'Yesterday afternoon, you say?' Vespasian raised his eyebrows as the cavalry decurion finished making his report.
'Yes, sir,' replied the decurion. 'Though more dusk than afternoon, sir.'
'So why has it taken you until dawn to get back to the legion?'
The decurion's gaze flickered down for an instant. 'At first we kept running into them, sir. Seemed that they were everywhere, horsemen, chariots, infantry – the lot. So we swung back and circled round during the night. I realised I'd lost my bearings after a while and had to make a best guess. Before first light, we were way over to the east, sir. Took us a while before we even sighted Calleva. Then we made the best time we could, sir.'
'I see.' Vespasian scrutinised the decurion's expression for any sign of guile. He would not tolerate any officer who put his personal safety before that of his comrades. Covered in mud and clearly exhausted, the decurion stood to attention with all the dignity he could muster. There was a tense silence as Vespasian stared at him. At last he said, 'What was the Durotriges' strength?'
He was pleased to see the decurion pause to consider the question before replying, rather than impulsively trying to gratify his legate with a hurried guess.
'Two thousand… maybe as many as two and a half thousand, but no more than that, sir. Perhaps a quarter were heavy infantry. The rest were light troops, some armed with slings, and possibly thirty chariots. That's all I could see, sir. More of them may have turned up during the night.'
'We'll find out soon enough.' Vespasian nodded towards the tent's entrance. 'You and your men are dismissed. Get 'em fed and rested.'
The decurion saluted, turned smartly and marched away from the legate's desk. Vespasian shouted past him for the duty staff officer. An instant later one of the junior tribunes, a younger son of the Camilli clan – all expensively braided tunic and no brains – burst into the tent, brushing the decurion to one side as he passed.
'Tribune!' Vespasian roared. Both the decurion and the tribune flinched. 'I'll thank you not to treat your fellow officers in such an unmannerly fashion!'
'Sir, I was just responding to -'
'Enough! If it happens again I'll have the decurion here take you on an extended patrol you won't forget in a hurry.'
The decurion grinned with delight at the thought of that fine young aristocratic arse rubbed raw by a cavalry saddle. Then he ducked out of the tent to go and see to his men.
'Tribune, give the order for the legion to stand to. I want the First, Second and Third cohorts ready to move as soon as possible. The rest are to man the ramparts. It'll be a quick action, no marching rations need to be issued. I want them formed up on the track outside the south gate. Got that?'
'Then please see to it.'
The young man turned and ran to the entrance.
'Tribune!' Vespasian called after him.
The tribune turned back, and was surprised to see a faint smile on Vespasian's face.
'Quintus Camillus, try to exude a calm professionalism as you go about your duties. You'll find it helps in your relations with the career officers, and will be less alarming to the men under your command. No one likes to think their fate is in the hands of an overgrown schoolboy.'
The tribune flushed bright red but managed to bite back his embarrassment and anger. Vespasian tilted his head towards the entrance and the tribune turned and stiffly marched away.
It had been a harsh put-down, but Camillus would think more carefully about his demeanour from now on. How one appeared in front of career officers and the other ranks determined the esteem with which the latter would regard the highest social classes of Roman society. Vespasian was keenly aware that the young aristocrats serving their tour of duty with the legions were generally held in contempt by the rank and file. This regrettable state of affairs was only made worse by the arrogant immaturity of young gentlemen like Camillus. Social distinctions within the military were already a touchy issue, without the situation being made any worse. If in future Camillus affected the bearing of a calm professional, it would go some way towards easing the resentment of the men he might have to command in battle one day.
Vespasian's thoughts returned to the matter he had been pondering before news of the Fourth Cohort's predicament reached him. There had still been no response to the message he had sent General Plautius. The courier might have been delayed, of course. The native tracks were of poor quality even in the best weather. But, even allowing for that, he should have heard from the general by now.
One more day, he decided. If he had heard nothing by the following morning he would send the general another message. Meanwhile, the trumpets were sounding the assembly; the legionaries would be tumbling out of their tents, cursing as they struggled to get their armour and weapons strapped on. Every man had been drilled to respond instantly to the trumpet call, and the legate was no exception.
'Pass the word for my body slave!' Vespasian shouted.
