At first no one moved. Every man was too horrified by the sight of the churning wall of water sweeping towards them. Tigellinus acted first. He cupped a hand to his mouth and yelled, ‘Run! Run for your lives!’
The cry broke the spell and the imperial retinue, the engineers and the Praetorian guardsmen began to flee, some heading directly away from the water, while most tried to escape to the side where the ground rose slightly. Cato threw down his shield and spear and snatched at his chinstraps. Macro did likewise, already moving away from the wave.
‘Wait!’ Cato called to him. ‘We must save the Emperor!’
Macro paused, then nodded and they turned towards the table and the cake. Claudius was stumbling towards the river as fast as his limp would allow, casting terrified glances back over his shoulder as the wave approached. Tigellinus was racing across the ground after him and Cato saw, with a stab of fear, that the centurion might reach the Emperor first. He struck out, sprinting as fast as his legs would carry him, still weighed down by his scaled armour vest. Macro ran after him. A strong breeze rippled the folds of the Emperor’s toga and the loose strands of his hair as the wave thrust a cushion of air ahead of it. The hissing roar of the pounding water seemed deafening to Cato as he ran at an angle towards Claudius. To his left he could see that Tigellinus was gaining ground and would reach the Emperor first. His dagger was grasped in his hand, point held low and level as he single-mindedly sprinted towards his prey.
The air felt cool at Cato’s back and he risked one last glance towards the wave and saw that it was no more than fifty feet behind him, an ugly churning mass of spray and brown water carrying brush and trees with it. There was a cry of terror and despair away to his right as the first of the Praetorians went down, and then the voice was instantly silenced as the man was submerged in the tumult.
Ahead, Tigellinus was no more than ten feet from the Emperor, and then he stumbled, the toe of his boot stubbing against a rock. He fell down, the dagger spilling from his fingers. Cato ran on, calling out, ‘Sire!’
Claudius looked back at Cato, wide eyed, then past him, aghast. Cato grabbed the Emperor’s arm with one hand and wrenched at the toga with the other. At once the Emperor struggled and lashed out with his spare hand. ‘Help! Murder!’
‘No, sire! The toga will weigh you down!’ Cato shouted, ripping the thick woollen material from the Emperor’s shoulder. He heard Macro cry out a short distance behind, but before he could turn to look, the wave struck. There was an instant when he felt a surge around his calves, and Cato stepped in front of the Emperor, trying to shield him with his body. The full force of the water slammed into his back, instantly wrenching him off his feet. Cato tried to stay upright, kicking down to get purchase on the ground as he was swept along. He held tightly to the Emperor, pushing Claudius up. The water surged around his head, flowing over him and roaring in his ears before he surfaced, snatching a breath.
Something struck him in the ribs, a winding blow that drove the air from his lungs in an explosive cough and water instantly flooded his mouth before he could shut it. Then he was under again, still holding the Emperor and feeling him struggling wildly in his grasp. Cato felt something solid close by and risked letting go of Claudius with one hand as he groped. He felt the branch of a tree. He clamped his fingers round the rough bark and pulled himself and the Emperor towards it. His head burst through the surface once more and Cato took a breath. Around him was a chaotic mass of spray and water and debris, with the heads of men and flailing limbs all about. Cato thought he saw Macro a short distance away, but water closed over the head before he could be sure. Claudius came up, spluttering at his side.
‘Sire!’ Cato yelled into his face. ‘Grab the branch!’
Claudius turned his head to Cato. ‘I can’t! I’m being dragged down! S-s-save yourself, young man. I’m done for!’
Cato saw that his toga was still caught round his chest and debris in the surging water was pulling at the cloth and dragging the Emperor with it. Cato grabbed at the fabric and wrenched it as hard as he could, working it free. It slipped down a little, yet Claudius was still being pulled under and let out a despairing cry before the water closed over his face again. He came up and Cato shouted, ‘Kick it free! Kick it free, or you’ll die!’
