'Did you see Titus today?'
'Sorry?' Vespasian looked up from his travel desk. 'What did you say?'
'Your son, Titus. Have you seen him today?' Flavia tapped her finger on his shoulder. 'Or have you been too busy to notice that you have a son?'
'My dear, I really haven't had time.'
'That's what you always say. Always. All this wretched paperwork is taking up your whole life.' She looked into the document chest. 'Don't you think you should make time for the boy?'
Vespasian laid down his stylus and regarded her for a moment, heart heavy with guilt. After three miscarriages and one still-born, Titus had seemed like something of a miracle. The long labour had nearly killed Flavia and the child. Since his birth in Rome two years ago the boy had been treated like a precious vase, wrapped in wool and hardly ever out of his mother's sight. Vespasian had devoted much effort to being as supportive as he could, all the while conscious that time spent with family was time spent away from politics and career advancement – which was ultimately for Titus's benefit, he assured himself.
Accepting the appointment to the Legion had not been an easy choice. He had known Flavia was hugely reluctant to leave Rome, even as she dutifully urged him to accept the post. Like all wives with a respect for tradition, she had accompanied him when Vespasian had left to take up his command. While the fresh air was a pleasant change from clinging stench of Rome, it had not proved beneficial to Titus. Since they had arrived at the base the child had been down with one illness after another. The cold, damp climate was ruinous to a fragile constitution, and many months of long nights at the side of his cradle had exhausted Flavia. The thought of the loss of Titus filled them both with dread, but Vespasian had had the comfort of a full working day while Flavia had not. Removed from her social circle and isolated in the closed world of a military base with only a handful of other officers' wives, Flavia's world had turned inward on her son.
Titus, as is the way with infants, contrived to find every possible way to drive his mother, and her domestic slaves, completely frantic with worry. There was no shelf, table edge or door he had not managed to crash his head against, no chair or chest he had not fallen off and no rug or mat he had not tripped over. The boy's natural inquisitiveness meant that no safety audit of their quarters was ever completed thoroughly enough that Titus did not find something dangerous or unsavoury to stick in his mouth or poke in his eye or when the mood took him – which it frequently did – in the eye of some unfortunate slave. Now his nurses were having to contend with a fine range of needle-sharp teeth that closed unexpectedly on any exposed flesh that ventured within range.
Vespasian smiled at the thought that at least his son had spirit.
'What?' Flavia asked.
'You're smiling. What are you thinking?'
'I'm thinking it's time I spent some time with my boy.' Vespasian pushed the travel desk back and stood up. 'Come.'
As they left the study and walked along the covered walkway that ran along the private courtyard Vespasian looked at the sky. Beyond the dull flickering light of the courtyard torches the freezing night air was brushed with the first flakes of snow. It occurred to him that Vitellius had not yet returned and the thought of the cocksure tribune marching back from the village in a miserable blizzard would have been gratifying were it not for the poor men he was commanding.
As the door to the little nursery opened, Titus's head swivelled round and, with a shout of pure pleasure, he jumped on to his little legs, pushing his nurse to one side, and ran across to his parents.
'Dada!' he squealed as he wrapped his arms around his father's legs and tipped his head back, wide-eyed and smiling. 'Pick up! Pick up! Pick up!'
Vespasian leant down and, firmly grasping the boy under the arms, swung him up above his head, provoking a fresh bout of excited screaming.
'How's my soldier? Eh? How's my little boy today?' Vespasian smiled and turned to his wife. 'He's growing up fast. Not long now before he gets to wear his first toga.'
'He's still a baby!' Flavia protested. 'Still my little baby. Aren't you?'
Titus regarded his mother with a disgusted expression and pushed himself back from her tight embrace. Vespasian laughed and leant forward to ruffle the boy's unruly hair. 'That's my little soldier!'
'He's not a soldier!' Flavia said firmly. 'And he's not going to be a soldier, at least he's not going to be one for any longer than is absolutely necessary. If I have anything to do with it, he'll stay in Rome where I can look after him.'
'We'll have to let him decide for himself one day,' Vespasian replied gently. 'The army's a good life for a man.'
'No, it's not! The army's dangerous, uncomfortable and populated by uncouth louts.'
'Provincials like me, I suppose.'
'Oh, I didn't mean…'
'Only joking. But seriously, if Titus is to make a career for himself in the Senate then he must serve with the legions first.'
'You could see to it that he gets a posting near home.'
'We've been through this. The appointments get made by the imperial staff. I have no influence there, at least not at the moment. If you want him to be successful he must serve in the army first. You know that's the way it is.'