The climb up the ladders to the lookout tower above the southern gate served to remind Vespasian how unfit he had become in recent months. He hauled himself through the hatchway and stood against the sentry rail for a moment, breathing heavily. He should have done this before strapping on his muscled cuirass. The dead weight of the silvered bronze together with the rest of his equipment doubled the effort required to climb the ladders. Too much paperwork and too little exercise, Vespasian reflected, would be the ruin of him as a soldier. At thirty-five he was beginning to feel the onset of middle-age and was human enough to prefer domestic comforts over the physical hardships of campaigning. Vespasian's tour of duty would be coming to an end next year, and the prospect of a return to Rome, with all the opportunities for self-indulgence that implied, was very comforting. Any escape from the awful climate of this perpetually damp and bedrizzled island would be worth losing a limb for. Yet none of the natives he had met socially in Camulodunum had registered the slightest complaint about Britain's climate when he had raised the issue. The damp must have got to their brains, Vespasian decided with a wry grin.
He looked up, cleared his mind, and concentrated on the situation opening up before him in the light of the early morning sun. Below, the stout timbers of the south gate had been swung inwards and through the gate tramped the double-strength First Cohort. Behind them would march two other cohorts, nearly two thousand men in all. Vespasian was confident that this force would be more than enough to frighten off the Durotriges swarming about the distant ranks of the Fourth Cohort, barely visible on the crest of a distant hill. He estimated that the Fourth was still nearly three miles off, which meant the relief column would not reach them for an hour or so yet. The Fourth Cohort should be able to keep the Durotriges at bay for that long at least. Vespasian was pleased at the way things had worked out. Rather than having to spend fruitless weeks consolidating the Atrebates' defences and attempting to hunt down the Durotrigan raiding parties, their Druid leaders had obligingly delivered them up to the Second Legion. If a quick defeat could be inflicted on them today then the coming campaign would get off to a fine start indeed.
A creaking on the ladder caused him to turn his head. A massive man was squeezing through the hatchway. Over six feet tall, and broad-shouldered to match, the Second Legion's camp prefect was a grey-haired veteran with a livid scar from forehead to cheek. As the senior career officer of the legion he was a soldier of immense experience and courage. In Vespasian's absence, or death, Sextus would assume command of the legion.
'Morning, Sextus. Come to see the fight?'
'Of course, sir. How're the lads of the Fourth doing?'
'Not too bad. Still formed up and heading this way. By the time I get over there with the relief I imagine it'll all be over.'
'Maybe,' Sextus replied with a shrug as he squinted at the distant fight. 'Are you sure you should be leading the relief column, sir?'
'You think I shouldn't?'
'Frankly, sir, no. Legates should look after the legion as a whole, not arse around on minor details.'
Vespasian grinned. 'That's your job, I suppose.'
'Yes, sir. As it happens.'
'Well, I need the exercise. You don't. So be a good chap and look after things here for an hour or so. I'll try not to make a mess of your First Cohort.'
Both men chuckled; camp prefects were promoted from the rank of senior centurion of the First Cohort, and they were notoriously protective about the last field command of their career.
Vespasian turned and swung himself onto the sentry ladder, slipping easily through the hatchway. Back on the ground, he paused by the gate where his body slave carefully slipped on his helmet and tied the chin thongs securely. The men of the Third Cohort were tramping by, heading through the gates to join the column formed up on the track outside. Vespasian felt a thrill of excitement flow through his body at the prospect of leading the relief column to the aid of the Fourth Cohort. After the tedium of the long winter, most of it snugged down in temporary barracks, here was a chance to get back to some proper soldiering again.
Vespasian allowed his body slave a final tweak of the red ribbon fastened about his cuirass and then turned to march out of the camp and take up his position at the head of the column. Before he made it through the gate, a shrill cry from the top of the watchtower stopped him in mid-stride.
'Horsemen approaching from the north-east!'
'Now what?' muttered Vespasian, angrily slapping his hand against his thigh. Through the gate he saw the three cohorts waiting to go to the aid of their comrades. But he could hardly leave the legion until he had ascertained whether the camp was being threatened on another front. Equally, any delay in sending help to the Fourth Cohort would cost lives. The relief column had to set off at once. And since he had to investigate the sighting to the northeast, it would need a new commander. He looked up at the watchtower.
A face, dark against the sky, appeared above the palisade. 'Yes, sir?'
'Take charge here.'
By the time Vespasian had run across the camp and climbed the watchtower on the northern gate, he was desperately out of breath again. Clutching the sentry rail and taking great gulps of air, he took a last glance at the relief column snaking its way across the rolling countryside towards the dark mass of tiny figures that represented the Fourth Cohort. Sextus could be trusted to see that the rescue operation was carried out with as little loss of life as possible. Camp prefects, as a rule, had long outgrown the distasteful – and dangerous – thirst for glory that some of the junior officers espoused. If he was honest, the men of the relief column were probably safer with Sextus in charge rather than himself. That thought did little to relieve the frustration he felt at having to pass the command over to the camp prefect.
