The guards on the gate at the headquarters building crossed spears as the two figures squelched out of the darkness, one with the crested helmet of a centurion and the other a bedraggled youth. They stepped into the flickering light of the torches clamped into the portico.
'Password?' a guard asked as he stepped forward.
'Your business, sir?'
'This boy has a despatch for the legate.'
'Just a moment, sir.' The guard disappeared into the inner courtyard leaving them under the watchful eyes of the other three guards, all large men – hand-picked for the legate's company of bodyguards. Macro undid his chin strap and removed his helmet before tucking it under his arm in preparation for meeting any senior officers. Cato pushed back his hood and brushed his straggling hair to the side. While they waited, Macro was aware of the youth glancing keenly about himself even as he shivered. A spark of sympathy pricked Macro as he recalled his own feelings on admission to the army; the excitement tinged with fear as he entered a completely unknown world with its strict rules, its dangers and its harsh life away from the comforts of his childhood home.
Cato busied himself with wringing water out of his cloak and a puddle soon formed about the boy's feet.
'Stop that!' Macro snapped. 'You're making a mess. You can dry out later.'
Cato looked up, hands wrapped around a tightly squeezed section of the hem. He was about to protest when he was aware that all the soldiers were looking at him with grave disapproval.
'I'm terribly sorry,' he muttered, and let go of the hem.
'Look here, lad,' Macro said as kindly as possible. 'No-one minds a soldier being in a mess when he can't help it. But what they do mind is a soldier who fidgets. It drives the army mad. Isn't that right, boys?' He turned to the guards and they nodded vigorously. 'So from now on, no fidgeting. Get used to standing still and waiting. You'll find that's what we spend most of our time doing.'
The guards sighed in sympathy.
Footsteps approached from the inner courtyard as the guard returned to the portico.
'Sir, please follow me. The boy too.'
'The legate's going to see us?'
'Don't know, sir. I've been ordered to escort you to the senior tribune first. This way please.'
He led them through a broad arch into a courtyard surrounded by a covered walkway. The rain gushed down off the roof tiles into guttering that channelled it out of the building into the street. The guard led them round each side of the courtyard until they reached a further doorway opposite the portico. Through the door, the building opened out into a large hall with offices along each side, except for the far wall where a purple curtain hid the Legion's shrine from view. Two standard bearers with drawn swords stood to attention in front of the curtain. The guard turned left, paused outside a door and tapped twice.
'Come,' a voice called and the guard quickly opened the door. Macro led the way inside, beckoning Cato to follow him. The room was narrow, but it stretched back a fair distance to accommodate a desk along one wall and a rack of scrolls at the end. A brazier glowed just inside the door, filling the room with a warm fug. Seated at the desk was a tribune. Macro knew him by sight, Aulus Vitellius, a former playboy in Rome but now on the path of a political career which began on the staff of a legion. Vitellius was an overweight man with a dark olive complexion that betrayed a southern Italian background. As his visitors entered, he pushed his chair back and faced them.
'Where's this letter?' The voice was deep and tinged with impatience.
Macro handed it over and then took a step back. Cato stood mutely at his side, next to the brazier. A faint smile of contentment played on his lips as the warmth entered his body and the shivering stopped.
Vitellius cast a quick glance at the letter and then ran his fingers over the imperial seal, consumed by curiosity. 'Do you know what this is?'
'Boy says it's…'
'I'm not asking you, Centurion… Well?'
'I believe it to be a personal letter from the Emperor Claudius, sir,' Cato responded.
Cato's stressing of 'personal' was not lost on the tribune and the latter fixed the boy with an icy stare. 'And what do you think could be so personal that the Emperor would trust its delivery to you?'
'I don't know, sir.'
'Exactly. So I think you can safely leave this with me. I'll see that the legate receives it in due course. Dismissed.'
Macro instantly moved towards the door, but the young recruit hesitated. 'Excuse me, sir. The scroll?'
Vitellius stared back, dumbfounded, as Macro quickly grabbed the youth's arm.
'Let's be off, lad. The tribune's a busy man.'
'I was told to deliver the scroll in person, sir.'
'How dare you,' Vitellius said quietly, eyebrows closing together as reflections from the brazier flickered across his dark eyes.
For a moment Macro watched the exchange of expressions; the tribune struggling to contain his anger and the boy, afraid but defiant. Then the tribune's eyes flashed towards the centurion and he forced a smile on to his lips.
'Right then, in person it is.' Vitellius stood up, scroll in hand. 'Come with me.'
Vitellius led them down a short passage into an antechamber where the legate's private secretary worked at a desk to one side of a large studded door. He looked up as they approached and, seeing Vitellius, wearily rose to his feet.
'Can I see the legate?' Vitellius asked briskly.
'Is it urgent, sir?'