‘Yes … yes,’ Claudius spluttered. ‘Kick it free.’
While he thrashed at the material with his legs, Cato used his spare hand to try to pull the toga away from the Emperor’s body. The wool was like a live thing, squirming in the chaotic current, the folds wrapping around Cato’s hand and arm. With one last pull it came off and both men came up, heads and shoulders clear of the water as they gripped the branch. The water around them was no longer raging quite so much and Cato could see for the first time that they had been swept some distance from the end of the vale. Around them were the remains of the tables, and Cato saw Tigellinus, some fifty feet away, trying to haul himself on to one of the table tops, which was spinning round in the fast current.
He turned and saw a commotion in the water where Macro was trying to swim towards the branch. Then, between them, another figure came up coughing and hacking, his arms flailing to keep him above water. Cato saw that it was Tribune Burrus.
‘Over here, sir! Here!’ Cato waved his arm and Burrus began to kick out towards him. The tribune reached the branch and wrapped his arms over it, gasping for breath. Cato looked round and saw that Macro would join them in a moment. Then he noticed something strange a short distance ahead of them. The leading edge of the wave just seemed to have disappeared, leaving a sharp line no more than fifty feet away.
‘Oh shit,’ Cato muttered. ‘The river …’
The tree, and the men clinging to it, were being swept towards the steep riverbank and down into the river. Cato put his arm round the Emperor and clung tightly to the branch. He saw that Macro had grasped the end of a smaller branch a short distance away. Cato filled his lungs and cried out above the din of the rushing water, ‘Hold on tight! We’re going into the river!’
The end of the branch abruptly shot out into thin air for an instant. Then it tipped over the edge. Once again water closed over Cato and he felt his legs being scraped by rocks and debris as the branch dragged those hanging on to it under the raging surface of the river. The water roared in Cato’s ears and his lungs began to burn. The Emperor seemed to writhe against him, but it was impossible to tell if he was struggling or simply being battered about by the current. Then there was a swirl in the water and the branch broke the surface. Cato snatched a deep breath.
‘Sire, are you all right? Sire!’
The Emperor retched and spluttered and rested his head on the branch as his body was wracked by a coughing fit.
Cato looked round and saw that Burrus was still clinging on, but could not locate Macro. Cato turned his head from side to side, anxiously scanning the surface of the river. There were several men visible, struggling to stay afloat or striking towards the bank. Tigellinus was sprawled across the tabletop some distance away. Now that the river had absorbed most of the water unleashed by the collapse of the dam, the worst had passed, Cato realised. Except there was no sign of Macro. Then he saw a glistening hummock in the water some twenty feet away. It began to roll over and Cato realised it was a body, and then, stricken by fear, he recognised Macro’s features as his face briefly cleared the surface before submerging again.
‘Tribune!’ Cato called out. ‘Tribune Burrus, sir!’
Burrus looked up with a dazed expression, his single eye blinking.
‘Look after the Emperor, sir! Do you understand?’
‘Yes …’ Burrus nodded, concentrating his thoughts with some effort. Cato turned to Claudius. ‘Hold on, sire. We’ll get you out of this.’
Then he released his grip on the branch and thrust himself out towards one of the other tables that was slowly turning round in the current close to where Macro was floating. Cato pulled his chest on to the table and kicked out with his legs, striking out towards his friend who showed little sign of life. As he came within reach, Cato threw out his arm, his fingers struggling for purchase in the folds of Macro’s tunic. He tightened his grip and pulled Macro on to the table. A thin trail of blood etched its way down Macro’s forehead and Cato saw a cut on his forehead.
‘Macro!’ He shook his shoulder violently. ‘Macro! Open your eyes.’
His friend’s head rolled limply back on to the planks of the table and his jaw sagged open. Cato slapped him hard. ‘Open your bloody eyes!’
There was no response and Cato slapped him again, harder. This time Macro’s head jerked up and his eyes blinked open. His jaw clenched defiantly. ‘Which one of you bastards hit me, eh?’