As soon as he was breathing more easily, Vespasian turned and walked over to the sentry keeping watch to the north.
'So where are these bloody horsemen?'
'Can't see them right now, sir,' the sentry replied nervously, not wanting his legate to suspect that it might be a false alarm. He continued hurriedly, 'They rode down into that dip there, sir. Just a moment ago. Should be coming back into view any time now, sir.'
Vespasian looked in the direction indicated, a shallow valley running parallel to the camp barely a mile away. But the only sign of life was a thin trail of smoke rising from a small group of thatched huts. They waited in silence, the sentry growing ever more twitchy as he willed the horsemen to reappear.
'How many of them did you see?'
'Thirty or so, sir.'
'Too far off for me to be sure, sir. They might have had red cloaks.'
'Might have?' Vespasian turned to look at the sentry, an older man who must have served quite a few years with the eagles. Certainly long enough to know that a sentry should only ever report details they were sure of. The legionary stiffened under the legate's gaze and was astute enough to refrain from any further comment. Vespasian seethed internally at having been diverted to the watchtower. If he'd known the number of the approaching horsemen earlier he could have left Sextus to deal with the matter. Well, it was too late now, he reflected, and it would be bad form to take it out on this nervous sentry. Better to keep an air of imperturbability, and enhance the image of the unflappable commander he presented to the men of his legion.
'Look, sir!' The sentry jabbed his hand over the palisade.
A line of plumed helmets bobbed up over the side of the valley. Above them flapped a purple pennant.
'The general himself!' The sentry whistled.
Vespasian's heart felt heavy. The general had got his message, then. He now knew of the terrible danger his family was in. Reminded of his own pregnant wife and young son, Vespasian could sympathise with his general. But sympathy did not allay his apprehension about the general's state of mind.
Vespasian was suddenly aware that the sentry was watching him.
'What's the matter, soldier? Never seen a general before?'
The sentry coloured, but before he could respond, Vespasian sent him down the ladder to alert the duty centurion of General Plautius's approach. The usual formalities due to a commanding general would have to be organised quickly. Vespasian stayed in the watchtower until the sentry returned, watching the approaching column canter towards the northern gate. The general's mounted guard came first, followed by Plautius himself and a handful of staff officers. With them rode two hooded figures, and then came the rearguard section, riding either side of five Druids who were tied to their mounts. As they neared, Vespasian could see the foam on the flanks of the horses; the beasts had obviously been driven to the limits of their endurance in the general's bid to reach the Second Legion as swiftly as possible.
Vespasian quickly descended from the tower and took position at the end of the honour guard formed up on either side of the gateway. It would create a good impression if he greeted the general in person. The pounding of hooves was clearly audible now, and Vespasian gave a nod to the centurion in command of the honour guard.
'Open the gates!' shouted the centurion. The locking bar was lifted and carried to one side and then with a deep groan the gates were hauled open as widely as possible. It was neatly timed, as moments later the first of the general's personal guard reined in to one side of the gateway and waited for Plautius to enter the camp first. The general, followed by his staff, slowed to a walk as the guard centurion bellowed his orders.
'Honour guard… present!'
The grounded javelins of the legionaries were thrust forward at an angle, and the general responded with a salute in the direction of the headquarters tents where the Second Legion's standards were housed in a temporary shrine. Plautius came to a halt beside Vespasian and dismounted.
'Good to see you, General!' Vespasian smiled.
'Vespasian.' Plautius nodded curtly. 'We need to talk, at once.'
'But first, please see to it that my escort… and my companions,' he indicated the staff officers and the two cowled figures, 'see to it that they're made comfortable, somewhere quiet. The Druids can be tied up with the horses.'
'Yes, sir.' The legate waved the duty centurion over and passed on the instructions. The horses, badly blown by the effort they had been put to, bellowed with deep breaths from their flared nostrils.
The general's escort led the horses off in the direction of the stables and the duty centurion conducted the mud-stained staff officers towards the tribunes' mess tent. The two cloaked and hooded figures silently followed the others. Vespasian watched them curiously, and Plautius gave a thin smile.
'I'll explain about them later. Right now we need to talk about my wife and children.'