The night had been cold and, as the soft light of dawn struggled through the morning mist, the fortress of the Second Legion was revealed in a sparkling white frost. The men of the Third cohort were forming into their centuries in a businesslike manner as the air was wreathed in the steam of their breath. Five hundred men, in full armour and heavy cloaks, were gathered in faint filtered shafts of light, rubbing hands and stamping feet in an effort to generate a small bit of warmth against the biting winter air. Jeers and good-humoured insults were exchanged with passing legionaries from other cohorts fortunate enough to be remaining in the fortress for the day. The officers stood apart from the loose columns of men and Cato had no trouble locating Macro's stocky form.
'This your protйgй, Macro?' said the man next to him.
'A little young for an optio, wouldn't you say?'
'We'll see,' Macro grunted, casting his eyes over the optio in his ill-fitting tunic and cloak. The centurion circled slowly, making a close examination of the young man's equipment, testing the buckles with a sharp tug, and tilting Cato's head back to ensure the helmet strap was fastened. 'You'll do. Right, while we're out of the base you stick by me and do whatever I say. No wandering off, no nothing without my say-so. Understand?'
'Now, join the front of the last century in line – that's the Sixth. Wait for me there.'
'What is it?'
'How long are we going to stand here?' asked Cato, already shivering.
'You just can't wait, can you?' Macro shook his head. 'Not long now, boy, we're just waiting for the tribune.'
One of the other centurions spat on the frozen ground. 'Bet the bastard's still in bed.'
'Doubt it,' Macro replied. 'The legate's on his case. Seems he wants to test Vitellius. But this little trip's nothing more than an exercise in command. Even Vitellius would struggle to screw it up.'
'Macro, old son, never underestimate the incompetence of staff officers. They're born and bred for disaster…'
The exchange fell out of earshot as Cato made his way towards the standard rising over the Sixth Century. A few of the men eyed him curiously as he approached.
'You're Macro's optio?' the standard bearer asked.
'He mentioned he had a new boy, but I didn't dream he was being so literal.'
Cato opened his mouth to reply before he got control of his feelings. Then he blushed and fumed silently.
'Just stick close to the centurion and me, lad, and you'll be all right.'
As Cato stood at the head of the century the other optios had been given the nod and were now moving down the ranks quietly ordering the men into column of fours, and dressing the lines so that in a short time the cohort was formed up, at ease, and ready to move off. Cato could not help but be aware of the growing sense of impatience as the men stood and waited. The sun had cleared the dawn mist lingering along the battlements and was washing the cohort in a weak orange glow.
And still they waited. For long enough that the cold began to take numbing advantage of their stillness.
At last the clatter of a walking horse sounded from the centre of the fortress and Cato turned to see a red-cloaked officer approaching, feathered plume bouncing from the crest of his helmet. At his approach, the group of centurions broke up and returned to their centuries. Vitellius trotted down the column and took up station at its head. A single word of command later and the lead century marched off, heading through the gate and on to the track beyond the walls. The succeeding centuries followed suit and, as the rear of the Fifth century moved forward, Macro counted off ten paces and then bellowed out the order to advance.
Cato's response, thanks to Bestia's harsh training regime, was automatic, and he instantly broke into the slow measured pace of the standard march two paces behind Macro and abreast the standard bearer. They passed through the gate, iron-shod boots echoing back off the stonework, and out into the half-tamed wilderness of the frontier province. The rising sun cast long shadows across the hoar frost to their left and numerous puffs of steamy breath swirled into the cold air. Underfoot, the ground was frozen hard where, weeks before, muddy channels marked the wagon ruts leading away from the fortress to the many frontier villages in the area. Despite the cold, Cato felt glad to be getting away from the Legion – a whole day without Bestia and Pulcher to occupy his mind.
