XIX

‘We should attack now, when they do not expect us.’

Plautius stared. There was something in Vespasian’s tone that was not quite respectful, particularly in front of junior commanders. Still, there was nothing to be done about it. The legate might be a boor, but he had friends at Claudius’s court and in the senate and must be humoured. The annoying thing was that from a purely military standpoint he was correct. Caratacus must be off balance after the slaughter five days ago. Whatever force he had been able to gather since would be demoralized and disorganized. He believed himself to be safe behind the river, and therefore would be off guard. He underestimated the legions, and commanders who underestimated the legions were defeated before they even fought. Nevertheless, Plautius stood his ground.

‘We will rest and resupply, deploy the legions for attack… and wait.’

They had set up the invasion commander’s pavilion on rising ground south of the river. It was a fine day, and the front and side cloth walls were raised, allowing Plautius, his legionary commanders, their aides and the Emperor’s representative Narcissus an unbroken view of the far bank. Sunlight glittered on the swirling, shadowed waters, and occasionally a substantial fish would leap, causing a splash near the centre. The river was wide here, possibly as much as three hundred paces, and, if the sluggish flow was anything to go by, also deep. But there had been a bridge — the top few inches of the blackened piles stuck out from the surface like so many broken teeth — and where the British had built a bridge the Romans could build a better one. Of course, the British bridge had not been built under attack. The crossing would be opposed. They would lose men, but that was what men were for.

Plautius studied the far bank. The point he overlooked was on a gentle bend in the river, but it was clear the river itself was not always gentle. Regular flooding had cut away the bank, leaving a sharp edge and a steep climb of perhaps four feet. There was no beach that he could see, although there might be one at low water. He guessed that the river bottom was not uniform. The bridge was evidence of that. His engineers had identified that it stood on a gravel ridge which cut diagonally across from just below where they sat to a point slightly further upstream on the north side. Beyond the steep bank, a lush green meadow stretched away to a long, low hill — a whaleback — where his enemy stood and watched him in his turn.

It was a good position, one he might have chosen himself. The British warriors were arrayed along the crest of the low hill, most of them on foot, but the line was broken at intervals by the taller figure of a horseman or a chieftain standing in his chariot. He knew there would be more chariots, but it didn’t concern him. They were an annoyance, that was all. When a man had fought a chariot-borne warrior once, he had the measure of him. The horsemen, too, had only nuisance value. Cavalry tactics were alien to the barbarians. They used their horses to carry them into battle and away from it. Transport for the chiefs and the nobles, nothing more.

Plautius cocked his head to one side as he thought he heard a howl and he wondered if they had dogs. Realized they almost certainly would have. The British war dog had a fearsome reputation. Huge, powerful beasts with razor teeth and sharpened claws. A charging man might not break the line, but if a dozen snarling hounds started tearing at the legionaries’ unprotected legs it might be a different story. He would give it thought.

From time to time an individual or a small group of warriors would come to the water’s edge and scream what must have been insults, but they were much too far away to make out the words. He knew he was seeing only a fraction of the British force, and only what Caratacus wanted him to see, but it did not concern him. When the time came, there could be no doubt about the final outcome. The augurs had done their work, the sacred chickens had been consulted and the corn had danced in the most positive omen of all.

Vespasian, however, wasn’t finished.

‘If we wait we give the barbarians the opportunity to strengthen their defences, reinforce their army and recover from the beating we gave them. Tactically, there is no purpose to be served in waiting.’

‘Sometimes there are other imperatives than the tactical imperative,’ Narcissus said indulgently, but if he expected his words to mollify the Second’s commander he was mistaken.

‘What would you know of tactics, spy? I see no triumphal regalia on your chest.’

‘I would ever bow to your tactical knowledge, General, but I recognize a reality when I see one, and the reality is that the army must conserve its strength for the coming battle. There can be no mistakes.’

Vespasian scowled. ‘Do you allow this informer to dictate our movements?’ he demanded.

Plautius’s face turned almost as scarlet as his cloak. ‘You overstep your position, Legate. You command the Second. I command the invasion force by the authority of Emperor Claudius, whom you also serve unless you have changed your allegiance in recent days.’

Vespasian growled at the insult, but he was interrupted by his younger sibling, Sabinus, commander of the Fourteenth, who was as polished as his brother was coarse-grained.

