December 43 CE
Teetering on the edge of unconsciousness, Caratacus squirmed as a pair of coarse hands pulled and tugged at his robes. Death was inevitable, but he still managed the flicker of a smile. These men would never find what they sought.
He grimaced as a heavy hobnail sandal connected with his rib cage, the blow hard enough to flip him over and onto his back. He blinked and opened his eyes to find his chubby, chinless assailant peering down at him.
The Roman wrapped his pristine, cream-coloured sagum tighter around his chest to shut out the cold wind. He looked nothing like the brutish military commanders Caratacus typically dealt with. The man’s regal air of arrogance and contempt for the soldiers around him making it clear he was a Roman of importance. It was arrogance only men of unimaginable wealth and power could ever hope to wield with success; particularly amongst a group of Praetorian guards.
Caratacus sensed the Roman’s gaze rake his naked body; the man’s tight lips and beady eyes radiating a general air of cruelty which sent a chill coursing through the captured priest. He felt his muscles twitch and tense and turned his head, breaking eye contact with his captor. He needed to relax his body. Caratacus was not far from death and rule dictated he must embrace and not fear the moment.
‘You are a hard man to track down, Druid,’ sneered the stranger. ‘Or would you prefer I call you by your official title - Gatekeeper?’ He paused, giving Caratacus time to digest the significance of this revelation. ‘You seem calm for a man on his way to Pluto’s realm. Do you not recognise me, priest?’
Caratacus puffed his cheeks and spat blood at the man’s feet, regretting it as a wave of pain surged through his earthly body.
The Roman’s eyes narrowed to slits. He stepped clear of the blood and raised a foot, mashing his muddy sandal deep into Caratacus’ wounded shoulder. ‘I am Claudius, Emperor of Rome, and conqueror of your pathetic island race.’ Claudius hesitated before continuing, his eyes narrowing in hope of at least a flicker of recognition. ‘Well? Have you nothing to say? It is not every day you chance upon a living god?’
Caratacus screwed up his eyes as another hobnailed clad foot connected with his nether regions and a thick fingered fist smashed into his jaw. ‘Show respect, Barbarian,’ barked a Praetorian. An excruciating bolt of pain shot through him and he rolled back onto his side. He retched and coughed blood through his shattered jaw, wincing as he realised it was no longer attached to his skull. He saw the soldier between his legs shrink away, fearful of his Emperor’s reaction. ‘Sir, I’m not sure if he can speak.’
‘Praetorian, your orders were to deliver this man unharmed. Is this unharmed, you stulte?’ The Praetorian shook his head and edged beyond the range of Claudius’ sword. Caratacus groaned as the heavy set Emperor straddled his chest and slipped a sinew cord about his neck. He tried to resist, but the effort was futile. He gagged as Claudius pulled the cord taut and the light of the day faded to pin pricks. Death was close. Caratacus’ heart stuttered as darkness enveloped him; beating its final beat as he surrendered himself to God.
‘Where have you put it, Gatekeeper?’ said Claudius. ‘Tell me now or by Jupiter I swear I’ll…’
As the sound of cracking bone resonated through the clearing the Praetorians glanced at one another uneasily, each of them aware the Druid lay dead between their Emperor’s thighs. Claudius cursed and relaxed his grip, watching with morbid interest as the battered body slumped into a puddle of its own muddied blood. Killing the man was not part of the plan, well, at least not before he’d extracted a confession.
The Emperor thrust out a hand and one of his men pulled him to his feet. ‘Cut his throat and bury him in the bog.’ He clenched his fists. ‘Then find his bag. Find it or I’ll bury you with him.’