'Out of my way!' Macro shouted. He brushed Cato to one side and threw himself at the barman, swinging a punch to the young man's head. The barman had been working the Forum taverns for long enough to know how to react to such attacks. He ducked beneath the blow and stepped to one side, giving the centurion a firm thrust in the back as he swept past. With a splintering crash Macro sent a table and stools flying before he struck the unyielding bar counter with sufficient force to drive the wind from his lungs. He lay there for a moment, shaking his head, and the barman scurried back round the bar to snatch up a heavy club. The other drinkers in the tavern scrambled up from their seats and pushed towards the street, from where they turned back to watch the spectacle.
'Call the watch!' one of the customers shouted. The call was taken up by some other voices in the crowd that was rapidly gathering outside the tavern.
The last thing Cato wanted was any attention from the men of the urban cohort that policed the streets. He picked his way round the bar and grabbed Macro's shoulder.
'Someone's gone for the watch. Macro, we have to get out of here.'
Macro glared at Cato. 'Once I've finished with him.'
'Not now.' Cato glanced round and saw that the barman was staring at them wildly as he raised his club. 'What do I owe you for the drink?'
'Drink?' The barman frowned.'Just fuck off. Get him out of here.'
'Right.' Cato cautiously approached Macro and helped him up, keeping a firm grip on his arm.'Come on. We have to go.'
Macro caught the note of urgency in Cato's voice and nodded. Then the two centurions picked their way through the splintered wreckage of the table and stools and out into the street. The crowd instinctively pulled back and gave them some space. Not far off, over the heads of the onlookers, four red horse-hair crests edged towards the tavern.
'This way.' Cato shoved Macro along the line of stalls on the edge of the Forum and they threaded their way into the bustling crowd of shoppers and sightseers. When Cato felt they had gone far enough he pulled Macro into a narrow alley behind the Forum and the two of them leaned up against the grimy plaster walls of an ancient shrine and caught their breath.
'What the hell was that all about?' Cato snapped.
'That fight at the tavern. What the hell do you think you were doing?'
'That bastard was one of Porcius' supporters.'
'I know. So what?'
'Is that any reason…? Oh, shit.' Cato's head drooped. 'The bet. You lost all our money.'
'What d'you mean I've lost it?' Macro responded angrily. 'It was our money. Our bet. You'd have had fair shares if we'd won.'
'But we didn't.'
'I know!' Macro smacked his fist against his chest. 'I was bloody well there when that twat Nepos drove his fucking chariot straight into the wall. Only a hundred feet short of the line. The Praetorians were pissing themselves laughing…'
'Well,' Macro lowered his eyes, 'that's when I hit one of them.'
'You hit one of them?'
'Two, actually. Perhaps a few more as well. Can't quite remember. One of them didn't get up.'
'I see.' Cato spoke through clenched teeth. 'So not only did you lose our money, you've managed to get the Praetorian Guards on our backs. And now, thanks to your little rumpus in the tavern, the urban cohort are after us as well.' Cato rubbed his forehead to ease the torrent of tormenting thoughts cascading through his mind. 'On top of that, Narcissus knows we're in Rome.'
Macro looked up. 'Oh?'
'He saw me. Back at the Great Circus.'
'Of course I'm bloody sure. He looked right at me. He even waved. Before he sent some men after me. Why did you think I had to get out so fast?'
Macro shrugged.'I had wondered about that. So what do we do now?'
'That's the question. Trouble is, there's no answer. We can't run for it. They're bound to have men watching for us at the city gates. We can't lie low in Rome, not without money.'
Both men were silent for a moment, before Macro reached a hand up to his face and winced as it came in contact with a huge bruise on his cheek. 'Ouch! That smarts!'
Cato glared at him. 'Well, you deserve it.'
'Thanks for your sympathy…' Macro looked up at his friend. 'We need to get off the streets.'
That night Cato lay on his side and stared at the wall, close enough to see his breath glistening on the cracked plaster, thanks to a shaft of moonlight probing through the broken shutter. He was more tired than he had been for months, yet his mind would not stop running over the day's events. The uncertainty over his future that had plagued him since returning to Rome now seemed quite trivial compared to the despair he felt at his present situation. Only a miracle could save him now. Tormented by such thoughts he lay still and stared at the wall for what felt like hours. Macro, as usual, had fallen into a deep sleep almost as soon as he had laid his head down on his mattress, and his snoring threatened to shake the tenement block down. For a while Cato entertained the notion of crossing the room and rolling Macro over on to his side, but that would mean leaving the snug warmth he had managed to build up under his tunic, army cloak and blanket. So he suffered the din, grew accustomed to it, and eventually drifted off to sleep.
A shattering crash snapped him into wakefulness. It was just after dawn, and the room was readily visible in the thin grey light. Cato sat up, turning towards the doorway just as the old iron latch sprang from its fixings and the weathered timbers of the door flew inwards and cracked sharply against the wall, dislodging a shower of loose plaster.
'What the hell…?' Macro raised his head just as four heavily armoured soldiers burst into the room with swords drawn.
'Stay where you are!' one of the men shouted, raising his blade just enough to make the threat unmistakable. Cato and Macro froze, and the man lowered his sword as he addressed them in a more official tone.
'Centurions Macro and Cato?'
'Narcissus wants to see you.'
06 The Eagles Prophecy