'What the hell was that bastard Vitellius doing there?' Macro grumbled as he shifted his pack and adjusted his stride.'I hoped I'd never lay eyes on him ever again, after that business back in Britain. Just goes to show. When you've really fallen in the shit, you can always count on someone to pile on another load.'
Cato grunted his assent at his friend's quirky fatalism. Life was like that. He'd already seen enough of it to know. Macro was right to be worried. The fact that the man had been waiting to see Narcissus immediately after them implied some kind of connection with the mission they had been forced to undertake. It might be a coincidence, Cato reflected. After all, Narcissus must be overseeing many operations. Even so, Cato could not shake off the feeling that their presence and that of the treacherous former tribune of the Second Legion were somehow linked. They had foiled a plot by Vitellius to assassinate Emperor Claudius, but after the event the wily tribune had left them with no evidence to bring against him, and so compelled their silence. Cato was certain that Vitellius was merely biding his time before he arranged for fatal accidents to befall Macro and himself.
The revival of this danger added to his existing fears, and Cato could not shake Vitellius from his mind as he and Macro trudged along the Flaminian Way. Even though it was a cold day, and a chilly breeze cut through the air, there were only patches of cloud in the crisp blue sky. After the first mile on the road, the exercise had warmed their muscles and Cato no longer shivered. They had left Rome at noon, pausing at the Sanqualian Gate to fill their canteens, and only with the walls of the city falling behind them had Macro felt safe enough to speak his mind. On either side of the broad paved road, tombs and mausoleums jostled with more modest memorials to the generations of the dead who had been buried outside the walls of the city.
The traffic on the Flaminian Way was heavy, with a constant stream of wagons and carts loaded down with farm produce, goods and luxuries heading for the great markets of the capital. Trundling in the opposite direction were empty vehicles. The two centurions marched past as swiftly as possible to catch up with the reinforcement column that had left the city hours before and was well on the way to Ocriculum. The column would make good time as traffic would clear the way for them as they passed, whereas the two centurions, being far less conspicuous, would have to weave their way through the other road users.
'We're not going to catch them before nightfall,' Cato grumbled. 'Not at this rate.'
'We might,' Macro replied, glancing over his shoulder at Cato. 'If we can keep the pace up. Come on, lad, no dawdling.'
Cato gritted his teeth and lengthened his stride, until he drew alongside his friend. 'You ever had any dealings with the marines before?'
'Marines?' Macro spat on the ground. 'Yes, I've come across a few. On the Rhine squadron. They used to take leave in Argentorate, same as us legionaries. Idle wankers, the lot of them. Spent all their time dossing about on the decks of their ships while we got on with the real soldiering.'
Cato smiled. 'I take it there's no love lost between legionaries and marines.'
'None,' Macro replied emphatically. 'We were at each other's throats from the off.'
'You do surprise me. Still, now we've got a posting to the marines, we'd better forgive and forget, eh?'
'Forgive and forget?' Macro raised his eyebrows. 'Fuck that! I just hate the bastards. Every legionary does. Mark my words, there's no such thing as a good marine. Idlers, wasters and the scrapings of the street. Anyone with any worth has upped and joined the legions. We'll have to cope with the leavings.'
'Not looking forward to a bit of drilling then?'
'Cato, my lad, there's drilling and then there's the kind of chaotic scrabbling about that is the specialism of your average marine.'
'So, when it comes to soldiering, they're all at sea?'
Macro closed his eyes briefly. 'Cato, that's the kind of crack that ruins friendships.'
'Sorry. Just trying to lighten the mood.'
'Well, don't. All right? Things are hard enough for the pair of us without you trying to joke about it.'
'Fair enough.' Cato glanced up as a column of wagons ground by on the other side of the road. Each wagon carried several men, well-muscled and looking at the peak of physical fitness. He nudged Macro. 'Could do with a few more like them in the legions.'
Macro looked round. 'Them? Gladiators. No, they're the last thing you want in the army. They think they know all that there is to know about fighting. That it's all down to fancy footwork and a nimble blade. Your bog-standard barbarian would knock 'em flat while they were still out to win points for style. Gladiators…' Macro shook his head wearily. 'So far up their own arses they hardly see the light of day from one month to the next. If you want someone at your shoulder that you can rely on, pick a legionary every time. And, if you can't find a legionary, then an auxiliary will do.'
Cato stared at him. 'You've really got it in for the marines, haven't you? Any particular reason? One of them run off with your sister, or something?'
Macro shot a look at his friend.'Sister? No. Much closer than that. My mother.'
Macro nodded. 'A trireme turned up at Ostia for refitting. Crew came ashore for a few days. One of the smooth bastards chats my mum up and she drops the rest of us in the shit and sails off into the bloody sunset with her marine and is never seen again. I was not much more than a kid at the time. That was twenty years ago.'
Cato was stunned. In the two years that he had known Macro, his friend had rarely mentioned his background. And now this. Having grown used to the tales of old soldiers he could not help being suspicious. 'Is that true?'
