Rufus swung his mattock savagely at the dry turf and forced another foot of sod from a meadow that was so reluctant to give up its bounty he had to assume it had been bewitched to resist the invaders. When the grassy square was free he carried it over the ditch and placed it firmly against the sloping bank of the temporary marching camp. All along the top of the bank men of the Second were carefully positioning sharpened four-foot wooden stakes to create a defensive palisade. He laid the mattock on the ground to rest. His arms ached and he was struggling for breath. Each evening every fit man in the legionary column helped dig an eight-foot ditch with an earthen rampart round a perimeter of more than two thousand yards. Only then were they able to pitch their leather tents and sit back to watch the squealing antics of squadrons of playful scythe-winged swifts against the perfect blue of the skies as they prepared their evening meal.
‘What’s wrong, elephant man? All those nights with the big Gaulish bitch tiring you out?’
Rufus looked up to find a grizzled legionary with close-set, spite-filled eyes, and a mouth that seemed to contain a single blackened tooth, sneering down at him. He picked up the mattock and stared up at the man. He was tempted to take up the challenge, but he knew it was what the soldier wanted. Rufus was a slave, the soldier was a Roman citizen; a citizen from the gutter, but still a citizen. The merest breath of an insult and he would be dragged before the legionary’s centurion and whipped until he bled.
‘Leave him be, Paullus,’ the man working next to the soldier said. ‘He’s doing all right for a slave. Look at his hands.’ Rufus noticed for the first time that his palms were coated in blood from burst blisters. ‘He’s one of them pampered ones. Not used to this, he ain’t. Not like you and me. Come on, old mule; nearly finished now. We’ll soon be tucking into some hot grub and I’ll be skinning you of every sesterce you’ve got, same as usual.’ Rufus relaxed as the first soldier gave him a hard look and turned to follow his comrade.
‘I see you still make friends everywhere you go, Rufus.’
He turned at the sound of the familiar voice. He hadn’t seen Narcissus since they set foot on the beach as part of the third wave of Plautius’s invasion force. Now he barely recognized him. It was obvious the tall Greek hadn’t washed for a week. He’d swapped his immaculate palace clothes for a coarse woollen tunic of the type the Celts favoured, and a muddy pair of breeches of similar material. An untidy shale-dark beard disguised the lower part of his face and his pale scalp was hidden beneath a crumpled leather cap. He sat astride a small native pony that was dwarfed by the horses of his escort, a section of auxiliary cavalry who formed a half-circle behind him.
Rufus smiled. For all his complaints, he had come to enjoy Narcissus’s company during the long roundabout journey from Rome. Not that he deluded himself he had got to know Claudius’s aide well; quite the opposite. He seemed to end every conversation attempting to unravel a labyrinth of contradictions and enigmatic hints which, after prolonged consideration, revealed nothing about the giver, but some-how induced him to divulge more than he wanted about his own thoughts and fears.
His hopes, too.
Narcissus read his face. ‘The Emperor will free you, Rufus, I have his word on it. But at a time and in a place that benefits you most. And whatever happens to you, your sons will grow up free men.’
Rufus laughed. ‘It doesn’t matter. I am as free as any man in this army. We all march and we all dig. We eat, then we march again.’
‘The marching I can do nothing about,’ Narcissus admitted. ‘But no more digging. The keeper of the Emperor’s elephant is an honoured member of the legate’s staff. I will talk to Vespasian and ensure you are excused fatigues.’
Rufus knew such preferential treatment was certain to increase his troubles with the likes of one-toothed Paullus, but he accepted in any case. It didn’t surprise him that Narcissus would approach the Augusta’s commanding general over such a trivial matter. The Greek had an influence in this army far beyond his diplomatic status and he enjoyed using it. Rufus changed the subject. ‘You have been busy, I see. Is there any news of the enemy? The soldiers say bringing the Britons to battle is as difficult as pinning down smoke with a tent peg.’
Narcissus smiled wearily. ‘After a week in the saddle I feel part horse and I’m raw in places that may never heal. There have been times when I thought I would never see another dawn, never mind a soft bed, but my efforts are close to bearing fruit. Your friends will see more smoke than they bargained for soon enough. Is that not so, Verica?’
A straw-haired young horseman at Narcissus’s right shoulder grunted a reply. Rufus thought there was something familiar about the trooper. The Greek noticed his interest. ‘I brought Verica to see your elephant in Rome. Surely you remember? He fell over the moment the beast came out of the barn. Thought Bersheba was going to eat him. He’s one of the reasons you are here.’ He gritted his teeth as he swung his right leg over the pony’s back and slid gingerly from the saddle. ‘See to the horses, Verica. I will rest here awhile with my young friend.’ He threw the reins to the Briton and the group rode off.
