Valerius noticed that the Tungrian escort commander was nervous and that surprised him. Vitellius had insisted that such patrols beyond the river were routine. Still, he doubted that the legionary commander had ever ventured into Dacia with an escort of fewer than a thousand men. This was different. Perhaps the man had reason to be concerned. Valerius’s hand automatically reached up to stroke the golden boar amulet. It had become his talisman since the day he had taken it from Maeve’s neck as she lay amongst the countless thousands of dead on the field of Boudicca’s last battle. He had convinced himself the glittering metal was invested with the indomitable spirit and fierce pride she had carried to her grave. It had never failed him and he had a feeling he had never needed it more than he did now. They were gathered in front of the fortress gates, twenty auxiliary cavalry wearing chain link vests over tunics that had once been red, and four in the black and silver of the Praetorian Guard. They waited in uneasy silence, for this was the hour that forced each man to face his thoughts and fears alone. In the chill darkness just before dawn a ghostly blanket of silver drifted around them in the torchlight. The mist hid everything beyond ten paces, but the ever-present rush of vast waters pinpointed the river’s position away to their left.
The auxiliary leader, Festus, had briefed his men the previous night, but now he repeated the orders for the benefit of Valerius and the others. ‘It should be simple. We will cross the bridge and ride south to the base of the hills, then on to the fort. Eight miles. Two hours at most. Stay alert. Listen for orders. With Fortuna’s favour we won’t even smell a Dacian. When we get there, we do what we have to do and then we ride home. Any questions?’
Valerius shook his head. Curious that there was no mention of Publius Sulla, but he supposed the decurion was being sensible. No point in inflaming an already awkward situation.
They walked the horses across the bridge, their hooves rapping on the thick wooden planks and echoing eerily in the fog. In the darkness, the slim structure seemed to go on for ever, and the Danuvius, oily, black and swirling, ran worryingly close below. The awesome power of that huge volume of water made Valerius feel a little unsteady.
A minute later they stepped from the end of the bridge on to Dacian soil. They were beyond the edge of the Empire.
At first, the country on the east bank of the river mirrored that which they had just left. A great flat plain stretched into the distance, with only a thin line on the far horizon to give the impression of rising ground. The cavalrymen rode in pairs, at the trot, the points of their seven-foot ash spears glinting in the first rays of sunlight and the coats of the big horses steaming in the cool air. Festus positioned Valerius and his men at the rear of the little column, which surprised the Roman. Normally the less experienced men would ride in the centre where they couldn’t get into trouble. The Tungrian dismissed his concerns. ‘If they hit us in the open, we’ll see them in plenty of time to run, and I want you at the back where you’ll have a head start. If we have to run my lads won’t slow up to hold your hands, so put your heels to your horses and your heads down and ride.’
‘The Dacians. What kind of fighters are they?’ Valerius asked.
‘Animals,’ the decurion spat. ‘If they aren’t fighting us, they’re fighting the Sarmatians or the Thracians, or each other. You kill all you can find and still there are more, like ants, and each one who dies thinks he goes to sit at the right hand of their heathen god Zalmoxis, who’ll give him twenty big-titted wives, so he doesn’t give a fuck. They fight with long curved knives. Not killing knives, gutting knives. And they like to decorate their spears with Roman balls. You understand?’ Valerius felt an involuntary tightening in his stomach. ‘The only good thing about them is that their horses are no match for ours and their warriors have no discipline.’
Valerius attempted to draw him on Publius Sulla, but with no success.
‘Cavalry and infantry don’t mix. I saw him about the fort. Just another beardless Roman boy. The kind the Dacians eat for dinner.’ He gave a sour smile. ‘Just like you.’
As they travelled further south the terrain changed and the country became dotted with bushes, then stunted thorn trees. The ground began to rise, the trees closed in on them and the feeling of being vulnerable pieces on a flat gaming board was replaced by the nerve-jangling tension of never knowing what might be round the next bend in the track. Valerius noticed the knuckles gripping the spear shafts go a little whiter and carefully tested the draw of his sword.
After less than two hours, the column halted at the head of a small tree-lined defile and Festus rode back to them.
‘One of the scouts thinks he saw something ahead. I’m going to take the patrol to investigate. Wait here and I’ll send a man back for you once we’re clear.’
Valerius felt Marcus bridle at his side, but he put a hand on his arm. This was Festus’s command. He knew the enemy and he knew the ground. Only a fool would question his orders. He nodded agreement and they watched uncertainly as the spear points disappeared into the trees ahead.
Minutes passed and the only sound was the irritating whine of insects and the heavy snort of horses’ breathing. Valerius waited for the clink of brass that would herald the patrol’s return, but gradually it became clear they were alone and likely to stay that way. He felt the hairs on the back of his neck bristle and exchanged glances with Marcus.
‘Anyone else feel like the lamb that’s separated out and made to feel very special just before Saturnalia?’ Serpentius asked conversationally. The tumble of trees and bushes around them was suddenly much more sinister. Even the birds which had been singing a few moments earlier were silent now.
‘We can go on, or we can go back,’ Marcus said. ‘But we can’t stay here.’
Valerius had already made his decision. ‘We go on. We have a job to finish, with or without them.’
‘Without. They’ve fucked us.’
