In truth, it wasn’t much of a village. When Rufus’s wagon crested the hill behind Paullus he counted a dozen large huts and assorted out-buildings scattered haphazardly over a piece of raised ground perhaps two hundred paces across, which was half encircled by a loop of the stream. To his right was a network of cultivated fields and hedged trackways. To his left, beyond the river, a forest of mixed ash, birch and scrub oak stretched far into the distance. As the carts trundled down the shallow slope towards the village there was a flurry of movement on the river side of the compound, followed by a shrill cry that might have come from a woman.
Paullus grunted: ‘At least someone’s doing their job.’ He urged his mount forward and the cornicen and the eight remaining legionaries jogged after him.
By the time Rufus and the other wagon drivers reached the huts the legionaries were methodically searching each house and stacking anything of value in front of Paullus. It was the first time Rufus had seen British buildings at close quarters. He was surprised at how sturdily constructed the roundhouses were. Long poles a foot in diameter formed the framework for the conical roof, which was covered by a thick thatch. The walls were of wattle, woven through upright wooden stakes, and the gaps filled with dried mud which made the houses weather- and windproof. They were each capable of housing an extended family of a dozen or more people and it was clear from their state of repair that this was a thriving community. Paullus looked at the pathetic booty of well-used copper pans, cracked wooden spoons and small heaps of powdery flour and shook his head.
‘This isn’t what we came for. You.’ He pointed at the driver of the first bullock cart. ‘You’re the one who can understand their gibberish?’ The man nodded nervously. ‘Come with me.’
The prisoners had been placed under guard outside the largest hut. There were nine of them, not counting the plump woman, who reminded Rufus a little of Britte, lying crumpled in a pool of blood with a look of mild irritation on her face and a large wound between her breasts. The others were three elderly men, probably not fit to carry a sword, four terrified children of indeterminate sex, and two younger women who stood weeping quietly and looked as if they expected to be raped at any moment.
‘Ask them where the rest of the villagers are.’
The wagon driver approached the tallest of the three men and put the question in a sing-song accent. The elder, who had lank, shoulder-length grey hair and wore a ragged tunic and long striped trews, kept his head bowed and refused to meet his interrogator’s eyes.
Paullus gave a thin smile. ‘Ask him where the food’s hidden.’
The wagon driver spoke again. Still the man would not meet his gaze, but this time he did answer, in the same lilting dialect. ‘He says there is no food. What we see here is all they have.’ He pointed to the little heap of plunder.
‘Ask him again. Tell him we’ll pay for it.’
The interpreter looked doubtful, but put the question to the old man, who looked up sharply and replied in a staccato burst. The interpreter shrugged. ‘He says they’ve been starving for days. They have no food.’
Paullus’s expression didn’t change. Wearing the same thin smile he marched up to the nearest woman and grabbed her by the left breast, making her gasp. ‘This one isn’t starving. Plenty of meat on her, and the other one, and the brats.’ He picked up the smallest child, a dirty-faced urchin with wide innocent eyes, and pinched his cheeks. ‘See, if it was starving, it would be skin and bone.’ Rufus didn’t notice him draw the dagger — no one did until its razor edge sliced across the little boy’s throat, flooding his tunic with blood. The child’s eyes opened wider still and his mouth gaped, but he was dead before he could even scream. Without a word, Paullus dropped the still twitching body to the ground.
For a moment the world stopped — Rufus would swear his heart did not beat — then pandemonium erupted as the two young women shrieked, the one Paullus had abused dropping to kneel by the dead child. The surviving children keened a single despairing wail and the tall elder launched himself at the Roman patrol leader, who kicked him contemptuously in the groin, and stood over his writhing body.
‘Now ask him where the food is hidden.’
The interpreter stared at him.
‘Ask him where the food is hidden,’ Paullus snarled.
The man complied, his voice shaking, but the only answer from the sprawled Briton was a glare of pure hatred.
