The silence was finally broken when Portia gave a little cry of shock and clasped a hand over her mouth. Her eyes fluttered and she collapsed like a broken laundry rack.
'Portia!' Minucius clambered over Macro and cradled her head in his hands. 'Portia, my love! Speak to me!'
While he tried to revive the woman, Cato's gaze switched from her to Macro and back again in total bewilderment. Macro just stared fixedly at Portia as if the old woman was the most astonishing vision in the entire world. When the enormity of what had just happened fixed itself in Cato's brain he began to understand Macro's paralysed reaction.
'What's going on?' Anobarbus asked, tugging at Cato's sleeve. 'What did he call her?'
'Mum. He called her Mum.'
'She's his mother?' Anobarbus smiled.'What is she doing here? I thought you two had come down from Rome.'
'I don't know.' Cato shook his head.'Macro told me that she'd abandoned him as a child. Ran off with some marine… oh…' Cato looked at Minucius, who was now squatting on the floor and stroking the old woman's grey hair. 'Oh, no! Macro.'
Macro was still staring down at Portia with a stupefied expression. Cato grabbed his arm and shook him hard.
'Macro! Come on! We have to go.'
Macro tore his gaze away and looked vaguely at Cato. 'Go? Go where?'
'Trust me, we just have to go. Right now.'
'But that's my mum.'
'I know. We'll pop back and see her when you're sober.'
'I haven't seen her for twenty years.' Tears brimmed in the corner of his bleary eyes. 'Since I was her little boy.'
'Yes, yes.' Cato patted his arm gently. 'Wonderful, isn't it? Now we don't want her to see you in this drunken state, do we? Let's go and get you sobered up first. Come on.'
Cato rose from his seat, moved in between Macro and his mother, and her lover, and tried to lift Macro off his bench.
'Here, Anobarbus, lend us a hand.'
The merchant looked at Macro warily. 'Why? What's going on here?'
'Just give me a hand. We have to get him out of here.'
'She's my mother,' Macro mumbled, tears rolling down his cheeks. 'She's my mum, and she ran away from me. Left us for a marine.' Macro suddenly froze, staring at Minucius with wide eyes. 'Him!'
'Oh, no!' Cato's heart sank. 'Quick! Let's go!'
He snatched at Macro's arm and heaved with all his strength, raising the centurion off the bench, but by now full realisation of the situation had flooded drunkenly into Macro's mind. His head snapped towards Minucius.
'You!… You bastard!' he snarled, and then a raw shout of hatred ripped out of his throat. 'It was you! You stole her away from us!'
Minucius looked up, startled by the bellow of rage. He snatched up his hands to protect himself and Portia's head bumped on to the floor. Her eyes flickered open, fixed on Macro and she screamed.
Before Cato could react, Macro roared something incomprehensible and charged into Minucius, picking him up by the shoulders and thrusting him back, through the crowd of marines. Men went flying to either side, tables went over, jars of wine crashed to the floor and shattered, spilling their red contents like blood. There were outraged shouts and screams of panic from the whores as Macro continued to plough through them like an enraged bull with a lithe acrobat pinned on its horns.
Cato turned to Anobarbus and shrugged. 'Here we go again…'
The merchant frowned. 'Does he do this sort of thing often?'
'Not really. But this is something of a special occasion. A family reunion.'
On the far side of the tavern Macro had Minucius pinned up against a wooden post and was busy head-butting him. Customers were piling out of the archway and into the street, most of them keen to avoid any fight that might attract the provosts, and some hoping to get out in the confusion without having to settle their bills.
Portia had recovered from her shock and now flew across the room, snatching up an iron skillet on the way.
'Let go of him!' she shrieked. 'Let go of him, you little horror!'
Macro ignored her intervention and continued battering her paramour with commendable single-mindedness.
'All right then, you little bastard!'
Portia swung the skillet back, took aim and then smashed it into the back of Macro's head. There was a dull gong-like noise, and Macro's knees buckled under him, revealing Minucius, bloody-faced and dazed. A moment later he too slumped to the floor. Portia dropped the skillet and started to cry, an awful screeching sound like a parrot inadvertently caught in a meat-grinder, as her shoulders flapped up and down.
'Look out! The provosts are coming!' a terrified voice shrieked from outside in the street.
'Come on,' Cato said to Anobarbus.'We have to get them out of here. Before the provosts kick seven shades out of them, and us.'
'But surely they won't strike a centurion.'
'How will they know? We're out of uniform.'
They scrambled over the wrecked furniture of the tavern as people stampeded past the archway. Cato gently turned Portia towards him.
'We have to move them. Is there anywhere at the back of the tavern?'
Macro's mother stared at him for a moment before her mind cleared. 'Yes. That way!' She pointed to a small door behind the counter. Anobarbus and Cato picked up the limp form of Macro, dragged him over to the door and thrust him through before they came back for Minucius. Portia held his hand and stroked his hair as they carried him to safety. Outside the Dancing Dolphin an open brawl was breaking out and spilling in through the arch as drunken marines tried to take on club-wielding provosts.
Portia looked up in alarm and screamed, 'Watch them fixings! I paid good money for them!'
One of the provosts nodded. 'Sorry, ma'am.' Then continued pounding the marine lying at his feet.
