'Rome… bollocks…'Centurion Macro grunted as he eased himself up from his bed roll, wincing at the terrible pain in his skull. 'I'm still in Rome.'
Through the broken shutter a feeble shaft of light cut across the dingy room, and fell fully upon his face. He closed his eyes, clenching the eyelids shut, and slowly drew a deep breath. The previous evening he had drunk himself insensible and, as usual, he silently swore an oath never to touch cheap wine again. The previous three months were littered with such oaths. Indeed, their frequency had increased disturbingly in recent days as Macro had begun to doubt that he and his friend Cato would ever find a new posting. It seemed as if an age had passed since they had been forced to quit the Second Legion in Britain and returned to Rome. Macro was desperate to return to military life. Surely there must be some vacancies in one of the legions spread along the vast frontier of the Empire? But, it seemed, every centurion on active service was in distastefully good health. Either that, Macro frowned, or there was some conspiracy to keep him and Centurion Cato off the active service list and still waiting for their back pay. A complete waste of his many years of experience, he fumed. And a poor start for Cato, who had been promoted to centurion not even a year ago.
Macro cracked open one eye and glanced across the bare boards to the other side of the small room. Cato's dark, unkempt curls poked out from under several layers of cloaks and blankets that overflowed the cheap bed rolls. Stuffed with straw and stinking of mildew, the threadbare bedding had been almost the only item on the inventory when they first rented the room.
'Cato…' Macro called softly, but there was no reply. No movement at all. The lad must still be asleep, Macro decided. Well then, let him sleep. It was late January and the mornings were cold and there was no sense in getting up before the sun had risen enough to bring some warmth to the densely packed city. At least it wasn't like that mind-numbing cold they had endured last winter in Britain. The endless misery of the damp and chilly climate had worked its way into the very hearts of the legionaries and set them to melancholy thoughts of home. Now Macro was home, and the terrible frustration of eking out his life on dwindling savings was driving him mad.
Raising a hand to his head, Macro scratched at his scalp, cursing the lice that seemed to breed in every corner of the crumbling tenement block.
'Bloody lice are in on the act as well,' he muttered. 'Has everyone got it in for me these days?'
There was some justice to his complaint. For the best part of two years he and Cato had fought their way through the savage tribes of Britain and had played their part in defeating Caratacus and his Celtic horde. And their reward for all the dangers they had faced? A damp room in a crumbling tenement block in the slum district of the Subura as they waited to be recalled to duty. Worse still, due to some bureaucratic nicety, they had not been paid since arriving in Rome and now Macro and Cato had all but run through the money they had brought back with them from Britain.
A distant hubbub of voices and cries carried across from the forum as the city shuffled to life in the bleak glow of a winter dawn. Macro shivered, and pulled his thick army cloak about his broad shoulders. Grimacing at the rhythmic pounding in his skull, he eased himself to his feet and shuffled across the room to the shutters. He lifted the cord off the bent nail that secured the two wooden panels and then pushed the broken one out. More light spilled into the room as the worn hinges grated in protest and Macro narrowed his eyes against the sudden glare. But only for a moment. Once again the now-too-familiar vista of Rome opened up before him and he could not help being awed by the spectacle of the world's greatest city. Built on to the unfashionable side of the Esquiline hill, the topmost rooms of the tenement block looked out over the insanely crowded squalor of the Subura, towards the towering temples and palaces that surrounded the Forum, and beyond to the warehouses that were packed along the banks of the Tiber.
He had been told that nearly a million people were crowded within the walls of Rome. From where Macro stood that was all too easy to believe. A geometric chaos of rooftiles dropped down the slope in front of him, and the narrow alleyways that ran between them could only be divined where the grimy brickwork of the upper levels of the apartments were visible. A shroud of woodsmoke hung over the city and its acrid stench even overwhelmed the sharp tang from the tannery at the end of the street. Even now, after more than three months in the city, Macro had not grown used to the raw stench of the place. Nor the filth that lay in the streets: a dark mixture of shit and rotting scraps of food that not even the meanest beggar would pick through. And everywhere the dense press of bodies that flowed through the streets: slaves, traders, merchants and artisans. Drawn from across the Empire, they still bore the trappings of their civilisations in an exotic medley of colours and styles. Around them swirled the listless mass of freeborn citizens looking for some form of entertainment to keep them amused when they were not queuing for the grain dole. Here and there the litters of the rich were carried above and apart from the rest of Rome, their owners clutching pomades to their noses to catch a more fragrant breath in the ripe atmosphere that embraced the city.
That was the reality of life in Rome and it overwhelmed Macro. He wondered at the mass of humanity that could tolerate such an affront to the senses and not yearn for the freedom and freshness of a life far removed from the city. He felt sure that Rome would soon drive him mad.
