Vespasian was wearing the full dress uniform of a legion commander as he mounted the podium at the side of the parade ground. The silvered greaves, breastplate and helmet caught the light of the midday sun and shone brilliantly. The red crest and cloak lifted to a faint breeze. Behind him stood the standard bearers carrying aloft the golden eagle of the Second Legion and the image of the Emperor Claudius – a rather over-flattering likeness, thought Cato, who had last seen the Emperor spluttering food while attempting to conduct a conversation at an imperial dinner. Below the eagle hung a bottom-weighted square of red leather upon which the words 'Augusta' had been embroidered in gold letters.
The recruits faced the podium in four ranks with Bestia and his drill instructors five paces to front. All were standing silently, spears and shields grounded to the sides, as demonstrated to them shortly before. Chests were thrust out, chins raised and shoulders squared, even though Cato couldn't help feeling slightly ridiculous with what seemed to be an over-large wicker basket to one side and a child's wooden toy to the other. But still the sense of occasion filled his breast as he gazed solemnly at the podium where Vespasian was making the ritual offering of two cockerels to the gods. He washed his hands in the ceremonial bowl, dried them on a silk cloth and turned to face the assembled recruits.
'I, Titus Flavius Sabinus Vespasian, Legate of the Second Legion, Augusta, by gracious decree of the Emperor Claudius, pronounce favourable omens on those here assembled for the purpose of enrolment in the Second Legion, and do hereby request and require those here assembled to undertake the oath of allegiance to the Legion, to the legate, to the Senate and People of Rome as vested in the body and person of the Emperor Claudius. Legionaries, raise your spear and recite the oaths with me…'
Two hundred right arms swept straight up and sunlight glinted on the shimmering spear tips.
'I swear by the gods of the Capitol, Jupiter, Juno and Minerva…'
'That I will faithfully execute the orders of those placed over me…'
'By the will of the senate and people of Rome…'
'As embodied in the person of the Emperor Claudius…'
'Furthermore, I swear by the same gods…'
'That I will defend the standards of my legion and my century…'
'Unto the last drop of my blood. This I swear!'
As the last echoes died away, all was still for a magical moment and Cato felt a lump rise in his throat. The oaths had made him a different man. He was now set aside from the rest of society, in a new order of existence. He could be ordered to his death on the legate's whim and he would be compelled to obey. He had pledged his life to protect an inanimate lump of gold atop a plain wooden staff. Cato doubted the sanity of the oath he had taken. It was wanton irresponsibility to pledge unquestioning obedience to any man that fate, nepotism or merit placed over him. Nevertheless… there was something else, an overwhelming gush of excitement and a feeling of belonging to a group imbued with the mystique of an exclusively male society.
At a gesture from Vespasian, Bestia ordered the recruits to ground spears.
'New recruits to the Second Legion,' said the legate. 'You are joining a unit with a proud tradition and I demand that you honour that tradition every waking moment for the next twenty-six years. The months ahead of you will be hard, as I'm sure Centurion Bestia has already told you.' He smiled. 'But they are crucial in making you into soldiers I can be proud to command. A legionary is the highest trained, hardest fighting man in the known world – and that means we must mould you into a very special kind of person. Years of experience will see to the rest. As I look down at you, I see countrymen and men from the cities. Most of you are volunteers, some conscripted. Your past is your own affair, not the army's. Whatever you were in civilian life you are soldiers now and that is how you will be judged. You are fortunate men. You have joined the Legion at a time when it is about to make history.'
That made Cato's ears prick up.
'In years to come you will be celebrated as conquerors, as men who dared to challenge one of the last great mysteries at the edge of the known world. Think on that, and let it be your inspiration while you train. You are in good hands. You could find no better person to train you than Centurion Bestia. I wish you luck and have every confidence that you will succeed.'
Back to the clichés, Cato groaned inwardly.
'Carry on, Centurion.' Vespasian nodded to Bestia and then left the platform followed by the standard bearers.
'Yes, sir!' Bestia turned to face the recruits. 'Well, ladies, that completes the enrolment. You are all mine now. And training begins immediately after the midday meal. I want you back here then. Any later and I'll stripe your back with my cane. Dismissed!'
The entire afternoon had been spent on basic drill without a moment to sit down and Cato's legs and arms ached abominably from the strain of holding his heavy training equipment. He desperately wanted to sleep, to rest his body and drift away from the hard world he had been forced into. But sleep would not come. Strange surroundings, reflections on the day and anxieties about the future all combined in a whirling bout of mental activity that drove sleep away. He turned on to both sides to try and find the most comfortable arrangement afforded by the uncomfortable bunk, but either way the hard wooden slats could easily be felt through the worn woollen cover of the mattress. His sleeplessness was compounded by the frequent roars and cries from the dice game that was going on in the next section room. Not even the thick bolster pulled over the head could do much to keep the noise out.
