as if afraid his words might yet carry to the ears of the Britons.
Macro looked down at the small stones he was clutching in his hand and quickly counted them up. 'Say the equivalent of twenty cohorts, that's…'
'Nine thousand!' Cato whistled.
Macro silently did the necessary maths for himself and nodded. 'More than enough for Vespasian to worry about. Not to mention the chariot force. If that lot gets the drop on the legate…'
'Then it's up to Vitellius.'
'Yes,' Macro replied simply. 'Vitellius… Look, we'd better get moving. With that lot on the scene we'd better abandon the cart. Bury the chest here, lose the cart somewhere else and use the horses to circle round the column and rejoin the Legion.'
'Bury the chest? After all we've been through?'
'You want it to be captured? Or worse, you want to be captured with it?'
'Well then, we'll have to leave it here and return for it, if we ever get back to the Second in one piece.'
It was clear that the horse was badly winded and would drop if he drove it any further. Vitellius swerved off the track and dismounted in the shadows of an ancient grove whose leaf-laden branches stretched out on all sides. While his mount snorted and gasped at the cool night air, Vitellius cursed in anger and frustration. That bloody chest had nearly been in his hands. An emperor's ransom – enough to fund the most lavish of political careers; an endless source for buying the favours of senators and soldiers alike. Maybe enough to buy him the loyalty of the Praetorian Guard. Certainly the services of the Praetorian agent Pulcher had been reasonably priced and the man had been sufficiently impressed by gold to rid himself of any inconvenient principles. And buying the services of the Syrians earlier that day had been easy, once Vitellius had passed himself off as a close friend of Scribonianus.
It was quite astonishing just how much the prospect of riches bent a man's will in new directions. Only a few months earlier he had been a loyal servant of the Emperor, so loyal in fact that Narcissus had shared a good many more secrets with him than was strictly necessary, or wise. But as soon as Narcissus had told him about the chest, deeply repressed ambitions began to whisper sinister thoughts to him. The recovery of the chest was supposed to be a test of Vespasian's loyalty to Claudius, and Vitellius had been ordered to watch the legate closely for signs of treachery. However, Vespasian had behaved impeccably and in his strict adherence to duty Vitellius had found his opportunity. Secure in the knowledge that the legate would do all in his power to carry out his instructions, it simply remained for Vitellius to be equivocal in his reports to Narcissus. Once the treasure disappeared the finger of blame would unswervingly be directed at Vespasian whose every protestation of innocence would condemn him all the more. And Vitellius, armed with his fortune, would watch quietly and bide his time.
That had been the plan up until a short while ago.
Rosy dreams of that future were now dashed, and he impulsively swore out loud, then nervously glanced about – but the night remained quite still. Vitellius sighed. He had failed and, worse, he had left witnesses to his failure. Once that squat little centurion and his precocious optio got back to the Legion he would be compromised. If only there was some way of ensuring that they never made it back alive. It was possible that the column of Britons he had run into back in the marsh had already caught up with the cart and massacred its escort; Vitellius sincerely hoped that they had. But he knew it would be foolish to count on it – that fellow Macro had just about enough luck and guile to see him through any peril. Memories of the desperate fight in the German village flooded back into Vitellius's mind, particularly the vision of the centurion bleeding from a savage spear wound. If only that bloody German had paused long enough to take a proper aim.
While Vitellius reflected on his circumstances, his horse had recovered enough to graze contentedly on a patch of grass at the fringe of an oak tree's boughs. Suddenly it lifted its head and stared intently into the night. It was a moment before the tribune was aware of the horse's change of mood and then he hurried over and placed a reassuring hand on the animal's neck. The horse flinched.
'What is it, girl?'
Nostrils flaring and ears twitching the horse took a step back into the shadows. As Vitellius looked into the night he saw a thinly spread line of horsemen approaching along the treeline, barely a hundred paces away. His heart raced as he silently struggled to get up on his mount but the horse, already nervous, reared back with a loud whinny.
'Stupid bastard!' Vitellius yanked the reins savagely as he steadied the horse and hauled himself on to its back. Already there was shouting from a short distance off and Vitellius kicked his heels into the flanks of his mount, turning it away from the dark figures hurrying in his direction. Panic and the desire to flee gripped him and, shouting at his mount, Vitellius galloped away into the night, dimly aware that the direction he was heading in would take him away from the Second Legion. Very well, he'd try and make for the Fourteenth instead, already well down the road as it marched to join Plautius. Vespasian would have to deal with the enemy column on his own and Vitellius would live to be a hero another day.