Paullus shook his head as if the prisoner were a particularly clumsy recruit. ‘Never mind. We’ve got plenty of time. Get a nice fire going and we’ll see if Grandpa here is more talkative once he’s been warmed up a little.’ At his orders, two of the soldiers dragged the man into the hut and the other guards herded the surviving prisoners inside against one wall. ‘String him up from there.’ Paullus pointed to a beam about nine feet above the dirt floor. The prisoner struggled as he was stripped naked and had his hands and feet bound. He was thrown to the ground and when he looked up his eyes locked on Rufus’s. They were the eyes of a helpless, terrified old man and they were filled with a mute plea to save him from this undeserved torment. Rufus turned away, sick inside at his lack of courage, telling himself over and over that this was not his fight. One of the soldiers tied a longer rope round the man’s ankles and slung it across the beam, then he and his companion hauled on the rope until the Briton was suspended with his head three feet from the earth floor. Paullus nodded. ‘That will do.’
Meanwhile, two of the guards had gathered brushwood and set a large fire slightly to one side of where the old man hung. He was sobbing now, some prayer in his own language, and his teeth were clenched tight with the agony of the strain on his ankle joints. Rufus watched from the open doorway, his mind struggling to deal with what he was witnessing. The murder of the child had been so sudden it still seemed to him some kind of dream, but what was happening in front of him was undoubtedly real. The old man’s flesh was an unhealthy yellow-white and pinpoints of red covered his back where lice had recently fed. Fear had shrivelled his manhood and retracted it into his body.
Paullus drew his sword, then thought better of it and demanded one from the closest recruit. When the Roman plunged the blade into the heart of the fire, the soldier opened his mouth to protest, but the look in Paullus’s eyes silenced him. Paullus bent and gripped the suspended Briton by the hair so he was looking directly into his captive’s face. ‘Now, Grandpa, let’s continue our little chat.’ The old man gasped something unintelligible and spat in his face, but the Roman only laughed. ‘Give him a taste,’ he ordered.
One of the young legionaries pushed the dangling prisoner so that the momentum swung him directly over the fire. The old man writhed and twisted, desperately trying to keep his body away from the heat. But the flames sought him out, and the hut filled with the acrid stench of singeing hair as his head was surrounded by a halo of flame that flared and died in an instant, accompanied by a grating scream of agony.
Paullus reached for the sword resting in the fire, but drew his hand back sharply when he felt the heat radiating from the hilt. He noticed Rufus watching from the doorway and grinned. ‘You’d have liked that, elephant man. Old Paullus getting a bit of his own medicine.’ He used his still bloody dagger to cut a square of cloth from a blanket and wetted it in a stone trough set to one side of the room. Steam hissed from the cloth when he picked up the sword, its iron blade shimmering red. He turned to the hanging figure, whose blackened tufts of remaining hair still wafted smoke towards a hole in the centre of the roof. ‘Now let’s hear the old man sing.’
The suspended victim shook his head wildly and gibbered a high-pitched rush of words. Paullus looked towards the interpreter. ‘Is he going to talk?’
The man shook his head. ‘He says Esus will rot the eyeballs in your head and make you piss maggots.’
Paullus laughed and stepped forward with the glowing blade and brought the point slowly towards the powerless Briton’s left eye. A commotion behind him stayed his hand a fraction before the red-hot metal kissed the old man’s cringing flesh and the woman he had abused earlier burst between the guards and threw herself at his feet. He frowned. ‘What’s she saying?’
The interpreter listened to the sobbing woman for a few seconds. ‘Her name is Veleda. This man is her father. She begs you not to harm him. She says she’ll lead us to the grain and the fodder. It’s hidden in a clearing in the forest, enough to fill all our carts and more.’
Paullus looked thoughtful. He turned to the leader of the legionary guards, a pink-cheeked young man with a square jaw and a squint in one eye.
‘Agrippa, take the woman and the two old men, but bind them tight and keep a sword at their back. The others stay here. Tell her I’ll gut her father and the brats at the first sign of a trick.’ He waited until the interpreter had translated his words, then placed the sword a hair’s breadth from the old man’s wrinkled belly and looked hard at the woman. ‘Understand? I’ll gut him.’ She nodded sharply. ‘Take them away. Elephant man, you’re in charge of the slaves. I want every grain of wheat and wisp of hay, or you’ll answer to me.’
The legionary guards marched the woman and the two elders from the hut and Rufus turned to follow, calling to the other baggage slaves to bring the wagons across the river. As he walked from the doorway, he heard Paullus say conversationally: ‘Now, ask him about the gold.’
The screaming started before they reached the forest.
