XLI

Rufus was up and running before Ballan could get to his feet. The Briton called him back with a shout, but the young Roman shook his head. ‘I don’t have time to explain. My son is in danger.’

Ballan didn’t hesitate. ‘Then take this.’ The Iceni unsheathed his sword and threw it towards Rufus. ‘We will follow as we can.’

Rufus caught the sword in his right hand and turned for the trees. When he reached them he found there was no path, and he had to hack his way through thick undergrowth on the forest edge. The sweat was soon coursing down his back but when he was beneath the broad-leafed canopy it chilled on his body and he felt as if he had been doused with a bucket of icy river water. As he moved forward the entangling brush quickly thinned to a carpet of fern and stinging nettle, and the gaps between the trees became greater. At times it seemed he was walking among the Corinthian columns of some darkened temple, and not in a silent wilderness where danger threatened with every step. He walked slowly, careful not to tread on fallen branches or hidden twigs that would betray his presence. And as he walked, he listened for any sound that would provide a clue to the whereabouts of Gaius, or Britte — or his unknown enemy. The forest floor was mottled with delicate patterns of sunlight that had somehow pierced the dense canopy above, and insects and dust-mites danced in the rays. On another day it would have been pleasing, but he was conscious of a feeling of dread. The silence of the forest was the silence of the dead.

After another hundred paces he realized he was approaching a clearing. It wasn’t so much a sound as a disturbance in the air that alerted him; some change in atmosphere that made him stop and crouch down in the shadow of a giant hornbeam. He understood the feeling was a warning from the gods, but which gods ruled in this strange and frightening place? Roman gods had dominated his life: mighty Jupiter, great Mars, fearless Diana. But in his childhood there had been other gods. He knew the world was divided into three, just as there were three deadly gods and three benevolent gods. The earthly world, where humans lived and suffered. The divine world where the gods looked down upon the earthbound and imposed their will upon them. But there was also the shadow world, inhabited by those trapped between. Perhaps he had already entered the shadow world. He waited for the physical manifestation of the warning to become clear.

A rasping cough that might have been a bear, but wasn’t, gave him his answer. He peered into the gloom ahead. Silhouetted against the dim light was a broad-shouldered figure with the lime-spiked hair of a British warrior. Rufus’s fist tightened on the unfamiliar grip of the long sword and he stood, slowly, took a single, deep breath and readied himself for the attack.

A call from beyond the silhouetted figure stopped him just in time, and he watched in relief as the man silently disappeared from view towards whoever had spoken. That was when the singing began; a song that sent a shiver down Rufus’s spine. The last time he had heard the sonorous, mournful notes he had been trapped in the belly of the Wicker Man and he knew full well their portent. Then, the words had been bellowed from a dozen throats; now, a single, piercing voice split the air among the trees. Nuada!

He slipped to the ground and bellied through the leaves towards the spot where the warrior had vanished. What he saw made the blood freeze in his veins.

The sacred grove was as broad as a legionary parade ground and half as long, with a low man-made mound at its centre and two huge oaks standing like gateposts at its eastern edge. Britte was roped to a wooden stake fixed to the west of the mound, held upright by the bonds which cut into her body, her screams silenced by a leather gag. To her left stood Nuada; a different Nuada, worn skeletally thin by the privations he had endured since the defeat by the Batavian river rats. The Druid’s grey hair hung in filthy matted strands and his robe was rent in so many places that it seemed more gap than cloth. He appeared as if he barely had the strength to stand, but he still had his hate and it burned bright in the amber falcon’s eyes that seemed too large for the skull they inhabited, and in his voice, which soared ever higher as he reached the climax of the gift song.