At the foot of the oak tree where the tribune had taken shelter the dark shapes of his pursuers watched the figure fleeing as fast as his horse could gallop – the drumming of the hooves clearly audible.
'Who the hell was that?' asked a legionary. 'Thought he looked like one of ours.'
'Probably some idiot messenger,' his decurion replied. 'Got himself lost most like.'
'Should we go after him, sir?'
The decurion thought about it a moment and shook his head. 'Nah! Not worth it. If he's one of ours he'll find his way soon enough.'
'What if it's one of them, sir?'
'Then he's had a lucky escape. I'm not risking breaking any of our necks on some wild chase in the dark. Anyway, we'd best get back to the Legion.'
The decurion turned his squadron round and led them at a walk back towards the Second Legion, somewhat concerned about the negative report he would have to give to Vespasian. There had been no sign of Togodumnus and his forces. Frankly, the decurion doubted whether there had ever been any enemy column attempting to flank the army. It was probably just some paranoid staff officer over-reacting. The decurion shrugged wearily. So far the campaign had been a huge disappointment; no enemy, no spoils and no women. It had hardly been worth turning up for, and he had already resigned himself to the fact that Plautius and the vanguard legions would have defeated the Britons long before the Second could get into the action.
Shame, he thought. A nice little battle would have been most welcome, especially in view of the promotional opportunities provided by combat deaths. But, he sighed to himself bitterly, there wasn't going to be a battle, because there wasn't a single bloody Briton for miles.
For Macro and his men, the ride through the night was proving to be a disaster. The Syrian horses were light frisky things; ideal for darting in and out of the fringes of a battle while their riders loosed off volleys of arrows, but totally impractical for carrying more than one man at a time. In the end, after much swearing and kicking of heels, Macro ordered the men to dismount and use the horses just to carry the wounded. His legionaries were far more content on foot in any case.
So the small group quietly made their way through the night, trying as far as Macro could guess the route, to march round the British column and locate the Second Legion before the Britons. Macro had decided to keep his party to the seaward side of the enemy, to be as near as possible to the fortified beachhead. With luck they might even be picked up by a patrol and escorted back.
Vitellius might already have reached the Legion and raised the alarm, so their comrades would at least be safe from surprise attack. Even so, Macro's gut instinct told him that Vitellius would be planning a nasty surprise for them on their return and he cursed himself for letting the man go. They should have slit his throat and dumped the body in the marsh. That was more than the treacherous bastard deserved. The question plaguing Macro's mind was why the tribune had been there in the first place. Vespasian had assured him that the real reason for the mission was a closely guarded secret. Yet, not only was Vitellius in the know, he had also had time to enlist his band of helpers – presumably the same bunch of Syrians who had jumped Macro's century on the road to Gesoriacum. Someone was playing a deep game and Macro was uncomfortably aware that he was just a small thread in a much greater tangle of conspiracy.
He forced himself to concentrate; this was not the time to let his mind wander. Every fibre of his body must be bent towards ensuring that his men returned safely to the Legion. Looking round he could see that the legionaries were completely done in – he had to keep his mind clear and his eyes and ears open as they passed through this hostile landscape. Even as he thought this, a warm aching weariness was flowing through his limbs. In a moment he knew his head would begin to swim. He rubbed his eyes, momentarily rocking on his feet, and then felt a hand grasp his elbow and hold him steady.
'Careful, sir!' Cato whispered. 'You almost fell over. You need to rest.'
'No – I'm fine.'
'You could sit on one of the horses and let me lead the way for a while, sir.'
'I said no. I can't do that.' Macro wanted to explain that no officer could even think of doing such a thing, but he could not frame the words and merely mumbled his thanks, freeing himself from Cato's grip.
As the night wore on, the small band of legionaries carefully picked their way through the shadows of the rolling countryside. They dared not pause for fear that an irresistible desire to sleep would overwhelm them the moment they stopped. They were all aware of the danger they were in, cut off from the Legion and wandering through the dark in hostile country. On they trudged until, just as the sky was beginning to lighten away to the east, they reached the top of a small hill. In the distance they could see the mass of small fires that identified it as the marching camp of a Roman legion. In the glow of the distant light tiny figures moved about in a frenzy of activity.
'Just in time it seems,' Macro grinned wearily. 'Looks like they're already on the march. Vespasian always was an early bird. No rest for us today.'
Cato smiled at Macro.
But Macro was no longer looking at the camp. He was staring fixedly away to that part of the horizon furthest from the coming of dawn. Disappearing into a dense wood that bestrode the Legion's line of march was a thick black shadow of men, horses and chariots moving with the silent stealth of a serpent stalking its prey.