But finally sleep came, despite all, and Cato had slowly rolled on to his back, mouth opening in a snore – when a pair of hands roughly shook him back into consciousness. His eyes flickered open to see a thick mop of oily black hair, dark eyes and broken teeth in a mouth stretched into a cruel grin.
'On your feet, you bastard!'
'Do you know what time…?' Cato began lamely.
'Fuck the time. We've got business to settle.' Pulcher grabbed Cato's tunic near the throat and hauled him down from the bunk on to the floor. 'I would've got here sooner, but Bestia put me on latrine fatigues, thanks to you. You really did drop me in the shit, didn't you?'
'I-I'm sorry. It was an accident.'
'Well then, let's call what I'm about to do to you an accident. Then we're quits.'
'What do you mean?' Cato asked nervously as he scrambled up off the floor.
'Just this.' Pulcher pulled a short-bladed knife from inside his cloak. 'A little cut to remind you not to fuck with me again.'
'No need!' said Cato. 'I promise I'll keep out of your way!'
'Promises get forgotten. But not scars…' Pulcher tossed the knife up and caught it by the handle – the point aimed at Cato's face. 'On the cheek, that way you'll remind others not to mess with me as well.'
Cato glanced around the room, but he was trapped in the corner with nowhere to run to that Pulcher couldn't reach first. A sudden roar of laughter from the next room attracted his eyes to the wall.
'You shout and I'll gut you here and now!' Pulcher hissed. Then he shifted his weight forward.
Cato could see the attack was imminent and, in desperation, lunged forward, grabbing at the wrist behind the blade with both of his hands. Pulcher had not been expecting the terrified boy to move first and tried to withdraw his hand – too late. The boy's grip was surprisingly strong and no amount of shaking and jerking could free his knife arm.
'Let go!' Pulcher snapped. 'Let go, you little piece of shit!'
Cato made no reply and, instead, suddenly sank his teeth into Pulcher's forearm. Pulcher cried out and instinctively smashed his free hand into the side of Cato's head, knocking him back against the bunk. There was an explosion of white inside Cato's skull before the room swirled back into vision. Pulcher was looking down at a dark oval patch on his arm where Cato's teeth had broken the skin.
'You're dead!' Pulcher stooped into a crouch, knife at the ready. 'You're fucking dead!'
Suddenly a broad shaft of light from the corridor flowed into the room as the door was swung open.
'What the hell is this?' Macro growled. 'Is this a fight?'
Pulcher drew himself up. 'No, sir. Just showing the boy how to handle himself in a fight. We're friends, sir.'
'Friends?' Macro repeated doubtfully. 'Then what happened to your arm?'
'Lad got carried away, sir. Didn't mean no harm. Ain't that right?'
Cato rose from the floor. His first instinct was to tell the truth. Then he realised that this wasn't the soldier's way. If he was to earn any respect from his new comrades he couldn't afford to be seen as running to authority for protection. Besides, if he covered for Pulcher now then maybe the thug would have cause to be grateful to him. Any advantage was worth securing at this stage.
'Yes, sir. That's right. We're friends.'
'Hmm.' Macro scratched his chin. 'Well, if you really are friends then I'd hate to be one of your enemies. Right, optio – I want a word with you in my quarters right now, so I'm afraid your friend here will have to leave.'
'Sir!' Pulcher replied smartly. 'I'll see you tomorrow, Cato.'
'We can continue our practice then.'
Cato smiled weakly then Pulcher turned and left the room, leaving an amused Macro in his wake.
'So that's your friend, is it?'
'I'd be a little more careful in my selection of friends if I were you.'
'Now then, we need to talk. Come with me.'
Macro led the way down the corridor to the administration section of the barracks block where his quarters were situated. Cato was ushered, with a friendly wave, into the centurion's office where two desks were set against opposite walls. The larger desk was completely clear while the smaller was covered in neatly arranged piles of papyrus and waxed slates.
'Over there.' Macro pointed to a trestle chair by the larger desk and Cato sat down quietly while the centurion found another chair and placed it behind the desk.
'Drink?' Macro asked. 'It's good stuff.'
'Thank you, sir.'
Macro poured them each a small cup from a large jar and then eased himself back into his chair. A good deal of wine had already passed his lips that day and he felt uncommonly good-natured. Experience should have told him that today's good nature is tomorrow's skull-crunching hangover – but the gods of wine and memory never were on speaking terms.
'I need to talk about your duties, as far as being an optio is concerned. For the moment I just want you to help Piso with the paperwork. There's no way I can let you give orders to the other men in the century – they'd die laughing. I know you outrank them, officially, but you just have to accept that you can't act as an optio for the moment. Understand?'
'Given time, once you've trained… then we'll see. But for now I need a clerk more than I need a second-in-command. Piso will show you what you need to know in the morning.'
'Now I expect you could use some sleep, you'll need it. You can go.'
'Thank you, sir.'
'I will arrange for Piso to show you the ropes after training ends tomorrow.'
'Yes, sir. I'll look forward to it.'