Macro leaned his elbows on the worn sill and peered down into the shadowy street that ran along the side of the tenement block. His eyes slid down the grimy brickwork of the wall stretching below his window in a dizzy drop that foreshortened the people passing below into four-limbed insects; distant and just as easily dismissible, as they scuttled along the dim street. This room on the fifth floor of the tenement was the highest Macro had ever been in anything made by man, and the elevation made him feel a little dizzy.
Macro turned and saw that Cato was awake and rubbing his eyes as his jaw stretched in a yawn.
'Me. I feel like shit.'
Cato examined his friend with a disapproving shake of his head. 'You look like shit.'
'Better get yourself cleaned up.'
'Why? What's the point? No need to make an effort when there's nothing to do for the rest of the day.'
'We're soldiers. We let it go now and we'll never get the edge back. Besides, once a legionary always a legionary. You told me that.'
'I did?' Macro raised an eyebrow, and then shrugged. 'I must have been drunk.'
'How can you tell?'
'That's enough of your lip,' Macro grumbled as he felt his head begin to spin gently. 'I need some more rest.'
'You can't rest. We have to get ready.' Cato reached for his boots, put them on and began to fasten the leather ties.
'Ready?' Macro turned to him. 'Ready for what?'
'Forgotten? What have I forgotten?'
'Our appointment at the palace. I told you about it last night, when I found you in that tavern.'
Macro frowned as he strained his mind to recover the details of the previous evening's binge. 'Which one?'
'The Grove of Dionysus.' Cato spoke patiently.'You were drinking with some veterans of the Tenth and I came up and told you I had got us an interview with the procurator in charge of legionary postings. At the third hour. So we haven't got much time to get ourselves breakfasted, washed and kitted up before we head to the palace. There's racing today at the Great Circus; we have to get out early if we're going to beat the crowds. You could do with something to eat. Something to settle your stomach.'
'Sleep,' Macro replied quietly, as he slumped on to his bed roll and curled up under his cloak. 'Sleep'll settle my stomach nicely.'
Cato finished tying his boots and stood up, ducking his head to avoid banging it against the beam that crossed the room; one of the few instances where being a head taller than Macro was a disadvantage. Cato reached for the leather bag of ground barley that stood beside the rest of their kit, propped up against the wall next to the door. He untied it and poured a measure into each of their mess tins, before carefully twisting the bag and knotting the ties once again, to keep the mice out.'I'll go and get the porridge made up. You can start polishing the armour while I'm gone.'
When the door had closed behind his friend, Macro closed his eyes again and tried to ignore the pain in his skull. His stomach felt knotted and empty. A meal would do him good. The sun had risen higher and he opened his eyes again. He groaned, threw the cloak to one side and went over towards the piles of armour and equipment leaning beside the door. Despite sharing the rank of centurion, Macro had more than a dozen years of experience over Cato. Sometimes it felt strange to find himself obeying one of the lad's instructions. But, Macro bitterly reminded himself, they were no longer on active duty. Rank was largely irrelevant. Instead they were two friends struggling to survive until they finally received their back pay from the miserly clerks at the imperial treasury. Hence the need to watch every sestertian as they waited for a new posting. Not an easy task when Macro was inclined to spend what little savings he had on drink.
The narrow stairwell was lit by openings in the wall on every second landing and Cato, with his hands full, had to pick his way down the ancient creaking boards with care. Around him he could hear the sounds of other tenants rising: the bawling of young children, the intemperate shouts of their parents and the low sullen murmurs of those who faced a long day's employment somewhere in the city. Although he had been born in Rome and raised in the palace until he was old enough to be sent to the legions, Cato had never had cause to visit the slum areas, let alone enter one of the towering tenement blocks packed with the capital's poor. It had shocked him to realise that freeborn citizens could live like this. He had not imagined such squalor. Even the slaves in the palace lived better than this. Far better than this.
At the bottom of the stairs Cato turned into the heart of the building and emerged into the gloomy yard where the block had its communal cooking hearth. A wizened old man was stirring a large blackened pot on the griddle and the air was thick with the smell of gruel. Even at this early hour there was someone ahead of Cato in the queue, a thin pasty woman who lived with a large family in one room on the floor immediately below Macro and Cato. Her husband worked in the warehouses; a huge surly man whose drunken shouting and beating of his wife and children could be heard clearly enough in the room above. At the sound of Cato's nailed boots tramping across the flagstones she turned and looked over her shoulder. Her nose had been broken some time ago and today her cheek and eye were heavily bruised. Still a smile flickered across her lips and Cato made himself smile back, out of pity. She could have been any age between twenty and forty but the back-breaking labour of raising a family and the strain of tiptoeing round her brutish husband had reduced her to a wasted streak of despair as she stood barefoot in a ragged tunic, bronze pail in one hand and a sleeping infant clutched against her hip in the other.