The head of a column breasted a small rise in the land and, as the Sixth century followed down the reverse slope, Cato took a last look over his shoulder at the fortress stretching out across the landscape – a long stone wall with the red tiles of the headquarters building beyond. A settlement of bars, brothels and squalid hovels sprawled unevenly beneath the walls on the far side of the fortress. Looking ahead, a line of trees marked the end of the land cleared by the Second Legion and the beginning of one of the ancient forests that sprawled across Germany. Beyond the fringe of saplings struggling to recover some of the ground ravaged by the Legion's engineers, enormous pines and oaks reared up, dark and forbidding. Cato shivered, partly from the cold, and partly as he recalled the fate of the three legions General Varus had foolishly led into the depths of just such a forest nearly thirty years earlier. Over fifteen thousand men had been massacred in the gloomy twilight under the tangled boughs, their bodies left by the Germans to rot into the dirt.
As the column advanced down the track and the trees began to close in from the sides and overhead the men fell silent, some glancing anxiously into the depths beyond. Macro could well understand their feelings; there was something innately strange about this far-flung frontier of the Empire. The forests were unlike anything else in the known world, dark and impenetrable. Even the local tribes were afraid of them and told tales of how restless spirits of the dead were cursed to wander as pale wraiths through the shadows and green-filtered light. The track the cohort followed had been hacked through the forest by the Legion's engineers; the locals had preferred to trek round the forest before the Romans arrived. Even now some still refused to enter the woods. The engineers, it seemed, had also been afraid of the place, as the track made no attempt at a straight line and instead curled its way round the thick tree trunks, such had been their determination to get the job done quickly. A short while after the column had entered the forest no more than a score of men could be seen before or behind and Cato felt a trickle of sweat trace its way down his spine beneath his tunic.
Macro turned his head as he crunched along the frozen track. 'What is it, boy?'
'How far exactly is this village, sir?'
'You mean, how much further through this forest?' Macro smiled.
'A few miles before the track clears the trees, then we should reach the village by noon. Don't worry about this place, it's harmless enough.'
'But if we should be attacked…'
'Attacked?' Macro scoffed. 'Who by? Not the poor sods we're visiting. Bunch of simple-minded farmers. And your nearest German war-band is well to the other side of the Rhine. So relax, boy, you're making the women nervous.' Macro jerked a thumb back at the legionaries of the Sixth century and those in earshot jeered loudly. Cato blushed and merely tried to pull his neck in as far as possible while keeping a close eye on the silvan shadows.
Once the initial oppressive spell of the forest had worn off, the soldiers stopped talking in hushed tones and the column wound its way through the trees accompanied by the usual loud banter of marching soldiers as they swapped jokes and exchanged insults. The deep boughs swallowed up much of the noise and what was left sounded flat and strange to their ears.
At last the column pulled free of the forest and marched out into a bright winter morning as an unobscured sun bathed the land in a warm glow. This side of the forest had been cleared and the cohort passed through primitive farmland dotted with the grim little peat huts of local German settlers, each one marked by a thin trail of smoke reaching up to clear sky. Most of the farmers had taken in their grazing animals and steam clung about the low outbuildings from which the lowing of cattle and the squealing of pigs could be heard as the soldiers passed. There were few signs of human life, the odd face at a door silently watching the column chinkling along the track, but nothing more.
'Friendly lot, aren't they?' the standard bearer commented.
'They don't seem much bothered by us,' Cato replied. 'I'd have thought they'd be a bit more interested. It's not what I imagined the Germans would be like.'
'What did you think they'd be like?'
'Big and aggressive – that's what we heard in Rome.'
'That's exactly what they are like when you're fighting them,' the standard bearer said with feeling. 'But these are just farmers. They're like all civilians when an army passes by. Just keeping their noses clean and hoping we don't have any cause to pay them any attention. Behind that door' – the standard bearer nodded towards a hut they were passing – 'and behind every door sits a family praying we don't stop. Soldiers are bad news for their kind.'
From the head of the column came the shouted order for the cohort to halt and each centurion instantly relayed it to his command. The men stood, silently waiting for the next instruction.
'All officers to the front!'
Macro, having the furthest to go, immediately broke into a trot and made his way along the side of the column towards Vitellius, rising above the First century on horseback. From the rear of the cohort Cato could see that the track passed over a low crest. The officers gathered around Vitellius, at the respectful distance infantry give to horses, as he issued his orders with occasional gestures for clarification. Once dismissed, the officers hurried back into position at the head of their centuries. Macro smiled as he saw the questioning expressions on the faces of the standard bearer and his optio.
