XXV

The first lurch as she hit the slope almost pitched him straight into the river, but his hold on her harness was strong enough to keep him in his seat. Bersheba placed first one mighty pad and then the next into the water with barely a ripple, and Rufus breathed a sigh of relief. There was no steep drop off into the depths. The waters reached just above her knees.

Two more steps and they were on their way, the surface quickly rising until it reached her belly. Behind him, Rufus heard soft splashes and muffled gasps as the rafts and their escorts entered the river. Instantly, the cords tightened as the rafts were pulled downstream by the current. Rufus felt the elephant shift her weight to take the pressure and he heard the centurion cursing as he organized his men. He’d feared Bersheba might be disturbed by this unfamiliar task, but she accepted it in her usual unflustered fashion. When she had gone a dozen feet from the bank, the darkness folded around them like a cloak. At first, Rufus lost all sense of space and time in this impenetrable black prison, but the solid warmth of Bersheba beneath him helped steady his nerves. He could see nothing ahead, but, below him, the eternal, implacable flow of the water restored his sense of direction and he urged the elephant onward.

They were well into the crossing now and his sense of unease returned as the current grew stronger. The river rose until it reached Bersheba’s lower shoulders, forcing Rufus to bend his knees to keep his toes clear of the water. He grimaced as the force of the stream tugged at his sandals. They must have been a third of the way across when the elephant suddenly lurched to the right and Rufus cried out in alarm as the solid bulk beneath him took on a curious weightless quality. Bersheba had stumbled and lost her footing. He held his breath. If she didn’t regain it quickly they would be swept away. With one hand he grabbed for the lion’s tooth at his neck and he placed his destiny with the gods. If she had truly been out of her depth, they would have been doomed, but she had marched into a shallow depression in the river bottom, and her flailing feet quickly found the firm ground that allowed her to continue on her imperious way. Rufus bit his lip and breathed again.

With Bersheba steadied, he took the opportunity to look over his shoulder. It was clear the Batavians knew their business. The cords attaching the rafts to the elephant’s harness had been cut at different lengths, so a few feet separated each floating platform from the next, ensuring they didn’t become entangled. The rafts rode high in the water on their goatskin floats, keeping weapons, armour and clothing well clear of the surface. Each raft had the swimmers stationed on its downstream side, kicking upstream. In this way they stayed in a more or less direct line behind the elephant, eliminating the drag and allowing her to use all her strength to force her way forward through the relentless current. They were past halfway now and, in front of him, he could just make out the faint line that marked the far bank: a deeper dark against the old lead of the rain-saturated sky. He peered into the night, struggling to distinguish between what he was truly seeing and the optical tricks his eyes were playing on him. Where was it?

‘We sent a patrol across two nights ago. It was a risk, but a risk worth taking,’ Frontinus had explained before they reached the river. ‘They identified a landing place where the bank has eroded and the bottom slopes up to a gravel beach. It is perfect for our purposes. Behind the landing is a stand of tall trees. That is where you will see the sign.’

The sign was a white flash cut into the bark of one of the trees about halfway up its trunk. It had sounded entirely plausible when the auxiliary commander explained it, but now, in this stygian tomb, it was laughable. The only flashes he could see were the ones caused by his over-tired eyes. It was impossible. Eventually he stopped looking and placed his faith in Bersheba. She felt her way forward, one impassive, lumbering step at a time, instinctively finding the safest route to the bank. Slowly, the waters retreated down her flank and her speed increased. Rufus began to distinguish individual objects. Driftwood piled high where it had been deposited by some long-ago flood. The almost feminine undulations of a giant sandbank. The distinctive out-line of a tight-packed stand of trees taller than anything around them. A pale flash in the surrounding gloom.

Frontinus’s Batavians went into action even before Bersheba placed a foot on dry land. The rafts were dragged from the shallows on to the shore. Two men from each raft swiftly stripped off the oilskin covers and retrieved clothing, weapons and armour. Meanwhile, the two other auxiliaries ran into the nearby trees and firmly secured the long ropes the rafts had also carried.

They made the crossing six times in the next few hours. It was hard, gruelling work, but Bersheba never faltered, and, eventually, Frontinus was satisfied he had enough ropes to ferry his remaining force across without the elephant’s help. On the final trip, Rufus persuaded the Batavian to forgo the pleasures of a freezing swim and be carried across on Bersheba’s back. When they reached the bank, the auxiliary commander slid down the elephant’s side and stood listening, gauging from the sounds around him whether all was going to plan. Eventually he was satisfied and motioned Rufus to leave Bersheba and follow him.

‘Now we must wait. Time is short and we still have far to go, but I have my orders.’

The Batavians had created a wide perimeter around the landing ground, an unbroken half-circle of kneeling men staring into the dark from beneath the brims of their iron helmets. When they reached the picket line, Frontinus took his place just behind it, staring as hard as any of them. The prefect was clearly nervous and Rufus, who had thought him unflappable, decided that should make him nervous too. He fingered the hilt of his gladius and gained comfort from it, if not courage.

‘Listen.’ The urgent whisper came from a Batavian officer in the front line.

Frontinus’s eyes narrowed and his face took on a look of total concentration. Rufus listened too, straining his ears for any sound that was alien to the natural rhythm of the night. Even so, he saw them before he heard them. They came out of the darkness, a line of silent shadows that turned into solid, all too human figures as they approached. A hundred tall, moustached men, clad in trews and chequered shirts, well armed and moving with a disturbing sense of purpose. One of Frontinus’s men raised himself and lifted his spear to hurl it into the mass of enemy warriors.

‘Hold,’ Frontinus snarled. The approaching line halted within a few paces of the auxiliary troopers, and opened to allow a stocky figure to march to their front. Frontinus turned to Rufus. ‘The Greek who advises General Vespasian said you would recognize him.’

Rufus stared hard at the small man and nodded. He was just as Narcissus had described him two nights before: short, stout and full of his own importance.

‘Are we to scowl at each other all night, or may we go?’ Adminius, king of the Cantiaci, demanded. ‘Our enemies await us.’

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