The Druid reached out and Britte attempted to jerk her head away as the fearsome bear claw stroked the long strands of her dark hair. To the right of the stake stood a warrior with the shoulders of a bull and the emotionless expression of an executioner. Nuada’s eyes rolled back in his head and he raised both arms towards the sun that was now high above them. At the same time, the warrior almost gently moved Britte’s hair to one side, placed a noose of thin cord over her head and tightened it round her throat until it stood out against her flesh like an obscene necklace. He then produced a short piece of wood and fitted it carefully through a loop in the cord at the base of her neck. He looked towards Nuada and the Druid nodded. Rufus saw Britte’s face contort as the warrior made the first turn of the stick and she felt the noose bite into her throat.

He was so transfixed by the terrible drama being played out before him that he barely noticed the two heavy-set figures enter the clearing from his right. They were naked to the waist and between them they held a squirming naked bundle. Rufus almost cried out when he recognized his son. Gaius snarled and bit behind the cloth they had used to gag him, and his russet-mopped head shook left and right as he tried to fight them with every step they took. Rufus’s heart filled with a father’s pride that was instantly replaced by a father’s terror. The first warrior moved slightly aside as he killed Britte by inches, allowing Rufus his first sight of the second stake. It was lower — perhaps four feet high — and narrower; the bark was a deep, rich brown, but the fresh heartwood at the tip showed clean and white where it had been carefully sharpened to a needle point.

A shock ran through Rufus as he recognized it and the thought of what was about to happen pushed him beyond the edge of reason. With a cry he threw himself into the sunlight towards the two men. They turned in surprise at this violation of the sacred grove and their free hands went for their swords, but a shouted order from Nuada stopped them. Instead, the warrior on Gaius’s left pulled the little boy’s head back to expose his throat and at the same time drew a bone-handled knife from his belt and placed it very deliberately against the taut, white skin. A nerve twitched in Gaius’s throat and he froze as he felt the razor edge of the blade against his flesh. The warrior laughed as Rufus stumbled to a halt, knowing that one more step would kill his son. His mind raced as he sought a way out of the trap Nuada had set. But there was none. It didn’t matter what he did. One way or another Gaius would die. In any case, his body had made the decision for him. Fear had turned him to stone.

He watched Britte die.

She fought them, as only Britte could fight them. She threw her head back, attempting to smash it into the face of her executioner. Her teeth bit at the gag that silenced her. But it was never going to be enough. The shadowed grey eyes bulged as she fought for air; her flesh turned first marble white, then a dull blue. She was dead long before the last turn of the stick broke her neck with an audible crack and her head flopped nervelessly on to her chest.

Now the Druid’s attention turned to Gaius. Rufus looked on helplessly as his son was carried towards that obscene spike. He cried out the boy’s name as he fought the paralysis that had seized him as surely as if Nuada had cast some Druid’s spell. He pleaded to die in Gaius’s stead. Even wished he had burned in the bowels of the Wicker Man so he would not be forced to see what no man should see. And as he watched, Nuada looked on in his turn, with a thin, pitiless smile. The two warriors were feet from the stake when they raised Gaius up to place him precisely on the jagged wooden point.

Rufus was puzzled by a soft thud, like a heavy footfall on a silk-carpeted floor. At first he wasn’t certain what he was seeing. But the initial sound was followed by a second, clearer than the first, and the warrior on Gaius’s left side gave a sharp cry and clawed desperately at his back, half turning so Rufus had a clear view of the twin green-flighted arrows buried deep in his spine. The second warrior’s face was a mask of disbelief. Snarling, he dropped Gaius to the ground and clawed for the sword at his belt. But he was too late. Much too late. Even as the two arrows were speeding towards their victim, a bulky shadow had detached itself from the woods and moved with astonishing speed across the grove. Ballan. Rufus saw the long spear slice into the warrior’s throat, the blade tearing skin and muscle and cartilage and showering a fountain of blood from the ruined neck that bled the man dry in less time than it takes to tell it.

A father’s instinct screamed at Rufus to rescue Gaius as he wriggled like a hog-tied piglet amongst the blood of his two sometime impalers. ‘No!’ Ballan pointed to where Nuada was racing for the trees. Rufus nodded acknowledgement and sprinted after the Druid. The warrior who had killed Britte moved to cut him off, but Rufus ignored him, his eyes never leaving Nuada’s back. A second later his faith was rewarded by a clash of arms and a shrill cry as the last of the grove’s guardians died on the point of Ballan’s spear.