'The village is just beyond that rise. The tribune wants to play it low key. He's only taking in the First century. The rest of us are to form up along the crest in sight of the village in case we're needed.'
'Why aren't we all going, sir?' Cato asked. 'Why split the command?'
'Because that's his order, lad,' Macro snapped, but then instantly relented since the optio had made a reasonable point. 'He doesn't want us to make the locals too nervous. We just make the arrest, seize the valuables and leave peacefully. If we all just march in there he thinks we might spook them into doing something foolish.'
'Fuck knows what.' Macro shrugged his wide shoulders dismissively. 'I don't see a bunch of farmers deciding to take us on. Still, it's orders. Ah! Here we go. Back to your position, optio.'
At the head of the First century Vitellius led his men over the crest and out of sight. The following centuries moved to the right and left of the road along the crest. The centurions of the Second and Third centuries paced out the line and marked the positions for each century as they marched at right angles to the road. The gap left for the Sixth century straddled the road and Cato, sticking close to the standard bearer and Macro as ordered, found himself in front of the line of men, formed up four deep, that stretched out over a hundred paces on each side. Ahead, the ground sloped gently down to a village nestling inside a wide loop of river that emerged from the forest surrounding the cleared land.
Cato was surprised at the size of the settlement. He had been expecting a loose collection of mud huts inside a flimsy palisade. Instead there were hundreds of huts and larger buildings crammed within a high turf wall and water-filled ditch. The main gate was closed, flanked by two squat stone towers from which the narrow drawbridge was controlled. A little beyond the gate, the track opened out into a square in front of the largest building in the village.
It was a good half mile from the crest to the drawbridge and the First century had already covered most of the distance on the track while the rest of the cohort had formed up. There seemed to be little response in the village as the soldiers approached and the men waited peacefully as a few faces appeared at the wall to inspect their visitors. While the five centuries stood at ease word was passed that rations could be eaten and the men started feeding on the contents of their haversacks. Cato took out a strip of dried beef and gnawed at the tough but highly flavoured meat. The morning's march had made him more hungry than he realised and he worked his jaws furiously while gazing out across the panorama below.
Cato's eye was suddenly caught by a movement at the far side of the village. Three figures, carrying shields and spears, were running away towards the distant treeline. A greasy smudge of smoke eddied up from where Cato had first seen them as a small camp fire smouldered.
'Sir!' he called out to Macro. 'Over there!'
'What is it?'
'There, sir.' Cato pointed with his javelin. 'Those men running. D'you see 'em?'
'Yes, boy. I see them.'
'What should we do, sir?' Cato asked.
'Do?' Macro frowned. 'Nothing. They're too far away to do anything. Anyway, there's only three of them.'
'Should we tell the tribune?' Cato persisted.
They watched silently as the three armed men disappeared across the farmland towards the trees while Vitellius led his men across the open ground towards the gate and halted the century by the ditch in front of the towers. The tribune waved his arm determinedly and, after a short pause, the gate swung inwards to admit the soldiers. The century passed inside the village and, for a few anxious moments, disappeared from view amongst the huts before emerging into the village square. Vitellius halted the column and sent two men forward to the main door of the largest building facing on to the square. Before they could reach it, the door opened and a tall woman with long flaxen hair emerged. Although those remaining on the hill crest could hear nothing and see precious little from half a mile away, it was clear that some argument was taking place between Vitellius and the woman.
'I thought we were sent to arrest the chief, sir?' Cato commented.
'So we were, boy,' Macro said irritably. 'He shouldn't waste time. There isn't much daylight to waste in winter.' He stared up at the sky where the sun looked longingly towards the horizon. 'Don't much fancy marching home in the darkness.'
Cato involuntarily looked back towards the forest in the distance. The place had been unnerving enough in daylight, Jupiter knows what it would be like in pitch darkness. 'If it gets dark wouldn't it be better to go round the forest, sir?'
Macro shook his head. 'Too far. Besides we can make torches if we need to. You aren't scared, are you, boy?'
'Good. Stay that way,' Macro said with relief, hoping that his five sestertii were still safe.
Down in the village the argument was being forced to a conclusion as Vitellius waved his hand at the woman and two soldiers abruptly pinned her arms back. A squad forced their way into the large building, only to emerge a moment later with a large chest. Having deposited it by Vitellius they proceeded to the next building and forced an entry.
