The general eased himself onto a cushioned chair with a momentary wince. Several days in the saddle had not been kind to his backside and the slightest pressure was painful. His expression gradually relaxed, and he took the cup of heated wine that Vespasian offered him. It was slightly too hot for comfort but Plautius needed a drink and something warm in his belly to counter the numbness in the rest of his body. So he drained the cup and gestured for a refill.
'Any further news?' he asked.
'None, sir,' Vespasian replied as he poured more wine. 'Just the details I sent to you at Camulodunum.'
'Well then, any useful intelligence of any kind?' Plautius continued hopefully.
'Not just yet, but I've a cohort returning from patrol of the border with the Durotriges. They might have gathered some useful information. They seem to have run into a little trouble on their way back. I've sent a few cohorts out to see them home safely'
'Ah yes. That would be the skirmish I saw on the far side of the camp as we rode up.'
'Have the cohort commander debriefed immediately he returns to camp.' The general frowned for a moment, staring into the faint coils of steam rising from the cup clasped in his hands. 'You see… I have to know as soon as possible.'
'Yes, sir. Of course.'
Vespasian took a seat opposite his general, and an awkward silence grew. For almost a year Aulus Plautius had been his commanding officer and he was not certain how to respond on a more personal level. For the first time since he had met Plautius – commander of the four legions and twelve auxiliary units charged with invading and conquering Britain – the general was revealing himself as just an ordinary man, a husband and father consumed with fear for his family.
Plautius continued looking down, one finger gently stroking the rim of his cup.
Vespasian coughed. 'Sir.' "
The general's eyes flickered up, tired and despairing. 'What am I to do, Vespasian? What would you do?'
Vespasian did not reply. He couldn't. What can a man say in the face of another's awful predicament? If the Druids had been holding Flavia and Titus, he little doubted that his first, and most powerful, instinct would be to take a horse and find them. To set them free or die in the attempt. And if he were too late to save them, then he would wreak the most terrible revenge he could upon the Druids and their folk, until he too was killed. For what was life without Flavia and Titus – and the child that Flavia was carrying? Vespasian's throat tightened uncomfortably. To distract himself from this train of thought he rose abruptly and went to the tent flap to shout an order for more wine. By the time he returned to his seat, he had composed himself, though inwardly he raged at what he saw as his weakness. Sentimentality was not permitted in an ordinary ranker; in a legion commander it was tantamount to a crime. And in a general? Vespasian gave Plautius a guarded look and shuddered. If someone as high and mighty as the army's commander had so much trouble keeping his private grief from view, what hope was there for a lesser man?
With a visible effort Aulus Plautius stirred from his introspection and met the legate's gaze. The general frowned for an instant, as if unaware of precisely how long he had been drowning in his own despair. Then he nodded emphatically.
'I must do something. I need to make arrangements to have my family rescued before time runs out. There's only twenty-three days left before the Druids' deadline.'
'Yes, sir,' replied Vespasian, framing his next question carefully to avoid any hint of censure. 'Are you going to exchange the Druid prisoners for your wife and children?'
'No… not yet at least. Not until I've tried to rescue my family. I won't let a bunch of superstitious murderers dictate terms to Rome!'
'I see.' Vespasian was not quite convinced. Why else would the general bring the Druids with him from Camulodunum? 'In that case, what plan do you have in mind to recover your family, sir?'
'I haven't decided yet,' Plautius admitted. 'But the main thing is to act quickly. I want the Second Legion ready to move as soon as possible.'
'Ready to move? Move where, sir?'
'I want to start the campaign early. At least, I want the Second Legion to start early. I've prepared orders for your legion to move into the territory of the Durotriges. You're to crush every hill fort, every fortified settlement. There are to be no enemy warriors or Druids taken prisoner. I want every tribe in this island to know the cost of murdering a Roman prefect and taking Roman hostages. If the Druids and their Durotrigan friends have any sense they will return my wife and children at once, and sue for peace.'
'And if they don't?'
'Then we'll start killing our Druid captives, saving their leader for last. If that doesn't move them, we'll kill every living thing in our path.' The dreadful determination in Plautius's voice was unmistakable. 'Nothing will be allowed to survive, do you understand?'
Vespasian did not reply. This was madness. Madness. Understandable, but madness all the same. None of it made any strategic sense. But he knew he had to handle the general carefully.
'When do you want my legion to advance?'
'Tomorrow!' Vespasian almost laughed at the ridiculous notion. Almost, until he caught the intense gleam in the eyes of his superior. 'It's out of the question, sir.'
'Why? Where shall I start? The ground is not yet firm enough for my artillery carriages and heavy wagons to move. That means we can only carry food for three, maybe four days. And I haven't the slightest idea about enemy capability.'
'I've anticipated that. I've brought along a Briton who knows the area well. He was once a Druid initiate. He and his translator will act as your guides. As for your supplies, you can march on half rations to start with. Later on you can use the fleet to supply you by river, and I'll send you all the light carts I can spare. You might even find some enemy food caches. Winter is almost over, but they're bound to have stockpiles you can forage. And to enable you to assault enemy hill forts, I've arranged for the transfer of the Twentieth's artillery to your unit…'
'Even if we find their hill forts, we'll have no fire support for any attack on the ramparts if the artillery gets bogged down. Our men will be slaughtered.'