By the time Rufus reached the forest edge the Druid had disappeared into the gloom. The young Roman kept the long British sword raised and at the ready. Old man he might be, but Rufus had no illusions how dangerous Nuada could be. He touched the charm at his throat and moved carefully into the trees. The trunks were close-ranked here, and the branches above him formed a continuous roof that starved the forest floor of light. As he cautiously advanced, he could hear the shuffle of his feet through the leaf-mould and the nervous sound of his own breathing. The trees and the rotting leaves gave off a distinctive but not unpleasant scent, and the whole atmosphere below the leaf canopy was somehow mesmeric. The word rang inside his head like a warning bell. He stopped. Listened. Was the feeling some Druid magic of Nuada’s? He shook his head to clear it and set off again, his eyes searching left and right, up and down, for any hint of danger.

A single sunbeam saved his life.

In the corner of his eye he saw it glint on one of the claws on Nuada’s bear paw as it was swung with lethal savagery at his head. The blow came from behind and Rufus only had a heartbeat to react; no time to bring the sword round, but he had to try. He ducked and swung in one movement. In the same instant his head exploded in a lightning rush of pain and he instinctively threw himself to the left, away from the attack. He lost the long sword as he fell and cursed himself for the carelessness that was about to cost him his life. Half blinded by blood, he fought his way to his feet, fingers scrabbling for the knife at his hip. His mind told him he wasn’t dying: the bear paw had only caught him a glancing blow — there was still hope. Suddenly a blurred figure filled what remained of his vision and he threw up his right arm to block the blow he knew was coming. He heard the unnerving crack at the same time as he felt the throat-filling agony as one of the bones in his forearm was shattered by the force of Nuada’s strike. Lost in a fireball of pain, he fell backwards, and the Druid was on him like a hunting leopard. Rufus could smell the carrion-reek of his breath and the stink of his body. He blinked away blood and was only just in time to wrap the fingers of his left hand round the Briton’s wrist as the bear claw descended towards his face in a killing blow. Nuada snarled a curse and his own left hand groped for Rufus’s throat, where his fingers closed like an iron ring as the young slave choked and struggled for life. He knew he had only seconds left and he ignored the pain in his right arm as he tried to dislodge the Druid, but his hand only flapped uselessly and the effort almost made him faint. He was dying.

But as he fought for consciouness, the weight on his chest vanished and he could no longer feel Nuada’s fingers at his neck. Which meant he was dead or…? He opened his eyes and saw the Druid sprawled a dozen feet to his left, where he appeared to have been thrown by some giant hand. Towering over Rufus, a great, grey mass that gave a gentle snort of affection blotted out what little sun the branches allowed through, and he felt warm dampness on his cheek. Bersheba? It was impossible. The questions flooded his spinning head, but he knew he wouldn’t find any answers today. It was enough that she was here. Enough to know that she had saved his life. He struggled to his feet, his useless arm hanging at his side, and her liquid brown eye caught his, full of compassion and, perhaps, reproach. And why not? After all, he had abandoned her again.

He heard a scuttle behind him, and turned to see Nuada disappearing into the trees. He stared into the murk. How many more innocents had he condemned by leaving the Druid alive? He shook his head and tried to work out the way back to the sacred grove. At the same time Bersheba brushed past him and ambled off, following the path Nuada had taken.

‘Bersheba!’ He put all the authority he could command into the order, but she ignored him entirely, leaving him swaying on his feet. He was still there when Ballan and Hanno found him minutes later.