'Seems like our man has got away,' Macro remarked, and yawned elaborately. 'The tribune shouldn't have wasted time on the woman.'
'Unless she's the kind of woman the tribune takes a shine to,' the standard bearer muttered. 'You know what Vitellius is like with women, can't resist the impulse to chat 'em up.'
'He should do it on his own time then. Not the army's. And certainly not mine. And not on a bloody cold day like this.'
'Sir!' Cato interrupted. 'Look there! The gate!'
For some reason the gate was slowly being closed and, as Macro watched, the small drawbridge began to rise. A cold feeling of dread, far colder than the trickle of sweat on a winter day, etched its way down his spine. He shifted his gaze to the centre of the village, but Vitellius and his men seemed unconcerned and continued with the house raids. Beyond the far wall of the village a faint movement attracted his gaze. A shadow was emerging from the forest, as if the sun was setting sooner than it should. Then he realised it couldn't be, the sun was behind the cohort.
'Cato! Your eyes are younger than mine. What's happening over there – at the edge of the forest there!' He pointed urgently.
For a moment Cato wasn't sure, a sight haze had risen over the low ground and partially obscured the view. But a moment later the blurry shadow distilled into distinct shapes. 'I think… I'm sure, it's a body of men. Coming out of the forest, this way.'
He looked at Macro wide-eyed. 'Germans?'
'What else?' Macro replied dryly.
'But what about the others in the village?' Cato said in alarm. 'They can't see.'
'I know, boy. I know.'
More of the men saw the approaching danger and pointed it out to their comrades. An anxious murmuring swept up and down the line.
'Quiet, there!' Macro bellowed. 'Shut your mouths and stand still!'
The legionaries obeyed instantly the moment discipline was invoked. Puffing down the line came Centurion Quadratus of the Second – the senior officer present.
'Macro! You see 'em?'
'We'd better get down there and join the others.'
'We were ordered to remain here,' Macro replied firmly. 'Unless Vitellius signalled us to move.'
'But he can't see them.' Quadratus jabbed a finger towards the approaching Germans, in their thousands now as they poured out of the forest towards the village.
'If we go down there, then we'll all be caught in the trap,' said Macro. 'I suggest we try and attract their attention instead.'
Quadratus stared at Macro a moment and then nodded. He turned to face down the line and cupped his hands to his mouth. 'Standards! Signal recall!'
The remaining five standard bearers raised their standards high and began slowly circling the hanging pendants. Macro looked down at the village where the soldiers of the First century carried on seizing portable items of value, oblivious to the approaching catastrophe.
'Come on, come on!' Quadratus muttered. 'Someone look up… this way.'
Finally they saw a soldier gesture towards them with his javelin and Vitellius turned in his saddle. For a moment he sat motionless on his horse, then turned and frantically waved an arm. The soldier who had seen them rushed from the clearing and shortly after reappeared at the top of one of the gate towers. Even as he did so, figures emerged in the spaces between the village buildings surrounding Vitellius and his men. The century quickly formed up in close order and backed out of the clearing towards the gate. Some of the villagers ran forward and threw stones and lumps of wood at the retreating Romans. A sudden shower of javelins from the rearmost ranks rained down on the villagers, leaving half a dozen prostrate as the others fled back into the narrow alleys. The century was soon lost from sight behind the village buildings as it headed back to the gate.
From the hill, the Germans approaching from the forest were now in clear view and it was possible to estimate their numbers and speed of approach.
'Three, maybe four thousand,' Quadratus guessed.
Macro shook his head. 'Barely that I'd say.'
'Vitellius should have time to get out before they reach the village.'
'Easily. They're still nearly a mile from the far side of the village. Once Vitellius clears the gateway he should make the crest before they get anywhere near.'
'Don't know,' Macro shrugged. 'We'll just have to wait and see what he orders.'