'Imperial despatch.' Vitellius held out the letter so that the seal could be seen. The secretary instantly knocked on the door of the legate's office and entered without waiting for a reply, closing the door behind him. There was silence for a moment and then the door opened again. The secretary ushered Vitellius inside and held up a hand to the other two. From inside, Macro could clearly hear a raised voice, punctuated by an occasional monosyllable from Vitellius. The dressing down was mercifully brief but the tribune managed to fire a cold, hostile glare at the centurion as he passed out of the office back towards the admin hall.
'He'll see you now.' The secretary waved a finger at them.
Macro silently seethed with anger at Bestia. That bloody letter would do for him. Having been ordered to act as the boy's guide to the headquarters, Macro was about to face the wrath of the legate for imposing on his precious time. If Vitellius, a tribune, could be shouted down only the gods knew what the legate would say to a humble centurion. And it was all the bloody boy's fault. Macro instinctively passed on the look he had received from Vitellius, then gulped nervously as he marched smartly through the door, past the smug expression of the secretary. At that moment he would rather have faced ten howling mad Gaulish warriors single-handed.
The legate's office was unsurprisingly spacious. The far side was dominated by a black marble-topped table behind which sat Titus Flavius Sabinus Vespasian – scowling as he looked up from the open letter in front of him.
'Right then, Centurion. What are you doing here?'
'You're supposed to be on duty.'
'Orders, sir. I was told to show this new recruit to headquarters and see you got that letter.'
'Who ordered you?'
'Lucius Batiacus Bestia. He's covering the watch until I return, sir.'
'Oh, is he?' A frown creased the broad brow of Vespasian. Then his gaze switched to the young recruit standing one step behind and to one side of Macro, desperately hoping that immobility was the surest route to invisibility. The legate's eyes quickly looked over the boy, assessing his potential. 'You are Quintus Licinius Cato?'
'From the palace?'
'Bit unusual to say the least,' Vespasian mused. 'The palace doesn't generate too many recruits for the legions, my wife excepted – even she's finding it hard to adapt to the squalor of a legate's private accommodation. I doubt you will find our ways much to your taste but you're a soldier now and that's that.'
'This,' Vespasian waved the letter, 'is a letter of introduction. Normally my secretary deals with such trivial matters because I have better things to do – like, for example, commanding a legion. So you can imagine how annoyed I might have been to have the tribune waste his time and, more importantly, mine, with such a matter.'
Vespasian paused and the two visitors withered under his glare. Then, he continued, in a more moderate tone. 'However, since this letter is from Claudius, as you no doubt know, I must defer to his power to bother one of his legates with petty details. He tells me that, in gratitude for your late father's service to Rome, he has made you a freedman and wishes me to appoint you centurion in my legion.'
'Oh,' Cato replied. 'Is that good, sir?'
Macro spluttered with rage momentarily, before regaining control and bunching his fists hard against his thighs.
'Problem, Centurion?' Vespasian asked.
'No, sir,' Macro managed to respond through clenched teeth.
'Now then, Cato,' the legate continued mildly. 'There is absolutely no possibility of me appointing you centurion, whatever the Emperor wishes. How old are you?'
'Sixteen, sir. Seventeen next month.'
'Sixteen… Hardly old enough to be a man. Certainly too young to lead men.'
'Begging your pardon, sir, but Alexander was only sixteen when he commanded his first army in battle.'
Vespasian's eyebrows shot up in amazement. 'You consider yourself to be an Alexander? What do you know about military affairs?'
'I have studied them, sir. I am familiar with the works of Xenophon, Herodotus, Livy and, of course, Caesar.'
'And that makes you an expert on the modern Roman army does it?' Vespasian was enjoying the youngster's hubris. 'Well, I must say, I only wish all our recruits were so versed in the arts of war. It would be novel to have an army march on its brains rather than its stomach. Would be quite something, wouldn't it, Centurion?'
'Yes, sir,' Macro replied. 'We'd all be headaching instead of bellyaching, sir.'
Vespasian looked at Macro in surprise. 'Was that meant to be a joke, centurion? I don't hold with junior officers being funny. This is the army, not some Plautus comedy.'
'Yes, sir. Who, sir?'
'A playwright,' Cato patiently explained to Macro. 'Plautus adapted material from Greek theatre-'
'That's enough, son,' Vespasian cut in. 'Save it for the literary salons, should you ever return to Rome. Now then, I've decided. You will not be a centurion.'
Vespasian held up a hand to silence him and then pointed at Macro. 'You see this man? Now, he's a centurion. The man who escorted you here from Aventicum is also a Centurion. How do you think they came to be centurions?'
Cato shrugged. 'I've absolutely no idea, sir.'
'No idea? Well, just you listen. This man, Macro, has been a legionary for many years – how many, centurion?'
'Fourteen years, sir.'
'Fourteen years. And in that time he has marched halfway across the known world and back. This man has fought in Jupiter knows how many battles and minor engagements. He has been trained to use every weapon in the army. He can march up to twenty miles a day in full armour carrying his kit. He has been trained to swim, build roads, bridges and forts. He has many other qualities besides. This man led his patrol to safety when the Germans cut them off on the far side of the Rhine. Then, and only then, was he even considered for promotion to the centurionate. Now which of these things can you do? Right now?'
