General Plautius was looking old and very tired, reflected Vespasian as he watched his commander stamp his ring seal on a series of documents handed to him by a headquarters clerk. The sharp smell of the smoke rising from the sealing wax irritated his nose and Vespasian leaned back in his seat. That he and Plautius were meeting at this late hour on a dark winter night was typical of the Roman army. While other armies might spend the winter growing soft in their billets, the men of Rome stayed fit with regular exercise and their officers saw to it that detailed preparation was made for the renewal of operations in the spring.
The previous campaigning season had ended well enough. Plautius's legions had landed on a hostile shore and fought their way up through the lands of the Cantii, across the Mead Way and the Tamesis, before taking Camulodunum, the capital of the Catuvellauni tribe heading the confederation opposed to Rome. Despite the considerable talents of the enemy commander, Caratacus, the legions had crushed the British forces in two bitterly contested battles. Unfortunately, Caratacus had not fallen into their hands, and even now the British chief was making his own preparations to continue opposing Rome's attempt to add Britain to its vast empire.
Despite the harsh winter conditions of this northern climate, Plautius had kept his cavalry active and sent them on long marches deep into the heart of the island, with strict orders to observe and not engage the enemy. Nevertheless, some patrols had run into ambushes, leaving only a few frightened survivors to report on their fate. Other patrols had disappeared entirely. Such losses were a serious matter for an army already deficient in cavalry, but the need for intelligence of Caratacus and his forces was urgent. As far as General Plautius and his staff could discover, Caratacus had retreated up the Tamesis valley with what was left of his army. There the King of the Catuvellauni had set up a number of small forward bases from which detachments of chariots and light horse were raiding into the territory held by the Romans. A number of supply columns had been intercepted and their food and equipment carried off, leaving behind only the smouldering remains of wagons and the butchered bodies of the escorting troops. The Britons had even succeeded in sacking a fort guarding the crossing on the Mead Way, and burning the pontoon bridge erected there.
These raids would have a minimal impact on the ability of the legions to fight the coming campaign, but they boosted the morale of the Britons and this was a concern at headquarters. Many of the tribes who had so eagerly embraced a treaty with Rome the previous autumn were now cooling their relationship. Large numbers of their warriors had joined with Caratacus, sickened by the alacrity with which their leaders had bowed to Rome. Spring would find Plautius and his legions facing a fresh British army.
His experiences the previous year had taught Caratacus much about the strengths and weaknesses of the Roman forces. He had seen the iron firmness of the legions and would no longer hurl his brave warriors headlong onto a wall of shields they could not hope to break. The hit-and-run tactics he was currently employing were a worrying indication of the shape of the coming conflict. The legions might well be masters of the battlefield, but their slowness would make it easy for the British forces to slip round and through them and create merry havoc with their supply lines. The Britons would no longer be so foolish as to stand and fight the legions. Instead they would sidestep each thrust and whittle away at the flank and rear of the Roman forces.
How, Vespasian wondered, could the legions deal with such tactics? Pinpointing and destroying Caratacus and his men would be rather like trying to sink a cork with a hammer. He smiled bitterly at the simile; it was too accurate a comparison for comfort.
'There!' General Plautius pressed his ring down on the last document. The clerk whisked it away from the table and tucked it under his arm with all the others.
'Get those ready for dispatching straightaway. The courier's to board the first ship leaving on the morning tide.'
'Yes, sir. Will that be all for tonight, sir?'
'Yes. As soon as the dispatches are ready, you can send your clerks back to barracks.'
'Thank you, sir.' The clerk saluted and hurried from the office before the general changed his mind. The door closed and Plautius and the commander of the Second Legion were alone in the office.
'Wine?' offered Plautius.
'That'd be welcome, sir.'
General Plautius rose stiffly from his chair and stretched his arms as he made his way over to a brass jug set in a small retaining stand over the delicate flame of an oil lamp. Thin wisps of steam curled up from the jug as Plautius lifted the wooden handle, and then poured two generous portions into silver goblets. He returned to his desk and set them down, smiling contentedly as he wrapped his hands round his warm goblet.
'I don't think I could ever come to love this island, Vespasian. Wet and boggy for most of the year, short summers and bitter winters. It's not a fit climate for civilised men. Much as I enjoy soldiering, I'd rather be home.'
Vespasian smiled, and nodded. 'No place like it, sir.'
'I'm determined to make this my last campaign,' continued the general in a more sombre tone. 'I'm getting too old for this life. It's time a new generation of generals took over. I just want to retire to my estate near Pompeii and spend the rest of my days savouring the view out across the bay towards Caprae.'