‘You should be more careful when you walk in the woods, Roman,’ the squat Iceni said, eyeing Rufus’s battered scalp. Before Rufus could reply, a tiny figure darted from behind the Briton and rushed towards him. Forgetting his injured arm, he stooped to pick up his son and winced as the pain hit him like a hammer blow. Ballan stepped forward to retrieve Gaius, but Rufus shook his head, and shifted so he could hold his son in the crook of his left arm. For a moment, he revelled in the warmth of the little boy’s body and the gentle beat of his heart; the soft breath that caressed his cheek and the damp tears that mingled with his own. His body shook as he remembered what might have been. Gaius was engulfed in a blood-stained shirt retrieved from one of the dead guardians. Rufus studied his son, searching for some outward sign of his ordeal, but in the same instant the little boy lifted his face and his blue eyes shone in a smile of such untouched innocence that he knew there was no lasting damage.

He turned to Ballan. ‘Britte?’

The Briton shook his head. ‘We would need a wagon. I-’

The Iceni was interrupted by an inhuman shriek that made Hanno fall to his knees with his hands held over his head. The cry was followed by a thundering of giant feet and a roar that almost shook the leaves from the trees. Ballan muttered a silent prayer and raised his spear to meet whatever terrible end the gods had decreed for him.

Did she remember Nuada from the day the Batavian shield wall broke? Was the scent of Britte’s dying somehow transmitted through the forest to her? Only the gods would ever know, but it was the Druid who paid the price. First Nuada scuttled into view at a speed Rufus wouldn’t have believed possible. He was followed moments later by a grey-brown shadow that dwarfed the man it pursued. Bersheba hunted the Druid through the forest as unerringly as a stoat chasing a rabbit. Nuada was exhausted, but he was agile and he dodged energetically, using one tree then another as a shield as he fled for his life. But if the Briton was nimble, Bersheba was nimbler still. She ghosted amongst the great oaks and the slender elders as easily as if she were in an open field, never quite narrowing the gap between herself and her quarry, but always giving the impression she had the ability. Time and again Nuada must have believed he had escaped, only to find Bersheba at his heels like some god-sent nemesis.

In other circumstances Rufus would have felt pity, but the memory of Britte’s death was too fresh in his mind and he only wanted it to be over. He covered Gaius’s eyes. As if she had read his thoughts, Bersheba increased her speed and Nuada, feeling her presence, panicked. His foot caught a hidden tree root and a despairing cry escaped his lips as he went down among the leaves and nettles. In an instant the elephant towered over him, her trunk held high, trumpeting her victory roar.

Nuada cried for mercy, but there was no mercy in the forest of the sacred grove.

With one swift movement, Bersheba lowered her head and hooked her left tusk below Nuada’s ribs. The Druid’s howls of agony split the forest as he squirmed like a worm on a bone hook and that terrible ivory spear bit ever deeper into his vitals. It was a mortal wound, but still Bersheba’s revenge was not complete. With a flick of her neck she tossed Nuada’s body high into the air. When he landed, she was on him in an instant, grinding his body into the forest floor with one great knee so Rufus could hear the Druid’s ribs snap like so many dried twigs. Still she wasn’t satisfied. Rufus had seen her do many things in their years together, but he had never seen her dance. She danced over the Druid for more than a minute, until his body was little more than a red pulp beneath her enormous pads.

When it was over, she stood by the body for a few more moments as if she were considering the morality of what she had done, and once she was satisfied she ambled through the trees to where Rufus stood, no longer a terrible, unstoppable weapon, but gentle Bersheba once more.

Rufus handed Gaius to Ballan and walked to Nuada’s shattered body. He looked down at the bloody smear on the ground and gingerly reached for what had once been the Druid’s cloak. It was there, as he knew it would be, and, amazingly, undamaged. He unpinned it and walked back to where the Briton held his son.

‘Here.’ He handed Ballan the brooch of Cunobelin, which so many sought and so many had died for. ‘Take it and do what you will with it. But do not keep it long, Ballan.’ He stared at the place where Nuada had died. ‘If it can kill a Druid, then no man is safe from its spell.’

He took Gaius’s hand in his, and, with Bersheba following, set off in the direction of the camp. Ballan watched them go, then looked down thoughtfully at the treasure in his palm.

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