Valerius nodded. No point in discussing it. For whatever reason, Festus had abandoned them. The only question was: to what? He saw Serpentius fumbling in the large cloth bag tied to the pommel of his saddle. The Spaniard extracted a short, curved bow and a sheath filled with arrows. Valerius raised an eyebrow.
Serpentius shrugged. ‘A gift from the Thracians in the caravan escort. I’ve never used it from the back of a horse, but it might put one of the bastards off their stroke.’
Valerius took the lead, and they moved ahead cautiously, Marcus covering the right flank, Heracles the left and Serpentius continually glancing over his shoulder to check the rear. The heat of the morning had become oppressive, thickening the air around them. Every tree and every hummock concealed a potential threat and Valerius felt the tension growing in his arms and neck. He adjusted the strap of his helmet and wiped the sweat from his eyes.
‘What if the outpost has been abandoned?’ Marcus asked, keeping his voice low.
‘We’ll give it another half an hour and then turn back.’
Serpentius sniffed the air. ‘They’re out there. I can smell them.’
Valerius searched the treeline, which opened out on the left before converging again into a narrow funnel. The immediate threat seemed to come from the opposite side, the right, and that made the funnel a natural escape route, a welcoming refuge from the storm. To his front was an area of boulder-strewn slope that might have been designed as a trap for their horses. He sensed a dark shadow spreading through the trees.
‘Ready,’ he called.
They came with a howl, a mass of bare-chested, bearded warriors carrying painted oval shields and the wicked curved knives Festus had described. Swords, too, of similar design but heavier and wielded two-handed.
‘Now! Ride on!’ The three men reacted instantly to Valerius’s roared command. The opening to the left was where the Dacians wanted him to go, which meant that beyond the gap would be a carefully set ambush. Better to take their chances in the open. He kicked his mount to the gallop, aiming for an almost imperceptible break in the line of boulders ahead, and heard a welcome roar of frustration from behind.
But his enemy hadn’t entirely neglected the hillside and a line of warriors rose from the scrub in front of Valerius. He heard the zip of an arrow and felt the wind of something past his right ear. At first he thought it was a near miss, but the arrow took one of the Dacians in the centre of the chest and he realized Serpentius was shooting from behind his shoulder. Another horse might have checked at the howling barrier ahead, but this was a trained cavalry mount. Time and again on the practice ground he had been forced to ride through alarming, screaming men like these until he had become certain of his own invulnerability. Without any urging from Valerius the horse surged ahead, teeth bared and screaming his own battle cry. Valerius kept his head down and his sword ready and concentrated on staying in the saddle. A sickening crunch followed by a momentary check. A snarling face appeared below and to his left and he felt hands scrambling for his foot. The sword sliced down and the face disappeared in an explosion of bright blood. More faces among the rocks, mouths gaping in surprise. Then he was through and into the trees beyond the boulder line. He glanced over his shoulder and felt a surge of relief. Marcus galloped a few paces behind, a broad grin on his leathered face. Behind him Serpentius roared with laughter. Heracles rode at his side wearing a grimace of concentration and holding a severed Dacian head between his teeth by its long hair.
‘You’ve never seen anything like it,’ Serpentius called. ‘A single cut and it spins up into the air, then the crazy bugger catches it with one hand. I told him to get rid of it, but he seems attached to the bloody thing.’
Marcus shouted something at the young Sarmatian, and with a grin Heracles allowed the head to drop free.
Valerius’s heart still hammered from the mad charge, but his mind was frantically attempting to work out where they were. He recalled some details of the map in Vitellius’s quarters, but the tracks Festus had followed had twisted so much it was difficult to know just what direction they had taken. He looked up at the sun, which was over his right shoulder. Late morning, perhaps approaching noon, which meant it was now in the south. If they turned back and travelled due west, they would eventually reach the river, but that would take them straight to the Dacians. The safest way back was to ride north-west, take a wide arc to avoid the ambush and work their way through the hills until they reached the plain. After that they should be home free.
But he hadn’t ridden all this way to give up now.
‘Publius Sulla’s outpost can’t be more than a couple of miles ahead,’ he said. ‘We go on.’
Marcus wiped blood from his sword with a piece of saddle cloth. ‘Do you think he’ll still be there?’
‘I think there’s only one way we’re going to find out,’ Valerius said grimly. He had no doubt that the patrol’s vanishing act and the Dacian ambush were linked to the man he sought, but he would worry about that later. His first priority was to survive. He ordered the three men to conserve the contents of their water skins and Marcus handed out the food he’d brought. The rest of the rations had been with the patrol.
After about ten minutes they came across a path. Serpentius studied the ground. ‘Old tracks, but too big for native horses. Roman cavalry mounts, probably a few mules.’
They followed the trail for a mile and a half before they came to a broad, man-made clearing. At its centre stood a small temporary fort surrounded by three wide ditches and a six-foot turf rampart mounted with sharpened wooden stakes. The only entrance was across an earth causeway and the wooden gate was protected from direct attack by a raised bank that restricted the approach. The defences looked pathetically inadequate against the primeval forces they’d met earlier. As Valerius studied the fort, the blast of a horn was followed by shouting and a line of polished helmets appeared above the palisade.
Valerius drew to a halt short of the triple ditch. ‘Couriers from General Vitellius,’ he shouted. ‘With orders for the fort commander.’
From behind the earth barrier came the sound of a gate creaking open.