Vespasian doubted that Emperor Claudius would be keen to dispense with the services of a general of such great experience, but kept his silence so that Plautius might enjoy his reverie. 'Sounds very peaceful, sir.'
'Peaceful?' The general frowned. 'I'm not sure I even know what the word means any more. I've been in the field too long. If I'm honest I'm not really sure if I could stand being retired. Maybe it's just this place. Hardly been here a few months and I'm already sick of the sight of it. And that bloody man Caratacus is tasking me every step of the way. I really thought we'd beaten him once and for all in that last battle.'
Vespasian nodded. It was what they had all thought. Even though the battle had almost been lost, thanks to the Emperor's foolish tactics, the legions had finally overwhelmed and crushed the native warriors. Caratacus, and what remained of his best troops, had fled the field. In the normal course of events the barbarians would have accepted that Rome had defeated them, and sued for peace. But not these confounded Britons. Far better, it seemed to them, to fight on and be slaughtered and have their lands laid waste, than to be pragmatic and come to terms with Rome. Most hostile of all were the Druids.
A handful of them had been taken alive after the last battle and were now held in a special compound under heavy guard. Vespasian felt a tremor of revulsion as he recalled his visit to see the Druids. There were five of them, dressed in dark robes and wearing charms of twisted hair on their wrists. Their own hair was knotted back and stiffened with lime; the reek of it offended the legate's nostrils as he eyed them curiously from the other side of the wooden bars. Each man had a black tattoo of a crescent moon on his forehead. One Druid stood apart from the others, a tall, thin man with a gaunt face and a long white beard. Strikingly, his eyebrows were a mass of thick black bristles, beneath which dark eyes glinted from deep sockets. He did not speak in Vespasian's presence, only stood glowering at the Roman, arms crossed and feet planted slightly apart. For a while Vespasian was content to observe the other Druids, conversing in sullen low tones, before his gaze was drawn back to their leader, who was still staring at him. The Druid's thin lips had parted in a grin, revealing sharp yellow teeth that looked as if they had been filed. A dry rasping laugh stilled his followers who ceased their muttering and turned to look at Vespasian. One by one, they joined in the mocking laughter. Vespasian suffered it for a while, then angrily turned away and marched from the compound.
These Britons were childish fools, decided Vespasian, recalling the demeanour of the tribal leaders that had come before Claudius to pledge their good will following the defeat of Caratacus. Arrogant and stupid, and far too self-indulgent and self-regarding. Already, the emptiness of their words of friendship was becoming obvious, and much more of their blood, and that of the legions, would be shed before this island was conquered.
Such a terrible waste. As always, the worst suffering would be borne by those natives at the very bottom of this barbarian society. Vespasian doubted that they would be unduly concerned if the warrior class that ruled them was swept away and replaced by Rome. All they wanted was a decent harvest to see them through the next winter. That was the limit of their ambition, and while their overlords resisted Rome, their precarious existence would be battered by the tides of war sweeping across the land. Coming from a family only recently elevated to the aristocracy, Vespasian was sensitive to the realities of those who lived beyond the sight of the high and mighty, and readily empathised with their plight. Not that this helped him in any way; he saw it as yet more evidence of his unsuitability for the social position he held. He was quietly envious of the automatic assumption of superiority so evident in the attitude and bearing of those descended from the ancient families of the aristocracy.
Yet it was those very same qualities that had almost resulted in the destruction of Claudius and his army. Rather than take note of the skill with which Caratacus had resisted Rome thus far, the Emperor had dismissed the British commander as little more than a savage, with the most rudimentary grasp of tactics, and none of strategy. Such a woeful underestimation of his enemy had nearly proved fatal. Had Caratacus been in command of a more disciplined army, a different emperor would be ruling in Rome now. Maybe the world would be better off without these perpetually preening aristocrats, mused Vespasian, then quickly dismissed the idea as fanciful.
Having learned the limitations of throwing an untrained army against the disciplined ranks of the legions, Caratacus had reorganised his forces into small flying columns with strict orders to settle for small victories, won as cheaply as possible. In this way Rome might be persuaded that the Britons were too troublesome to bother with and quit the island. But Caratacus had not reckoned on the tenacity of the legions. No matter how long it took, no matter how many men it cost, Britain would be added to the empire – because the Emperor had ordered it. That was the simple truth of things. As long as Claudius lived.