Cato glanced away, not wanting to make further eye contact, and sat down at the far end of the bench to wait his turn at the hearth. In the arches on the far side of the yard the slaves of a bakery were already at work, heating the ovens for the first loaves of the day.
Cato looked up and saw that the baker's wife had emerged from her premises and was grinning at him. She was younger than Cato, and had already been married to the ageing owner of the business for three years. It had been a good marriage for the pretty, but coarse girl from the Subura, and she had plans for the business once her husband had passed on. Of course she might need a partner to share her ambitions when the time came. She had freely imparted this information to Cato as soon as he had moved into the tenement, and the implication was clear enough.
'Morning,Velina.' Cato nodded. 'Good to see you.'
From the other end of the bench came a clearly audible sniff of contempt.
'Ignore her.' Velina smiled. 'Mrs Gabinius thinks she's better than the rest of us. How's that brat Gaius coming on? Still poking his nose where it's not wanted?'
The thin woman turned away from the baker's wife and clutched her child close to her chest without making any reply. Velina placed her hands on her hips and raised her head with a triumphant sneer before her attention returned to Cato.
'How's my centurion today? Any news?'
Cato shook his head. 'Still no postings for either of us. But we're going to see someone at the palace this morning. Might have some good news later on.'
'Oh…' Velina frowned. 'I suppose I should wish you good luck.'
'That would be nice.'
She shrugged. 'Can't see why you bother, though. How long has it been now? Five months?'
'What if there's nothing for you? You should think about doing something else with your life. Something more rewarding.' She arched an eyebrow and pouted quickly. 'Young man like yourself could go a long way, in the right company.'
'Maybe.' Cato felt himself blushing and glanced round towards the hearth. The open attention he was getting from Velina embarrassed him and he desperately wanted to quit the yard before she developed her plans for him any further.
The old man who had been stirring his gruel was heaving the steaming pot from the iron griddle and headed carefully towards the stairs. The wife of Gabinius reached for her pots.
'Excuse me.' Cato stood up. 'Would you mind if I went first?'
She looked up, sunken eyes fixing him with a cold stare for an instant.
'We're in a rush this morning,' Cato explained quickly. 'Have to get up and out as quick as we can.' He made a pleading face and tilted his head slightly in the direction of the baker's wife. The thin woman pursed her lips in a smile, glanced at Velina with a barely concealed delight as she saw the other's look of frustration.
'Of course, sir. Since you're so desperate to get away.'
'Thank you.' Cato nodded his gratitude and placed the mess tins on the hot griddle. He ladled some water in from the water trough, mixed it into the ground barley and started stirring as it heated up.
Velina sniffed, turned and strode back towards the bakery.
'She's still giving you the eye then?' Macro grinned as he scraped the bottom of his mess tin with a scrap of bread.
'Afraid so.' Cato had finished his meal and was rubbing wax into his leather harness with an old rag. The silvered medals he had won in battle shone like freshly minted coins from their fastenings on the harness. He already wore his thick military tunic and scale armour, and had fastened polished greaves to his lower legs. He dabbed some more wax on to the cloth and rubbed away at the gleaming leather.
'Going to do anything about it?' Macro continued, trying not to smile.
'Not on your life. I've got enough to worry about as it is. If we don't get out of here soon, I'm going to go mad.'
Macro shook his head. 'You're young. You must have twenty or twenty-five good years of service ahead of you. There's time enough. It's different for me. Fifteen more years at the most. The next posting will probably be my last chance to get my hands on enough money to see me through retirement.'
The concern in his voice was clear and Cato paused and looked up. 'Then we'd better make sure that we make the most of this morning. I staked out the secretary's office for days to get this appointment. So let's not be late.'
'All right, lad. Point taken. I'll get ready.'
A little later Cato stepped back from Macro and examined him with a critical eye.
'How do I look?'
Cato ran his eyes over his friend and pursed his lips. 'You'll do. Now let's go.'
When the two officers emerged from the dark staircase and on to the street in front of the tenement, heads turned to take in the spectacle of the gleaming armour and the brilliant red cloaks. Each officer wore his helmet and the neat horsehair crests fanned out across the gleaming metal. With vine cane gripped in one hand while the other rested on his sword pommel, Cato drew himself up and stiffened his back.
Someone wolf-whistled and Cato turned to see Velina leaning against the doorpost at the street entrance to her husband's business.
'Well then, just look at the two of you! I could really go for someone in uniform…'
Macro grinned at her. 'I'm sure something could be arranged. I'll drop by when we get back from the palace.'
Velina smiled weakly.'That would be nice…to see both of you.'
'Me first,' said Macro.
Cato gripped his arm. 'We'll be late. Come on.'
Macro winked at Velina and stepped out with Cato. Side by side they marched boldly down the slope towards the Forum and the gleaming pillars of the vast imperial palace rising up on the Capitoline Hill.
06 The Eagles Prophecy