With the two centurions dragged to safety Cato shut the door and slipped the catch to prevent anyone following them. He looked round and saw that they were in a large stockroom lined with wine jars standing almost as high as a man. A small desk was built into the wall and a ledger lay open on its worn surface. There was a locked gate to the street, and the shadows of people running past in blind panic flitted past the splits and gaps in the timbers. Almost hidden between large jars was a small doorway, which Portia waved them towards.
Cato gritted his teeth as he lifted Macro up, flung an arm round his friend's back and half carried and half dragged him to the doorway. Anobarbus followed with the lighter Minucius, who was slowly recovering his wits. The doorway led into a long narrow passage that was lit by a single oil lamp at the far end. Portia fumbled with a key before opening another door and led them through into a large, poorly illuminated space beyond. Cato eased Macro down on to the tiled floor and stood up. They were standing in a neat, modestly sized atrium. A small pool glimmered in the centre, beneath an opening that revealed distant starlight. Oil lamps flickered beside a small shrine to gods of the household standing in one corner. A gentle tinkling of running water came from a door at the back of the atrium.
'Nice place you have here,' Cato muttered as he caught his breath.
'That's how I'd like to keep it,' Portia said bitterly. 'You might tell your friend that when he comes round. Then you can get him out of here as quickly as possible.'
'My friend?' Cato raised his eyebrows. 'He's your son, if I'm not mistaken.'
Portia stared back at him. 'So it seems… Very well, bring him into my dining room, through here. We'll sort him out and try to talk some sense into his thick skull.'
The dining room was just as tastefully decorated at the atrium and had the usual three couches arranged around a communal table. They heaved Macro on to one while Portia helped Minucius to their bedroom.
Anobarbus looked round admiringly. 'I had no idea one could make such a good living out of running a tavern, particularly one that doesn't water its wine.'
Cato ignored him, and was holding an oil lamp up to the back of Macro's head. The hair was matted with blood, but the skull seemed to have held up well to the impact of the skillet. Macro groaned, and his shoulders twitched violently as he muttered something that made no sense.
Portia returned a short time later with a bowl of water and some old rags. 'Out of my way, young man.' She sat down on the couch next to Macro. 'If you must loiter, then please hold that lamp where it'll do some good. There, by his head.'
Cato watched as she gently sponged the blood away to reveal a cut in his scalp. As quickly as the blood was wiped away, more welled up. Portia rinsed the cloth and then held it against the wound.
She laid her spare hand on Macro's cheek and stroked it gently.'I never thought I'd be doing this again. The number of times I've had to sort out this boy's cuts and scrapes is anybody's guess.'
Cato was intrigued. 'Clumsy lad, then?'
'Clumsy? No. He was a complete thug as a child. Always getting into fights, and never having the sense to pick on people his own size. Just like his father. The pair of them drove me to my wits' end.'
Cato coughed nervously. 'Er, is that why you left them?'
Portia turned towards him with a cold expression. 'And who are you exactly, young man?'
'Quintus Licinius Cato, ma'am. I'm a friend of your son. I've served two years in the Second Legion with him.'
'No, I'm a centurion, like your son.'
'Macro a centurion? The good-for-nothing's a centurion?'
'And a good one, ma'am.'
She pointed an elegant finger at him.'My name is Portia. I'd rather you didn't call me ma'am. I'm not your grand-mother and I won't be treated like one, young man.'
'Fair enough.' Cato nodded.'By the same token I'd prefer you to call me Cato, and not young man.'
She glared at him for a moment, before her stern features abruptly melted into an amused smile. 'Well said.'
Portia turned back to her son and ran her fingers through his hair, then paused. She leaned closer.'What on earth…? Is that a scar? Why, it's enormous. It's a wonder the boy's still alive.'
'Yes it is,' Cato replied quietly. 'I was there when it happened. A celt nearly took off the top of his head. He was in the legion's infirmary for months. We shared the same room.'
'You've been in battle? You don't look old enough.'
'I've been in battle. And I've survived, largely thanks to Macro.'
Portia smiled. 'You're very fond of him.'
Cato thought about it for a moment.'Yes. Yes, I am. He's the nearest thing I've had to family since my father died.'
Anobarbus coughed. 'Er…'
'What is it?' Portia resumed her brisk, businesslike mask. 'What do you want?'
'Down the corridor, last door on the left. Make sure you clean it after you. I know what you men are like.'
After the merchant had left them Cato wanted to pick up the conversation about Macro but the brief display of maternal feeling had dried up. Portia rose and picked up the bowl with its bloodstained water. She went over to a potted plant in the corner and threw the water on to its soil, and placed the empty vessel beside Macro's couch.
'Keep pressing that cloth to his wound. When he comes round, he'll probably want to throw up. Make sure he gets it in the bowl.'
'Where are you going?'
'To see if my intended has survived your friend's assault. Then I'm going to look over what he's left of my tavern. Is that all right with you?' Portia concluded tartly.
Cato nodded, and she disappeared in the direction of the atrium.
He glanced down and saw that the blood was flowing more slowly and pressed gently against the wound. Macro moaned and rolled on to his side.
'Ohhhh, shit… What the hell hit me? Feels like a bloody house collapsed on my head.'
'Shhh. Lie still.'
Macro's eyes flickered open and his forehead creased into a frown as he tried to identify his surroundings. 'Where am I?'
'Well, you may not like this, but it seems that you're at home.'
'What?' Macro turned round quickly. Too quickly. His eyes rolled up and with a convulsive heave he vomited, completely missing the bowl Cato had snatched up from the floor.
06 The Eagles Prophecy