Then the water in his lungs caused him to cough and retch agonisingly and it took him a while to recover sufficiently to register Cato’s presence. He smiled weakly. ‘What the hell happened to you, lad? You look a right state.’
Cato could not help smiling back in delight. ‘Me? You should see yourself.’
‘What … what happened?’ Macro grimaced. ‘Feels like some bastard’s dropped a rock on my head.’
‘You must have hit your head on the branch when we went into the river.’
‘River?’ Macro raised his head and looked round in confusion. Then he started as he recalled the final moments before the wave struck. ‘The Emperor!’
‘He’s safe. Over there.’ Cato pointed towards the branch where Burrus had shifted position to be at Claudius’s side. It was close to the riverbank and a moment later it snagged on some obstruction under the surface and swung in towards the bank. Cato gave vent to a short sigh of relief and then punched Macro lightly. ‘Come on. Let’s get out of here.’
Cato started kicking, working the table round so that it pointed towards the riverbank. Then he and Macro kicked out, heading away from the middle of the current. It took a while in the swift flow before they felt the bed of the river beneath their boots and eased the table into the narrow strip of reeds growing along the water’s edge. There they abandoned the table and waded through the reeds until they reached firm ground and slumped on to the grassy bank beyond the reeds. Macro cradled his head in his hands and groaned while Cato remained on hands and knees, head hung low as he breathed in deeply, coughing up the last of the water in his lungs and spitting to clear his mouth. His heart was beating fast and he was trembling uncontrollably. The air was cold and made his soaked body feel colder still, but Cato knew that the trembling was due to the frantic exertion since the wave struck him. That and the delayed shock and terror over what had happened.
He struggled to his feet and scanned the surrounding landscape. Looking upriver he could see the end of the vale, some half a mile away. An earthen streak scarred the pasture between the vale and the bank of the river. Uprooted trees lay scattered across the ground and several figures stood or sat amid the mud, staring about them. More stood at the fringes of where the wave had swept past. There was no sign of the imperial litters, or the tables on which the cake had stood. A few hundred paces upstream Cato could see Burrus supporting the Emperor as they made their way back upriver. There was no sign of Tigellinus in any direction.
Cato squatted down beside Macro. ‘How do you feel?’
‘Sore.’ Macro puffed his cheeks. ‘I must have taken quite a crack to the head … I was holding on to that branch – we went over something and dropped down. That’s the last I can recall until some bastard smacked me round the chops.’ He glanced up. ‘That was you, I take it.’
‘What are friends for?’ Cato offered his hand and helped Macro on to his feet. ‘Come on, let’s get back to what’s left of the century.’
They began to walk towards the figures scattered about the flood plain, some of whom were looking for survivors caught in the debris or tending to the injured.
‘What the hell happened?’ asked Macro.
‘That’s obvious. The dam gave way.’
‘How? How is that possible? You heard the engineer. It would take a hundred men to cause the dam to collapse.’
Cato thought for a moment. ‘Evidently not. It collapsed by itself, or someone helped it to.’
‘Shoddy bloody Greek workmanship – that’s what caused it.’
‘You really think so? Just when the Emperor happened to be standing right in the path of the wave when it struck? Quite a coincidence.’
‘It happens. The gods will play their games.’
‘So will some traitors. Did you see Tigellinus? It was as if he was the only one among us who wasn’t surprised by the wave.’
They continued in silence for a while before Macro cleared his throat. ‘All right then, so if the Liberators are responsible for this, how the hell did they manage it?’
‘I don’t know. Not yet. But I want a good look at what’s left of the dam.’
By the time they joined the other survivors, the remaining German guards had formed up round the Emperor. Their drenched locks of hair, streaked with mud, and their soiled tunics and armour made them look even more barbaric than normal and the Praetorian guardsmen and the civilians kept their distance. Someone had found a stool for the Emperor and Claudius sat on it numbly, surveying the scene. The survivors had instinctively made for the high ground to one side of the end of the vale, in case of another disaster. Narcissus was leaning in towards the Emperor, offering words of comfort while a terrified-looking Apollodorus stood a short distance off, between two of the German bodyguards.
