Centurion Minucius was waiting for them on the road beside the camp. As the centurions slowly approached either side of Anobarbus, he crossed his arms.
'And this is…?'
'Marcus Anobarbus,' Macro grumbled. 'We've met him before. He was at Hispellum the night we stayed there.'
'And you just went out for a walk in the middle of the night and found him, I suppose?' Minucius said with scarcely veiled suspicion. 'For that matter, just who exactly are you two?'
'Centurions, on our way to a new posting, like we said.'
'Like you said.'
'You've seen our documents,' Cato added. 'They carry the stamp of the Imperial army bureau, right?'
'Any half-competent child could have faked those.'
'Maybe, but who would want to?' Cato persisted. 'Now, please, can we get this man into our tent and tend to his injuries?'
Minucius raised his eyebrows. 'Injuries? What kind of injuries?'
'When we found him, some men were amusing themselves by seeing how painful they could make Anobarbus' last moments.'
Macro shrugged. 'Let's get him inside and find out.'
The centurions laid Anobarbus down on Macro's bedding. A moment later Minucius appeared from the wagons with a box of salves and dressings. He set the box down beside the merchant as Cato gently peeled back the cloak and exposed the injuries.
'Shit,' Minucius grimaced. 'What the hell were they doing to him?'
'Trying to loosen his tongue,' Cato replied. 'We heard them asking him some questions.'
'Not sure. They were after something and he said he didn't have it.'
'Oh, that's very helpful.'
Macro nodded at the merchant. 'He's stirring. Let's ask him.'
Anobarbus' eyes flickered open, and he glanced anxiously at the faces looming over him before he recognised Cato and Macro, and the terror eased off. He licked his lips and forced a smile. 'My rescuers. For a moment I thought you were… What happened to them?'
'One got away,' Macro replied.'The others are dead. Care to tell us who they were?'
'In a moment,' Minucius interrupted. 'Let me see to the burns first.'
He lifted the lid off his medical box. In the bottom lay a selection of jars of ointments and dressings. Minucius rummaged about and took out a small pot with a cork lid. Inside was an oily cream which he applied carefully to the merchant's chest and the burn on his face.
'Goose fat,' he explained.'It'll protect the burns. Now lift him up while I get the dressing on.'
The merchant gritted his teeth as Minucius wrapped a clear linen bandage round his torso and tied it off under one arm. Anobarbus gratefully slumped back on to the bedding while Minucius closed the medical box and placed it to one side.
'All right then,' Macro said. 'Tell us what happened.'
Anobarbus closed his eyes for a moment before he started. 'I've already told you I'm a merchant. I deal in artworks. I buy stuff that's shipped into Ravenna from Greece and have it transported to my clients in Rome. I came down from the capital a week ago. I had quite a large sum of money with me when I set off from Rome. I was making good time. Then a blizzard set in and closed the Flaminian Way. When it cleared I saw those men, some distance ahead on the road. They must have been waiting for travellers. I turned my horse and raced back the way I'd come. Soon as they had mounted they came after me. My money box was still filled with gold and weighing me down. I could see that they must catch me if I didn't move faster. So I stopped and hid the gold before continuing.'
'Hid it?' Macro interrupted. 'Where?'
Anobarbus looked at him. 'Why should I tell you?'
'For fuck's sake, man! We rescued you. We're centurions in the service of the Emperor, not more bloody mountain brigands.'
Anobarbus thought for a moment. 'All right. There's a small shrine by the side of the road. I slipped the box into a fox-hole close by. It'd better still be there when I get back to it, or I'll know who to blame. I've got contacts, I have. Powerful contacts.'
Macro shook his head sadly. 'So have we all, mate. The trick is to avoid getting shafted by them all the time. Anyway, on with your story.'
'You can guess the rest,' Anobarbus continued.'I rode on, but they were better mounted, and they caught up with me just as it was getting dark. They were going to kill me straight away but when they saw I no longer had the money box they knew I had hidden it somewhere. At first they just slapped me about a bit, and when I refused to speak, the leader threatened to kill me on the spot. But I knew that I would be dead the moment I told them where to find the money, so I clammed up. They settled down, stripped me, tied me to that tree trunk and lit themselves a nice little fire. I had no idea what was in store for me until I saw him start to heat his sword. Well, you know the rest. You came on the scene just in time. Frankly, I'd have spilled my guts the moment he put that blade anywhere near my balls.'
Cato winced. 'Who wouldn't?'
'So, then you two charged on to the scene. Against four of them.' Anobarbus smiled. 'Now that does take balls.'
'Use them while you still have 'em,' said Macro. He turned to Minucius.'We surprised them. Took the first two out before they could react. I sorted one, and the other man gave Cato the slip.'
'Just a bloody moment!' Cato flared up. 'Some bastard had me by the ankle. You went after him. He gave you the bloody slip.'
Macro raised his hands placatingly. 'Figure of speech, lad, that's all. Anyway, he got away, and headed off down the road.'
Cato pointed a finger at the merchant.'You said you deal in antiques.'
'What kind of antiques?'
'Usual stuff. Statues, ceramics, furniture, books. Anything that commands a premium price amongst collectors in Rome. You'd be horrified to know what they're prepared to pay for some things. Of course, I'm delighted.'
'What about scrolls?' asked Cato.
Anobarbus frowned.'Scrolls? What kind of scrolls?'
'I don't know. But tell me, in your experience, what makes a scroll valuable?'
'Depends. Some people will pay a fortune for an original book of recipes. Others collect histories. Or stories, sayings, predictions. That type of stuff. Of course, some of the best material, from an investment point of view, is erotica, especially material from the Far East. They could teach a Subura streetwalker a trick or two.'
'No doubt,' Cato smiled.'But is that it? Nothing else that might make a scroll so valuable?'
Anobarbus thought a moment and then shrugged.'Sorry. That's all I can think of right now… Ouch!' His face contorted and he reached up to his chest.
'Don't!' Minucius snapped and slapped his hand aside. 'Best to leave it alone. You should try and get some rest.'
'Yes. Rest.' The merchant nodded. 'Now, I think I've had enough questioning for the night, if you gentlemen don't mind?'
Macro shook his head, and Cato sat back and puffed his cheeks. Anobarbus closed his eyes and, with a strained expression etched on his face, he tried to breathe easily. Gradually, the rise and fall of his chest became less laboured and his face relaxed into a deep sleep.
'What do you think?' said Cato.
'About his story? Does it hold up?'
Macro shook his head. 'Why not? Cato, you see conspiracies everywhere. Why shouldn't the man be what he said he is? It's simple enough to believe.'
'Too simple,' mused Minucius.
Macro looked round in exasperation. 'Not you too?'
'Why not?' said the old centurion. 'And, by the way, I'm still not even sure about you and the lad here. What was all that nonsense about scrolls?'
'I've had enough of this,' Macro grumbled. 'I need some sleep.'
'Tough.' Minucius nodded at the merchant on Macro's bedding.
'Oh, great,' Macro gritted his teeth.'That's all I need.' He rose up and made for the tent flaps.
'Where are you going now?'
'For a piss. If you don't mind. Then I might just go and cut myself some more bloody bedding.'
06 The Eagles Prophecy