Cato thought back a moment. 'I can swim, sir – a bit.'
'Have you considered a career in the navy?' Vespasian asked hopefully.
'No. I get seasick.'
'Oh dear. Well, I'm afraid that swimming doesn't quite qualify you for command, but since we're going to need every man we can train for next year I will allow you to join the Second Legion. Dismissed… that's the army way of saying, please be a good fellow and wait outside.'
Once the door had closed behind the young man, Vespasian shook his head. 'What's the world coming to? Think we can make a soldier out of him, Centurion?'
'No, sir,' Macro replied immediately. 'The army's too dangerous a place for theatre critics.'
'So is Rome,' Vespasian sighed, recalling those who had rashly ventured an opinion on the literary output of the late Caligula. Not that matters were much better under his successor, Claudius. The new Emperor's chief secretary, the freedman Narcissus, had spies everywhere, busy compiling reports on the loyalties of every Roman who might pose the least possible threat to the new regime. The atmosphere in the capital was poisonous following the failure of Scribonianus' coup attempt and Vespasian had recently been informed that several of his wife's friends were among those already arrested. Flavia herself had only recently joined him at the base, anxious and fearful, and not for the first time Vespasian wished that Flavia would be more circumspect in her choice of social companions. But that's what came your way, Vespasian considered, when you married a woman who had been brought up in the highly political atmosphere of the imperial household. Like the young man waiting outside. Vespasian looked up from his desk.
'Well, Centurion, we'll see what we can do for young Cato. Is your century up to strength? Didn't you lose your second-in-command recently?'
'Yes sir. The optio died this morning.'
'Good, that simplifies things. Sign the boy up in your century and make him an optio.'
'But nothing. That's my order. We can't make him a centurion and I can't bend an imperial dictate too far. So we're stuck with him. Dismissed.'
'Yes, sir.' Macro saluted, turned smartly and marched out of the office, cursing under his breath. The position of optio was traditionally within the patronage of a centurion and was worth a good deal of money. He would just have to make sure the lad didn't last too long, one way or another. After all, a soft city type who didn't seem to want to be here could easily be induced to seek a discharge given the right kind of prodding.
Cato was waiting for him outside. The lad half smiled and Macro nearly kicked him.
'So what's to happen to me, sir?'
'Just shut up and come with me.'
'Lads, I'd like you to meet the new optio.'
In the darkened mess room the faces turned towards the centurion, lit in pale orange by the few lamps they could afford to burn. Once their gaze flickered from their centurion to the tall young boy at his side few could conceal their amazement.
'Did you say… new optio, sir?' someone asked.
'That's right, Pyrax.'
'Isn't he a little, well, young?'
'Apparently not,' Macro replied bitterly. 'The Emperor's decreed a new selection procedure for junior officers. You have to be tall and skinny and familiar with selected Greek and Latin histories. And those who have bothered to read the odd work of literature are given preferential treatment.'
The men looked at him blankly but Macro was too cross to offer any form of explanation. 'Anyway, here he is. Pyrax, I want you to take him to my clerk. Get him written in and issue him with a seal. He's going to join your section.'
'Sir, I thought recruits could only be written in by officers.'
'Look, I'm too busy right now,' Macro blustered. 'Anyway, that's an order. I'm making him your responsibility. So get on with it.'
Macro rushed from the mess and hurried back down the passage to his quarters. Piso was waiting outside his small office with some papers.
'Sir, if you could just sign…'
'Later.' Macro waved a hand at him and snatched up a dry cloak as he made for the outside door. 'Have to get back on duty.'
As the door slammed after him, Piso shrugged and returned to his desk.
Some time later, Cato was sitting bolt upright on the top bunk of a section room. Such was his height that on the top of his head he could feel the straw which lay under the roof tiles. He flinched, suddenly wondering if there were any rats in the rafters, and nervously twisted the small lead ingot that hung from a thong tied around his neck. It bore his name, his legion and the imperial seal. It would be with him until he left the army, or died in battle. Then it would be used to identify his body. Letting his chin rest on his knees, Cato wondered how he was going to get out of this appalling situation. The section room, with cramped bunks for eight men, was no better than one of the stables reserved for work horses at the palace.
And these men!
Well, they were animals. Pyrax had introduced him round the mess and Cato had been hard pressed not to reveal his disgust at the foul-smelling, boozy, farting, belching legionaries. They, for their part, had seemed unsure how to regard him. There was some resentment to be sure. Apparently an optio was a rank many were struggling to achieve. Nominally he was their superior, but he was in no way given to understand that he would be treated as such.
Conversation was limited to a discussion of who had screwed the most women, killed the most barbarians, spat the furthest, farted the loudest – that kind of thing. Stimulating to the senses maybe, but it left the mind a little cold. After what seemed a decent length of time, Cato had asked if Pyrax might be so kind as to show him to his room. Every face in the room had turned towards him, some wide-eyed and open-mouthed. Cato sensed he had somehow put his foot in it and decided that an early night would clear the air.