Plautius refilled his cup and stared down into the spiced wine. 'We must still deal with Caratacus. The question is how? He won't want to risk another pitched battle, no matter how many more men he has recruited. And we can't afford to bypass him and move deeper into the heart of this island. He'd bleed us white before the end of the next campaign season. Caratacus must be eliminated before the province can be settled. That is our immediate goal.' Plautius looked up and Vespasian nodded his agreement.
The general reached to the side of the desk for a large vellum roll and carefully spread the map open between himself and the legate. Much of the ink notation was crisp and black, steadily added to over the winter as the cavalry patrols provided more and more information about the lie of the land. Vespasian was impressed by the detail on the map, and said so.
'It's good, isn't it?' responded the general with a smile of satisfaction. 'Copies are being prepared for you and the other legates. I'll expect you to notify my headquarters at once of any additional significant features that you encounter.'
'Yes, sir,' said Vespasian, before he grasped the full implications of the order. 'I take it that the Second will be operating independently of the rest of the army once we've crossed back over the Tamesis?'
'Of course. That's why I'm moving you as soon as possible. I want you and your legion in place to march against Caratacus the moment the campaign season starts.'
'What are the orders?'
General Plautius smiled again. 'I thought you'd appreciate the chance to show me what you and your men can achieve. Very well, it's good to see that you're keen.' He pointed a finger south of the Tamesis estuary. 'Calleva. That's where you'll be based until spring. I've assigned elements of the channel fleet to your command. They'll join you once summer begins. You are to use them to keep you supplied during the campaign, and to sweep the river clear of the enemy. And while you cut Caratacus off from the southern part of the island, I'll be forcing him out of the Tamesis valley to the north of the river. By the end of the year we should have pushed the front forward to a line stretching from the west coast to the fens of the Iceni.
'To that end I'll take the Fourteenth, Ninth and Twentieth Legions north of the Tamesis and advance up the valley. Most of the native raiding columns have come from that direction. Meanwhile, you'll take the Second Legion back across the river and move up along the south bank. You are to fortify any bridges or fords you come across. It will mean crossing into the territory of the Durotriges, but we were going to have to tackle them at some point anyway. Intelligence reports say that they're in possession of quite a few hill forts, some of which you will need to take, and take quickly. Think you can manage that?'
Vespasian considered the prospect. 'Shouldn't present too much of a problem, provided I have enough artillery. More than I have now'
Plautius smiled. 'That's what all my legates say.'
'Maybe, sir. But if you want me to take those forts, and guard the crossing places on the Tamesis, then I need artillery.'
Plautius nodded. 'Very well. Your request is noted. I'll see what can be done. Now then, back to the plan. The aim is to close Caratacus in bit by bit, so that he must come to battle, or continually fall back – away from our supply lines, and the territory we already occupy. Eventually he'll run out of land and be forced to fight us, or surrender. Any questions?'
Vespasian looked over the map, projecting onto it the movements the general had just described. Strategically the plan looked sound, albeit ambitious, but the prospect of dividing the army was worrying, especially as they no longer had any accurate intelligence about the size of Caratacus's re-formed army. There was no guarantee that Caratacus would not switch back to more conventional operations to take on an isolated legion. If Caratacus was to be prevented from slipping across the Tamesis, there had to be a force ready to deny him any crossing points, and that role had fallen to the Second. Vespasian looked up from the map.
'Why us, sir? Why the Second?'
General Plautius stared at him for a moment before replying. 'I don't have to give you my reasons, Legate. Just my orders.'
'But you would rather I did?'
Vespasian said nothing, wishing to give the correct impression of soldierly imperturbability, even as his curiosity demanded an answer. He shrugged.
'I see. Well then, Legate, your written orders will be delivered to your headquarters tomorrow morning. If the weather's clear I expect you'll be wanting to make an early start.'
'Good. Now then, let's finish this wine.' Plautius filled both goblets and raised his for a toast. 'Here's to a quick end to the campaign, and a well-deserved leave in Rome!'
They sipped the lukewarm wine. Plautius grinned at his subordinate. 'I expect you're keen to get back to that wife of yours.'
'I can't wait,' Vespasian replied quietly, conscious of the emotion any mention of his wife caused him. He tried to shift the general's attention away from himself. 'I expect you want to get back to your family just as much.'
'Ah! There I have the advantage over you.' Plautius's eyes glinted mischievously.
'I don't have to return to Rome to see them. They're travelling out to join me. As a matter of fact, they should be arriving here any day now…'