Cato turned sharply to see Tribune Burrus striding towards them. He and Macro stood to attention and saluted the commander of their cohort. Burrus studied Cato’s features briefly and then nodded. ‘You’re the one who helped me to save the Emperor, aren’t you?’
Cato thought quickly. It was tempting to take the credit for his part in rescuing Claudius, but it would be dangerous to risk drawing any attention to himself, or Macro. Particularly if word got back to the Liberators who would be certain to suspect their motives.
‘I was holding on to the same branch. That is all. I believe you were the one most responsible for saving him, sir.’
Burrus’s eyes narrowed, as if he suspected some kind of a trick. Then he nodded slowly. ‘Very well. All the same, I shall make sure that your part in this does not go unrewarded.’
Cato nodded his gratitude.
‘Your centurion’s missing. Have you seen him?’ the tribune asked.
‘He was close to us in the river. I lost sight of him afterwards.’
‘A pity. A good man that. Quick off the mark to try to save the Emperor when the wave struck. Lucky I was there to succeed where he failed, eh?’
‘His optio’s in charge now.’ Burrus nodded towards Fuscius who had somehow managed to hang on to his staff and was busy searching among the bedraggled survivors for men from the Sixth Century. ‘You’d best report to Fuscius directly.’
‘Not yet, Tribune,’ Narcissus called out as he made his way over to the three guardsmen. ‘I want to have a closer look at the dam. I want these two to help me, in case there’s any further danger.’
‘Further danger?’ Burrus looked surprised by the suggestion, then shrugged. ‘Very well, they’re yours.’
The imperial secretary nodded towards the Emperor and lowered his voice. ‘Look after him. He’s badly shaken.’
Narcissus glanced at Cato and Macro with the blank expression of one accustomed to seeing the broad mass of humanity as a single class of servants. ‘Follow me!’
They strode off across the grass, skirting the slick expanse of mud that sprawled across the land between the vale and the river. When they entered the vale, they had to progress carefully across the slippery ground and negotiate the tangled remains of trees and shrubs. As soon as they were out of the sight of the survivors, Narcissus turned to Cato and Macro.
‘That was no accident. That was a blatant attempt on the Emperor’s life, and mine.’
Macro snorted. ‘Not to mention a few hundred guardsmen and civilians. But I suppose we don’t count for much, eh?’
‘Not in the grand scheme of things, no,’ Narcissus replied coldly. ‘For now I’m happy for that Greek engineer to think it was an accident. He’s scared out of his wits and might divulge some information that might be useful. Now or later.’
‘Later?’ Cato glanced at him.
‘If by some slip of the tongue he tells me something that leaves me with a hold over him, that’s a useful by-product of the situation.’
Macro shook his head. ‘By the gods, you never miss a trick, do you?’
‘I try not to. That’s why I’m still alive and at the side of the Emperor. Not many of my predecessors can claim to have survived in that position for a fraction of the time that I have.’
‘And now Pallas is trying to push you out,’ Macro noted and clicked his tongue. ‘Puts you on the spot, eh?’
‘I’ve bested sharper men than Pallas,’ Narcissus replied dismissively. ‘He won’t concern me for much longer.’
Narcissus shot him a quick look and then stepped round a large boulder. He looked ahead and pointed. ‘That’s where we’ll find some answers, I hope.’
Cato and Macro followed his direction and saw the remains of the dam. A line of rocks stretched across the narrow bottom of the vale and water still trickled from between them. More rocks and shattered timbers lay strewn about the ground in front of the foundations of the dam. The three men picked their way forward and stopped a short distance below the main breach.
‘I’m trying to recall how it looked before,’ said Narcissus. ‘I should have paid more attention to that bore, Apollodorus. Weren’t there some big sticks supporting the middle?’
‘Sticks?’ Cato smiled. ‘I think he called them buttresses.’