'Have I ever lied to you?'
Cato shrugged helplessly. 'Well, yes. Frequently, as it happens. Soldiers' stories and all that. "The barbarian that got away", that kind of thing.'
'Oh.' Macro pursed his lips. 'This one's true. So I hate marines,' he concluded simply.
Cato felt a heavy weight settle on his heart. If Macro carried such prejudices with him all the way to Ravenna then life with the marines was going to be very difficult. The inter-service rivalry was bad enough without Macro adding his personal crusade against marine-kind to the situation.
Cato tried to reason with his friend.'Don't you think it's a bit harsh to judge them all by the conduct of one?'
Cato hissed with frustration. 'That's hardly fair.'
'What's fairness got to do with it? One of the bastards ran off with my mum. Now the boot's on the other foot and I'm going to stick it to them. And I'll have none of your nonsense about fairness.'
'Prejudice never solved anything,' Cato replied calmly.
'Bollocks! Which one of your fancy philosophers came up with that? Prejudice solves everything, and quickly too. As long as you've got the balls to see it through. How else do you think we got ourselves an empire? Through playing fair with a bunch of hairy-arsed barbarians? Think we talked 'em into throwing down their weapons and surrendering their lands? No. We regarded them as ignorant and uncivilised. All of them. And rightly so, in my opinion. Made kicking their heads in a lot easier at the end of the day. You start arguing with yourself about the pros and cons of their point of view and you'll be dead in a flash. Act as you find and life becomes simpler, and longer, probably. So, Cato, spare me your feelings about fairness, eh? If I want to hate marines, that's up to me. Makes my life easy. You want to cosy up to them, then that's up to you. But leave me out of it.'
'Well, if you insist.'
'I do. All right? Now let's change the subject.'
Cato could see that his friend would not budge on the issue. Not right now, at least. Perhaps Macro could be persuaded to be more reasonable over time; a few carefully chosen words here and there and their posting to the marines might be less of an unpleasant experience. If Narcissus was right, then this mission was going to be dangerous enough for Cato and Macro without having to worry about the loyalty of the men around them.
Cato leaned forward, adjusted the weight of the yoke on his shoulder, and marched on in silence. The Flaminian Way began to incline as it met a low ridge to the north of the capital. As the road evened out, Cato stepped off the road into the shade of a copse of tall cypress trees and set his pack down for a moment. Macro strode on a few paces, then paused, and reluctantly trudged off the paved surface and joined his friend.
'Not tired already?'
'A bit,' Cato admitted. 'I'm out of training for route marches.'
'Really?' Macro smirked. 'I'll make a marine of you yet.'
'Very funny.' Cato took a sip from his canteen and stared back down the road towards Rome, sprawling across its seven hills and spilling out on to the surrounding landscape. Having lived in the tight confines of the city for some months, it felt strange to Cato to encompass the city of a million souls in one glance. The vast edifice of the imperial palace complex was clearly visible, even at a distance of several miles, but now it looked tiny, like some construction of a child's set of building blocks. For a moment Cato wondered at the smallness of human achievement in a wider context. All the grand politics of the palace, all the petty prejudices and aspirations of the densely packed streets of the capital – all seemed futile and insignificant viewed from a distance.
Cato looked at his friend. For Macro it was different. He survived in the gritty world of immediate details and focused on the challenges right in front of him. It was an enviable perspective, Cato felt – one that he wished he could develop for himself. He spent far too much time thinking about abstract issues. In the legions that could cost lives, he reflected, and the abyss of self-doubt that plagued him yawned once more. Now that he was a centurion he was more conscious than ever about his failings, and yearned for the verities of the life that he assumed Macro enjoyed.
'If you've had enough of the scenery,' Macro broke into his thoughts, 'would you mind if we got on?'
'Right.' Cato pushed the stopper back into his canteen, took a deep breath and heaved the pack back on to his shoulders. 'I'm ready. Let's go.'
As the afternoon wore on, the scattered clouds thickened and blotted out the sky, eventually concealing the sun itself behind a miserable curtain of a dirty grey haze. As the centurions marched further from Rome and left the immediate belt of farms and factories that fed their wares into the capital, the traffic began to thin out. The slopes of the surrounding hills were more forested and there were fewer farms and other buildings. As dusk began to gather it started to rain; icy drops that stung the skin and quickly soaked the two centurions. Macro and Cato stopped at a small roadside tavern and bought two cups of heated wine while they got out their waterproofed capes and draped them over their shoulders.
Cato looked out through the curtain of drips that splattered down from the thatched shelter that gave out on to the road. 'This isn't going to pass quickly. How much further to Ocriculum?'
Macro thought a moment. 'Three hours.'
'It'll be dark in three hours.'
'Sooner than that with this weather.'
Cato glanced back at the inn.'We could stay here for the night; catch up with the column tomorrow.'