‘I think that what the legate of the Second is attempting to convey, and I might add, respectfully, with the full support of his fellow legionary commanders, is that he is… perhaps the best word is puzzled by our dispositions. You estimate a halt of a week to ten days, yet he sees nothing to be gained and much to be lost by such a delay. Naturally, we accept the authority of our commander, Aulus Plautius, but we feel that a more… detailed… explanation of his dispositions might be in order.’

Plautius glared at him. It didn’t matter how thoroughly it was cloaked in diplomatic language, Sabinus was challenging the authority he claimed to accept so readily. Yet Plautius was commander enough to know he had been outmanoeuvred by the Flavians. He looked to Narcissus for confirmation.

‘Perhaps we might continue our discussions on a more private basis,’ the Greek agreed.

‘Junior commanders are dismissed,’ Plautius barked.

When they were alone with the four legates, Narcissus signalled to an orderly for wine. The six men sat in silence until it arrived, a delay which allowed the tensions in the room to abate, as Claudius’s freedman had intended it should.

‘Other imperatives.’ Narcissus dropped the words into the silence.

‘If the blood of a single legionary of the Second is spilled unnecessarily as a result of your “other imperatives”, spy, I shall give his comrades the pleasure of watching you die slowly on a cross.’ Vespasian’s words were threatening, but his voice was more controlled now. ‘What other imperative can there be but the destruction of the barbarian forces and the bringing of civilization to this benighted land?’

‘The imperial imperative,’ Narcissus said simply.

The four legates turned from Narcissus to Plautius, who sat back in his padded chair, thinking deeply. He looked up to find them watching him.

‘I have dispatched a message to the Emperor Claudius in Rome calling for reinforcements. The message states that, defying all nature, the British tribes have united against us and have forced us to a halt. It further states that other British forces are active in our rear and threaten our lines of supply. It is my belief that the Emperor will act upon this communication and send another legion to our aid.’

For a moment there was a puzzled calm, before the full impact of his words came home to the four officers. They all started to speak at once.

‘But… none of this is true,’ spluttered the legate of the Ninth, an elderly politician forced on campaign by his wife’s ambition to be the spouse of a consul.

‘We have the barbarians at our mercy,’ Sabinus pointed out. ‘Our supply chain may be stretched, but I have heard nothing of any attacks.’

The legate of the Twentieth shook his head. ‘No, this cannot be. We require no aid. Victory is certain.’

‘There is more to this than is at first apparent.’ Vespasian stared at Narcissus. ‘It will take weeks for another legion to reach Britain from Rome, if a legion is available in Italy. More likely the Eighth will need to march from Dacia. By the time this unnecessary reinforcement arrives we won’t have to attack the Britons, they will have died of old age.’

‘The Eighth legion will join us in ten days,’ Plautius said steadily.

‘Pah! A legion cannot fly. It would take five of those days to reach us from the coast and that at a forced march.’ Vespasian’s voice was thick with disbelief. ‘I mean no disrespect to you, Commander, but what you say is impossible.’

‘You mean you think I have gone mad.’ Plautius smiled his eagle’s smile. ‘Yet what I say is true. The Eighth will land at Rutupiae on the Kalends of July and we will not attack until after that auspicious day.’

‘But how?’ Vespasian shook his head in confusion. ‘I do not understand.’

‘Because I sent the message requesting reinforcements several weeks ago.’

‘But that was…’

‘A few days after we landed on the soil of Britain,’ Plautius confirmed. ‘As soon as I could be reasonably certain of our progress and success.’

‘This is madness.’

‘Not madness, my dear Legate.’ Plautius nodded towards Narcissus who stood by the doorway, his face expressionless. ‘Politics.’

‘We will attack Caratacus on the day the Army of Plautius becomes the Army of Claudius,’ the Greek said quietly.

‘The Emperor…?’

‘That is correct, gentlemen. The Emperor will assume command of the army in ten days. You have ten days to prepare your forces. Ten days to ensure your Emperor the triumph he needs to be proclaimed Imperator and to enshrine his and your places in history.’

Now they all saw it. Victory. A triumph. Imperator. Conspiracy was what won an Emperor his throne, but these… these were the currency that allowed him to keep it.

They were interrupted by a commotion at the doorway, where a rotund, richly dressed Celt swept in as if the pavilion belonged to him, with two large bodyguards at his back. The small man stared contemptuously around the room until his eyes fell upon Narcissus.

The Greek smiled a welcome. ‘May I introduce Adminius, king of the Cantiaci, and half-brother of the British leader Caratacus. He has a multitude of reasons to hate his brother and I believe he has news which may be of interest to you.’

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