Cato stared at the two officers in disbelief. How on earth could they be so cold-blooded when their comrades faced imminent extinction right under their eyes? And after that, the rest of the cohort would be outnumbered ten to one. He felt a burning desire to turn and run, to shout out to all the others to do the same. But his body refused to move, partly out of shame and partly out of the dread of making the return journey through the forest alone. While he stood motionless, Cato's gaze continued to flicker between the approaching Germans and the village, watching for the progress of the First century. There was a sudden motion in one of the tower gates, the legionary sent there by Vitellius was seized by a group of men, a spear run through him and the body hurled into the ditch.
'I saw it, boy'
A series of flashes and glints marked the arrival of the First century at the edge of the village and a brief struggle was fought out for control of the gate. All the while the Germans swarmed nearer to close the trap.
'It's going to be a close thing,' mused Quadratus. 'Better get ready to make a fighting retreat. I'll get the other centuries back on the track. Macro, I want you to stand here and cover our backs until Vitellius arrives.'
'All right.' Macro nodded. 'But you'd better move fast.'
Quadratus made his way down the line shouting out the necessary commands, and one by one the centuries on the crest turned from line into column and marched back towards the track. At the same time, Macro ordered the Sixth ten paces down the slope to clear the head of the track for Quadratus. Down in the village, Cato could see that the First century had managed to overwhelm the villagers at the gate and legionaries were pulling back the thick wooden gate to make their escape. With Vitellius riding at their head, the First doubled up the hill towards the rest of the cohort. A small crowd of villagers followed behind, but quickly gave up once a fresh volley of javelins was hurled back at them.
Once the century was safely away from the village, Vitellius spurred his horse up the slope to take command of the cohort. He reined in beside Macro, the horse snorting harshly over the frothy bit as a savage gash on its flank bled profusely.
'What the hell's going on here, centurion?' he shouted angrily. 'Where's the rest?'
'Quadratus has moved them back on to the track, sir,' Macro explained.
'What for? Scared of a few bloody villagers? I'm taking the whole cohort back in there and we're going to burn the bastards to the ground!'
'Sir,' Macro interrupted. 'If you care to look over there.'
'Beyond the village, sir.'
For a moment Vitellius froze as the true peril of the situation was at last made clear to him. He studied the dark mass of Germans streaming towards the village and realised what the other officers already knew, that there was no hope of fighting against such odds.
'There's still some distance between us. If we can make the forest in time we can use a rearguard to hold them off.'
'I believe that's what Quadratus had in mind, sir.'
'Good. Right then you stay here. When the First arrives let them through and order them to join on to the end of the column. This century's the rearguard. Only pull back once the cohort is on the move.'
Vitellius took another look back down the slope, gauging the relative positions of both sides. 'They won't reach the village for a little while. With luck, we'll be able to keep far enough ahead of them. Right, centurion, you've got your orders.'
'Yes, sir.' Macro saluted as Vitellius wheeled his horse and rode over the crest towards the head of the column. Once he was sure the tribune was out of earshot, Cato turned to Macro.
'What's going to happen?'
'Just what he said. A quick march back to base. That's all.'
Cato feared that things were not going to work out as simply as that. A nagging feeling at the back of his mind suggested that the worst was yet to come and he silently cursed Macro for ordering him to join the expedition. Instead of the promised bloodless exercise and a reprieve from the attentions of Bestia and Pulcher, he was now faced by a horde of German savages. Barely four weeks into his military career, he reflected bitterly, and already people were queuing up to kill him.
The men of the First century struggled breathlessly up to the line of legionaries below the crest and were quickly ushered on to the track. When the last had passed through the ranks, Macro ordered the line to withdraw ten paces to their original position. The century was about to form up when a faint roar sounded from beyond the head of the column.
Bursting from the distant forest was another swarm of Germans, racing across the farmland to cut off the cohort's retreat. A quick glance was all that Cato needed. Even to his untrained eye it was obvious that the Germans would reach the track well before the nearest century was anywhere near it. Suddenly it was all clear to Cato – the three men running for the forest – the signal fire – the delaying action of the chief's woman. A very neat trap indeed, he conceded, just before the full terror of their plight set the hairs standing on the back of his neck. Looking to Macro for a solution, he was surprised to see the mask of the centurion's composure drop for a moment. He stared at the new threat, then quickly turned back to the first of the German swarms, now hardly three quarters of a mile from the far side of the village.
'Oh great,' muttered Macro. 'Now we're well and truly fucked.'