Narcissus looked at him and frowned briefly. ‘Buttresses then. I remember he said that they would need plenty of men to shift them when the time came to drain the water behind the dam.’
‘That’s right.’ Cato nodded.
‘So what happened? Where did all these men suddenly come from? There wasn’t anyone near the dam.’
‘Yes … Yes there was,’ Cato replied. ‘You remember that party by a wagon close to the base of the dam.’
Macro nodded. ‘Yes. Can’t have been more than ten of them though. They wouldn’t have been able to shift those timbers. Not by themselves.’
‘No. You’re right,’ Cato conceded.
They picked their way across the muddy debris. Then Narcissus pointed down the vale. ‘Isn’t that one of them? One of those buttresses? Or at least what’s left of it.’
Cato and Macro turned to look. A hundred paces away, to the side of the vale, what looked like a shattered tree trunk stood up at an angle, wedged between two huge boulders. Cato could see that it was too straight and regular to be the remains of a tree. ‘Worth a look,’ he said.
‘Why?’ asked Macro, not liking the look of the mud-encrusted tangles of vegetation that lay between them and the shattered buttress.
‘For the dam to collapse, both of the main supports would have to give way first, right?’
‘So, aren’t you curious about how they did give way?’
Macro gave him a surly look. ‘I could be more curious.’
Cato ignored him and began to clamber across the ruined landscape towards the two boulders. After a moment the other two followed. Cato was examining the thick length of timber when they caught up with him. Some of the buttress was buried in the mud and another six feet or so protruded into the air before ending in a confusion of shattered splinters. Cato was tracing his fingers across what was left of a regular line at the edge of the splinters.
‘Do you see here?’ He moved aside to give them a clear view. Macro stood on tiptoe and squinted.
‘Looks like it’s been sawn.’ He reached up and traced his fingers along the mark. ‘Quite some way into the timber.’
Cato nodded. ‘I’d wager that we’d find the same on the other buttress if we could find it, as well as some of the lesser supports. Weaken enough of them and you’d no longer need hundreds of men to put enough pressure on the timbers to cause them to give way, or shatter under the strain, like this one.’ He patted the timber. ‘Just shift some of the supports and the pressure of the water behind the dam will do the rest.’
Narcissus nodded. ‘As I said, this was no accident, and here is the proof.’
‘There is something else,’ Cato said. ‘When we saw the wave, did you notice how everyone was rooted to the spot?’
‘Yes. What of it?’
‘One man wasn’t. Centurion Tigellinus made a run at Claudius before anyone else gathered their wits enough to react. And he had taken off his heaviest pieces of kit to make sure he wasn’t weighed down.’
Narcissus’s brow furrowed slightly as he recalled the event. ‘Yes, he was quick off the mark. I might have assumed he was going to protect the Emperor, were it not for the fact that he had replaced Lurco.’ He looked at Cato. ‘Are you saying Tigellinus knew about the dam? That that was why they got rid of Lurco, because this was what they had been planning?’
‘Perhaps.’ Cato looked unsure. ‘But how could they know that the Emperor was planning to visit the drainage works? The decision to replace Lurco was made before Claudius decided to come here today.’
‘It’s a big project and has taken years to complete,’ Macro observed. ‘There’s every chance that he would come to see the final stages for himself.’
‘More than a chance,’ Narcissus interrupted. ‘Apollodorus didn’t put on that celebration by himself. It was Pallas’s idea. He organised the celebration and commissioned that cake.’
‘So Pallas is behind this?’ Macro frowned. ‘Pallas is working for the Liberators?’
‘I don’t know,’ Narcissus admitted. ‘It’s possible. But I doubt it. Pallas has nothing to gain from a return to the Republic. In fact he has as much to lose as I have. I doubt that he was behind this attempt on Claudius’s life.’
‘Why not?’ asked Cato. ‘If Claudius drowns then Nero is the most likely successor.’