'How formidable could the defences be?' Plautius snapped bitterly. After all, these savages haven't even heard of siegecraft. All their ramparts and stockades are fit for is deterring the odd hungry wolf and itinerant trespasser. I'm sure a man of your ingenuity could manage to storm such defences without much loss of life. Or do you find commanding a legion too onerous, or dangerous, a duty?'
Vespasian gripped the arm of his chair tightly to prevent himself from leaping up and angrily denouncing such a slur. The general had gone too far. To order the Second Legion on a wild-goose chase was madness enough, but to counter his reasoned protests with accusations of incompetence and cowardice was a rank insult. Plautius's eyes coldly mocked him for a moment, then the general frowned and looked down into his cup once again.
'Forgive me, Vespasian,' Plautius said quietly. 'I'm sorry. I should not have said that. No one in this army would doubt your qualities as a legate. As I say, forgive me.'
Plautius looked up, and the apologetic expression that Vespasian sought was not there; the general's regret was merely a form of words intended to steer them both back to consideration of his lunatic plans.
Vespasian could barely keep the icy derision out of his voice when he replied. 'My forgiveness is meaningless compared to the forgiveness you would need from the five thousand men of this legion, and their families, should you insist on the Second Legion carrying out this ill-conceived plan of yours. Sir, it would be nothing short of a suicide mission.'
'Don't exaggerate.' Plautius placed his cup on a side table and leaned closer to his legate. 'Very well then, Vespasian. I will not order you to do this. I will ask you to do it. Have you not a family of your own? Do you not understand the demons that drive me to this? Please agree to do as I ask.'
'No.' Vespasian shook his head. 'I cannot permit it. What afflicts you, Plautius, is a private tragedy. Do not make it a public tragedy. The empire can only afford so many Varian disasters. You are a general on active service. In the field your family is the army all around you. The men are as sons to you. They trust you to lead them wisely, and not expose them to needless risk.'
'Please spare me the cheap rhetoric, Vespasian. I'm not some fickle pleb in the forum.'
'No, you're not… Let me try another argument. Consider your feelings for your wife and children. As you say, I have a family too, and even imagining what it would be like for them to be in the hands of the Druids is torment enough. But you have it as a reality, and against that my tortured imagination is only a pale imitation. Now, magnify that a thousandfold and more. That is the measure of the suffering you will inflict on the families and friends of the men you would send to their deaths if you order the Second Legion to march tomorrow, without adequate supplies or artillery support.'
Plautius shut his eyes and rubbed his creased brow, as if that might somehow ease his inner suffering. Vespasian watched him closely, searching for any sign that his arguments had hit home. If the general did not change his mind, Vespasian knew he would have to refuse to lead the Second out tomorrow. That would utterly damn his career. But he would have no part in the general's reckless and futile plan. He would challenge Plautius to find another man to appoint as legate. As soon as Vespasian considered this he realised that his replacement would be chosen for his willingness to do the general's bidding, not for his leadership qualities. Such an appointment would only make the inevitable disaster far worse. Vespasian realised he was trapped. To quit his command would be to increase the already terrible risk to his men. To stay in command would at least present him with a chance to limit the damage. Silently he cursed his fortune.
The general opened his eyes and looked up. 'Very well then, Vespasian. How soon can the Second Legion be ready to attack the Durotriges?'
'With supply wagons and artillery?'
Plautius nodded reluctantly, and Vespasian's despair receded. He had won the crucial concession. Foolish though the rest of the plan might be, at least the Second Legion would have a fighting chance. Looking at Plautius, he judged that the general had given as much ground as he was prepared to give.
'I need twenty days.'
'Twenty! That's cutting it too fine.'
'I grant you it gives us twenty days less to find them, but weigh that against the loss of a legion. Besides…' Vespasian's mind raced ahead for a moment.
The legate rushed to fit the pieces together in his mind before he continued. 'Well, sir, it might take the legion twenty days to be ready to move, but why wait to start looking for your family until then?'
'I'm not in the mood for cryptic clues. Speak your mind, Legate, and make it good.'
'Why not send a few men out to scout the villages and hill forts while the legion prepares to advance? That man you brought with you – the Druid initiate. You said he knows the Durotriges. He can lead them, and try to discover where your family is being held. Who knows? They might even manage a rescue on their own. It's got to be better than having the Second Legion bludgeoning its way through the countryside; the Druids would have plenty of advance warning and just keep moving your family.' Vespasian paused. 'We'd probably never get them back if we relied on such a blunt strategy. If they're being held in a hill fort and we laid siege to it, the Druids would more than likely kill them before they allowed us a chance to succeed.'
General Plautius considered the proposal for a moment. 'I don't like it. I can't risk any botched rescue attempt by a handful of men in the middle of enemy territory. That's more likely to lead to my family being killed than anything else.'
'No, sir,' Vespasian countered firmly. 'I'd say it's the best chance we have. If your Briton really knows the lie of the land and its people, we stand a good chance of finding the hostages before the enemy is alerted to the Second's advance.'
Plautius frowned. 'Your best chance has just been downgraded to a good chance.'
'Better than little or no chance, sir.'
'Did you have anyone in mind for this mission?'
'No, sir,' Vespasian admitted. 'Haven't thought that far ahead. But we'd need some men with plenty of initiative. They'd have to be resourceful, good in a fight – if it came down to it…'
Plautius looked up. 'What about that centurion you sent to retrieve Caesar's pay chest, just after we landed? Him and that optio of his. Did a pretty good job, as I recall.'
'Yes, they did,' mused Vespasian. 'A very good job indeed…'