‘Come, show me Bersheba. Does she thrive in this country? I was wrong about it. Not about the people: they are crude and uncultured. But it is good land, and beautiful. If it were not for the natives I might be tempted to stay here. It’s more dangerous than it looks, though.’ He waved a thin arm at the gentle contours of the horizon. ‘You can’t see them, but their scouts are behind every tree, in every fold in the ground. I have come to respect them. Some of them, the Cantiaci and the Atrebates, are actually part civilized. Their warriors don’t know fear, but I think their leaders can be made to see sense. Most of them. Not the Druids. The Druids would have them fighting till the end of time, but if you could separate them…’ His words tailed off aimlessly as his train of thought faded. He shook himself like a wet hound and resumed his monologue. ‘Verica speaks Latin like a dog barking, but I’ve grown quite fond of him. He is of the Atrebates who hold land towards the south coast around their capital Calleva. His grandfather, Commius, was an ally and friend to Divine Julius in the days before Gaul was a province. Verica, too, has been a friend to Rome. But the Catuvellauni are the real power in Britain. When the old king, Cunobelin, died, his sons, Togodumnus and Caratacus, did what princes always do: they marched on their weaker neighbours and threw Verica out. Now he wants us to give him his kingdom back. Poor Verica; he’ll probably be killed. He knows Plautius won’t hand him a crown unless he earns it, and he can only do that by proving himself in battle. I’ve been sitting by the campfire with him every evening and he’s taught me his language, after a fashion. Of even greater interest is the information he has provided. The Britons are more divided than in the days of Julius. When they are not at each other’s throats, they glare at each other across their boundaries, spoiling for a fight. The Cantiaci, in the south, despise their neighbours the Regni; the Atrebates live in fear of the Trinovantes; and they, the Iceni and the Catuvellauni are in constant dispute.’
He was still talking when they reached the section where Bersheba was hobbled. Britte sat on top of the cart, stitching part of the elephant’s harness. When she heard their approach she lifted her head and gave Narcissus a look that would have soured new-drawn milk and muttered a Gallic curse under her breath. But her features softened a little when the Greek drew a cloth bag from beneath his tunic and threw it towards her.
‘Here. Fresh-baked bread, and cheese. The Britons make good cheese. You are well, I hope, lady,’ he said with an overstated courtesy that made the wet nurse’s eyes narrow with suspicion. ‘And little Gaius too, I see. The air here must agree with him. He seems to have sprouted another inch or more since last we met.’ He ruffled a hand through the little boy’s untidy curls, and walked on a few yards with Rufus to where the elephant stood shovelling great trunkfuls of straw into her mouth.
‘I see our secret is still safe in Britte’s charge. Did I not tell you she was worth a full cohort of legionaries?’ Rufus didn’t react. The matter Narcissus referred to kept him awake at nights and made the inside of his head buzz like a wasps’ nest. He tried not to think about it.
The Greek changed the subject. ‘Do you not miss Drusus?’ Drusus was a year younger than Gaius and the son of Aemilia, who had been Rufus’s co-conspirator, along with her brother, the gladiator Cupido, in the intrigues that led to Caligula’s death. She had become his lover in the months that followed and Rufus was her son’s acknowledged father. They were the only people who knew the true identity of the child’s sire, and that was the way it would stay. Rufus conjured up a scowling, petulant face below a sparse clump of dark, tufted hair. No matter how he tried, he could never quite find the affection for Drusus that stirred him when he was with Gaius. ‘He is his mother’s son, more than mine. Better that he should stay with her in Rome,’ he said. He and Aemilia had drifted apart. It had been inevitable, he thought. She may have been a slave, but she had been born a princess.
Narcissus put a hand on his shoulder. ‘Aemilia still believes we had a hand in her brother’s death, although we both know the blame, if blame there be, lies closer to home.’
Suddenly, the air lost its warmth. Rufus glanced up and noticed that the sun had slipped behind a silver-grey mountain of cloud. At first it was still bright beyond the fragile curtain, but he watched its power dim as it neared the centre of the huge mass. It reminded him of the light fading in Cupido’s eyes as he died in Aemilia’s arms.
Bersheba sensed the change in his mood and reached out to run the tip of her trunk over his face. The familiar touch of warm, wet flesh restored his humour and he absently patted her wrinkled cheek. ‘Why are we here?’
Narcissus didn’t answer directly. ‘Did you know it is less than a week until the Festival of Fortuna? In Rome, the gardeners will be preparing the flowers for the ceremonies, and the year’s new vintage will be almost ready to drink.’
Rufus shook his head. On the march one day merged into the next, one step into the next. But the question carried his mind back to his home, among the palaces and temples on the Palatine. The festival to the goddess of Fortune was the only one, apart, of course, from Saturnalia, he’d ever taken part in. His head had ached for three days afterwards.
‘Verica has been very useful to me,’ Narcissus continued, obliquely returning to the subject. ‘He has introduced me to his cousins, and his cousins’ cousins, his friends and their friends. Important men and utter nobodies. Clever men and fools. From them all, high or low, I have learned something of value; each, willing or otherwise, wishes to contribute to our cause. Do not mistake me: they hate Romans. But they hate their own countrymen more. In our presence they see opportunity; the chance for the restoration of the fortunes Caratacus and his Catuvellauni lords took from them when Verica was deposed. They will support us. But first they want to see if we can fight.’
Rufus stared at him. ‘The soldiers say the barbarians are great warriors who believe they cannot be killed.’
‘There is only one certainty, Rufus — war is coming and it will be hard and it will be bloody, for that is the nature of war. But I will tell you something you must divulge to no other. When we meet the enemy you will have an important task to fulfil. You and Bersheba will stand in the front rank of the army facing the countless host of our enemy and it is you who will know no fear. That is what I came here to tell you. There is a great service you can do for your Emperor. Can he trust you?’