‘That’s true,’ Narcissus conceded ‘But there were enough people in the palace who knew that the Emperor would be here. Any one of them could be working for the Liberators. However it happened, the Liberators got wind of his visit to the project and decided to bring forward their plan for Tigellinus to assassinate the Emperor. They sabotaged the supports for the dam and Tigellinus knew what was going to happen and made ready to strike in the moment of confusion as the wave came towards us.’
‘It’s a bit far fetched,’ Macro protested. ‘Tigellinus would be putting his life at risk. For that matter, so would those men who were involved in weakening the dam. One wrong step there and the whole thing would have come down on them.’
‘Just shows how determined our enemy has become,’ Narcissus said grimly.
‘They want an assassin close to the Emperor. Whatever plans they have for Tigellinus, the chances are that there would be precious little hope of him escaping having committed the deed. In fact, this business with the dam probably gave him the best possibility to strike and get away with it that he was likely to get.’
Cato nodded. ‘I think you’re right. The trouble is, if this was just an opportunistic attempt, then the initial plan is still ready to go ahead, as long as Tigellinus has survived, or they have another man ready to step into his boots if he hasn’t. We still have to be on our guard. Are you going to tell the Emperor?’
Narcissus hesitated. ‘Not yet. I want to have this investigated. I have to be certain of the facts before I go to Claudius.’
‘Fair enough. There is one thing though. Apollodorus had no hand in this. The wave came as much of a surprise to him as the rest of us. You should put his mind at rest before you have him look at the evidence.’
Narcissus considered the suggestion. ‘Perhaps later on, after he’s been questioned. For now I’m content for people to think that it was an unfortunate accident. That’s clearly what the Liberators want us to think, and I don’t want them running scared just yet. They’re making their move. They failed this time. They will try again if they think we aren’t wise to their conspiracy. The more risks they take, the better the chances we have of identifying and eliminating them.’
‘And the better chance they have of eliminating the Emperor,’ Macro retorted.
‘Then we shall all have to be more alert to potential dangers, shan’t we?’ Narcissus said sharply. He paused and forced himself to continue in a more measured tone. ‘This is my chance to deal with the Liberators once and for all. I should have crushed them many years ago when I had the chance,’ he added bitterly. He continued swiftly, ‘If we force them to go to ground now, then they will bide their time and wait for another opportunity to strike. In the meantime the Emperor will be under constant threat and my agents and I will be stretched to the limit to respond to every possible sign of danger. Better to finish it now, don’t you think?’
Macro looked at him and shrugged. ‘It’s your decision. It’s not really my job to ferret out conspirators. It’s up to you to protect the Emperor.’
‘No.’ Narcissus tapped his finger on Macro’s chest. ‘It’s up to all of us. All those whose duty it is to protect the Emperor, and Rome. You swore an oath.’
Macro’s fist shot up and closed tightly round the imperial secretary’s hand. ‘And I’ll swear another oath if you ever poke me like that again. Got it?’
The two men stared at each other, until Macro clenched his fist hard and Narcissus’s gaze faltered as he winced. He wrenched his hand free and flexed his fingers painfully. ‘You’ll regret that.’
‘I’ve regretted a lot of things in my life,’ Macro responded dismissively. ‘Didn’t stop me from doing them in the first place.’
Cato was growing impatient with the mutual hostility of his companions. ‘Enough!’ he said sharply. ‘We should rejoin the Emperor. Narcissus, you need to see him safely back to the palace before the Liberators start spreading rumours that he has been killed.’
The imperial secretary shot one last scowl at Macro before he nodded. ‘You’re right. Besides, his escort is in poor shape to resist an attack. We need to be on the road before night falls.’
‘Quite.’ Cato gestured to them. ‘Let’s go.’
They set off, eager to quit the silent desolation of the vale. As Cato led the way he could not help wondering at the determination of the enemy. If they were prepared to risk their own lives so willingly in order to achieve their aims, then they were as deadly an enemy as he and Macro had ever faced. The next time they struck they had better be more zealous in their efforts than ever.