Macro shook his head. 'I'm not paying to stay here when there's decent barracks just down the road. Besides, if we stay we'll have to push it to catch up with the column in the morning. No point in that. Drink up, and let's go.'
Cato shot him an angry look, then relented. It would be easier to endure a wet and discomforted Macro for the next few hours than put up with his grumbling for the rest of the night and the following morning. With a sigh of resignation he downed the rest of his cup, savouring the warm glow in his belly, and then shouldered his pack and trudged out of the inn. The rain was falling harder than ever, like silver rods, and veiled the surrounding landscape as it hissed on the paved surface of the road. They were alone on the road, Cato realised, and with a last longing look at the warm glow of the hearth at the inn, he turned and followed the dark shape of Macro.
A mile down the road, the air momentarily turned a blinding white, and almost at once their ears were deafened by a crashing roll of thunder.
Cato winced and called out to Macro, 'We should find shelter!'
His words were drowned out by a fresh detonation in the heavens and Cato trotted forward a few steps and grabbed Macro's shoulder. 'Let's find shelter!'
'What?' Macro grinned. 'Shelter? What for? Just a bit of rain, that's all.'
'A bit of rain?'
'Sure. What's the matter? You gone soft from too much city living or something?'
'Well, come on then!' Macro shouted back above the din, and turned round and strode away.
Cato stared at him a moment, then with a shrug of resignation he set off in his friend's footsteps. The thunder grumbled above and echoed off the slopes of the surrounding hills. And so they never heard the clatter of horses' hoofs and the grind of the carriage wheels until the small mounted party was almost upon them. They came out of the dusk at speed, right behind the two centurions, and Cato just had time to turn, see the danger and throw himself to one side with a shouted warning to Macro as the cloaked horsemen swerved their mounts at the last instant. Macro leaped off the road and crashed into the drainage ditch a short distance from Cato. Above them flitted the shapes of two horsemen, a team of horses, drawing a light covered coach, and then two more horsemen. They ignored the two travellers they had driven from the road and clattered on without stopping.
'Oi!' Macro raised himself up on one arm.'You bastards!'
His words were lost in the storm and moments later the gloom had swallowed up the coach and its escort, as Macro continued to hurl abuse after them. Cato raised himself up from the mud and retrieved his pack before going to help Macro. Once both men were back on the road, soaked and filthy, Macro calmed down a little.
'You all right, Cato?'
'If we catch up with those bastards I'll give them a hiding they won't forget in a hurry.'
'We won't catch them. Not at the rate they're going.'
Macro glared down the road. 'Maybe they'll shelter for the night at Ocriculum. Then we'll see what's what.'
'Come on then, or we'll never get there.'
They raised their drenched packs and continued along the road, glistening in the teeming downpour.
Night came, swallowing up the last vestiges of daylight almost without them being aware of it, so dark had the storm become. They did not reach Ocriculum for nearly another two hours, and emerged into the wavering glow of covered torches at the town gate looking like beggars, drenched and streaked with mud from their tumble into the drainage ditch.
The gatekeeper slowly rose from a sheltered bench inside the lofty arch and stuck his thumbs into the top of his belt.
'Well, well, well,' he grinned. 'What have we got here? I assume you two vagrants can pay the entrance fee?'
'Get stuffed.' Macro growled. 'And let us through.'
'Now then.' The gatekeeper frowned and slid his right hand round towards the pommel of his sword.'No need for that. You pay your dues and you can enter the town. Otherwise…' He nodded back down the road.
'Nothing doing, friend,' Macro replied. 'We're centurions, on active service. Let us through.'
'Centurions?' The gatekeeper looked doubtful, and Macro drew back his cape to show his army-issue sword and the unmistakable shape of his marching yoke. The gatekeeper glanced at Cato, who, in his soaked state, looked even younger than his years. 'Him too?'
'Him too. Now let us in.'
'Very well.' The gatekeeper nodded to a pair of men at the far end of the arch, and they pushed one of the gates in just enough to admit the two travellers. Macro nodded his thanks and trudged past the gatekeeper.
The marching barracks were a short distance from the town gate. A small arch led into an open yard lined with stables on one side and barrack blocks along the other three walls. Light glowed through cracks in the window shutter and spilled on to the flagstones in dull slants. A handful of covered torches provided enough illumination to show where they were going as Macro and Cato gave their details to the clerk at the gate and were given directions to one of the officers' rooms. As they crossed the yard Macro glanced at the vehicles in the wagon park: a neat line of supply wagons and there at the far end, a smaller more refined shape. He drew up so suddenly that Cato walked straight into his back.
'Shit! What did you do that for?'
'Quiet!' Macro snapped. He raised his hand and pointed. 'Look!'
Cato glanced round. 'Oh…'
There stood the carriage. Its lines were unmistakable. It was the same one that had sent them sprawling into the ditch a few miles down the road to Rome.
06 The Eagles Prophecy