It wasn’t possible to take the carts into the trees. The villagers had been careful not to leave any marked tracks leading to the clearing where they had cached their precious supplies. Instead, they had created a dozen well-disguised paths that were scarcely wider than those trampled by foraging deer. It was along one of these that Veleda led them, with the point of Agrippa’s sword at her back. Trees and thorn bushes grew tight to the track, plucking at the tunics of soldier and slave alike. Above them, the leaf canopy created a barrier that trapped the steamy heat beneath it, making the atmosphere in the forest depths oppressive and almost unbreathable. If anything, the day had grown even more humid and Rufus thought he heard the rumble of thunder in the distance. Eventually, Veleda stopped and pointed to an impenetrable wall of foliage. Agrippa studied what she was indicating with a look of suspicion, his squint growing more pronounced with each passing second. ‘If this is some kind of trick…’
The British woman didn’t understand the words, but she shook her head and approached the spot she had indicated. As they drew closer, Rufus saw it was a wall of still growing trees and plants, closely woven and carefully chosen to exactly match the habitat around it. Beyond this slim natural curtain was a clearing that contained a dozen small, raised wooden huts, which, on closer inspection, turned out to be storehouses filled with sheaves of hay and sacks of wheat and barley.
‘They build them on stilts to keep out the damp from the earth and stop animals getting at the food. I’ve seen storage places just like it in Germania. There’s enough here to feed a cohort for a week,’ Agrippa said cheerfully.
Low earth mounds on the clearing floor covered pits containing different types of cereals and pulses, and Rufus ordered his fellow slaves to begin digging up the buried food stores. On the far side was a fenced stockade where a dozen small sheep with matted brown wool grazed in silence. Agrippa frowned when he saw them.
‘I don’t think we can take them with us. If we release them they’ll just scatter into the forest and the wolves will get them. We should leave them here and send back some cavalry and a stockman to drive them in.’
‘Paullus won’t be happy,’ Rufus pointed out.
Agrippa grinned. ‘Paullus is never happy. I thought you’d noticed that. We’ll need half a dozen trips to get all this to the wagons.’ He shouted to one of the other guards. ‘Cestus, the old men and the woman can still carry something with their hands tied. Get the buggers to work.’
The slaves were already heavily laden. Agrippa ordered them into line with one guard in the van, with Veleda, and another bringing up the rear. ‘We’ll leave a couple of people to keep digging up what’s in the pits. It shouldn’t take us long to get back to the village.’ Rufus nodded and picked up as many sacks as he could carry before following the Roman back into the trees. He felt a spot of cold liquid splash on to the bare flesh of his forearm, quickly followed by another, then a dozen more. In a moment, big droplets studded the earth of the clearing, lancing diagonally from the heavens and creating little brown pools in any indent or hollow. The noise of the rain hitting the leaves was so loud that Agrippa had to shout to make himself heard.
‘This cursed country. Quickly, now. We need to get this into the carts and covered or we’ll lose half of it.’ He sheathed his sword and picked up a sack under each arm before trotting off after the column of slaves and captives, leaving Rufus to make his own pace.
By now the deluge was so fierce the young slave had difficulty following the track. He concentrated on Agrippa’s retreating back and tried to keep his feet moving through the increasingly heavy tangle of wet grass. In the twilight world of the storm-darkened undergrowth, the trees and bushes seemed closer than before, the thorns longer and more persistent. The grasping stem of a dog rose obstructed him and he looked up to discover that Agrippa had disappeared. For a moment he feared he’d be trapped for ever in this frightening green jungle that threatened to bury him alive. Then, as suddenly as it began, the rain stopped, and it was as if a veil had been lifted from his eyes. He was no longer in a threatening, claustrophobic tunnel, just a pleasant green pathway. The thorn bushes were scattered with delicate pink flowers which the raindrops filled like tiny diamonds. He could hear a bird singing a sweet trilling melody, and the rhythmic tap-tap of individual drops falling from the canopy on to larger leaves below. And the sound of clashing metal. Metal? With a lurch his world turned upside down. Now the grass he’d been walking on was in front of his eyes, each individual blade etched sharp on his brain. For a second he was surprised. He must have tripped? Then the grass blurred, and faded, and his vision turned black as night, but not before his mind registered the leather-clad foot which planted itself an inch from his nose.