'Yes.' Flavia nodded sadly and kissed Titus on the forehead. The infant sensed her mood and suddenly hugged her tightly, crushing his little face into her shoulder. 'I just wish I could have him at this age for longer.'
'I know. I really do. Maybe there'll be more children one day. When you're ready.'
Flavia stared up into his face, dark eyes full of painful memory that threatened to well up into tears. She blinked and then forcefully smiled away the tremble in her lip. 'Oh, I hope so. I want so very many of them. And I want them with you. You promise me you will be careful?'
'This new campaign of yours in Britain. You will be careful.'
'Britain! How the hell…' Vespasian's brow creased angrily. 'That's supposed to be a secret. Where did you hear it?'
'From the officers' wives.' Flavia laughed at his expression. 'You men really do have a great deal to learn about keeping secrets, don't you?'
'Typical,' Vespasian muttered. 'Bloody typical. I swear my most senior officers to strict confidentiality and the next thing I know it's common gossip. Is nothing sacred any more?'
Titus laughed and shook his head violently from side to side.
'Now, don't fuss, dear.' Flavia patted him on the arm. 'I'm sure the secret's safe from everyone else. But don't let's change the subject. I was talking about Britain.'
'So, it seems, is everyone else,' grumbled Vespasian.
'You must promise me you'll be careful. I want your word. Right now.'
'That's settled, then.' She nodded in satisfaction. 'Now give the boy a hug and put him to bed.'
Vespasian carried the child over to the cot in the corner of the room. Leaning down, he pulled back the soft woollen covers one-handed and removed the warming brick. As he was lowered into the cot, Titus moaned and tightly clenched his hands into the folds of his father's tunic. 'Not tired! Not tired!'
'You must go to sleep now,' Vespasian replied softly as he tried to prise his son's fingers loose. The boy's tiny hands were surprisingly strong and his father struggled to unpick them as the child's eyes welled with tears of anger and frustration. As the last fingers were worked free from the cloth round Vespasian's neck Titus suddenly bit his father on the knuckle. Before he could help himself, Vespasian swore out loud.
'Language!' Flavia hissed. 'Do you want him to pick up such words at his age?'
It occurred to Vespasian that any child brought up in a military garrison was going to pick up a rather wider vocabulary than was deemed appropriate in the polite social circles of Rome.
'That boy,' he continued after a moment, 'has quite a bite on him.'
'But that's good.'
'It is?' Vespasian looked down with raised eyebrows at the small teeth-shaped crescent on the back of his hand.
'Show's he's got strength of character.' Flavia pressed the still struggling boy down into the cot and drew the cover up over his body.
'Shows he's got sharp teeth,' her husband muttered.
With a last whine, Titus succumbed to a child's sense of routine and turned over on to his stomach, closed his eyes and, with a few meaningless mumbles spoken softly into his mattress, fell asleep. Both parents gazed down at him for a moment, wondering at the peaceful, perfectly rounded shape of his face, the final twitches of his curled fingers in the flickering glow of the oil lamps.
Someone hammered on the door. Titus stirred, eyes flickering open for a moment.
'Who the hell?'
'Just shut them up quickly,' Flavia hissed. 'Before they wake Titus.'
Vespasian opened the door on to the courtyard and was confronted by the duty centurion and a shivering legionary.
'Sir!' the centurion barked in best parade-ground manner. 'Beg to report…'
'Shhh! Keep your voice down. My boy's asleep.'
The centurion stood open-mouthed for a second, before he managed to force himself to continue in a whisper. 'Beg to report a fire.'
'A fire. How big a fire? Where?'
'In the direction of the forest, sir, towards the Rhine.'
Vespasian eyed the man impatiently. 'And you think that's worth disturbing me for?'
'This sentry says it's a big fire, sir.'
'Big? How big?'
'Dunno, sir,' the legionary replied. 'Can't see the fire as such, sir. Just a glow, on the horizon like.'
A nasty thought struck the legate. 'Third cohort back yet?'
'No, sir.' The centurion shook his head. 'No sign of them.'
'Right, I'm coming. You're dismissed.'
Flavia crossed over to him in small, quiet steps. 'Trouble?'
'Possibly. I'm just going to check. I'll be back soon. You get to bed.'
When Vespasian reached the tower above the eastern gate the parapet had already disappeared under a softly curved layer of snow. Beyond the fortress wall, a dull white landscape stretched out towards the distant fringe of the forest, only dimly visible through the swirling snow. Nevertheless, the duty centurion had been right to summon him; an orange glow reflected off the clouds beyond the tree-line. That had to be quite a fire, Vespasian mused. Moreover, a fire directly in line with the local German settlement.
He turned back to the duty centurion. 'Still no sign of Vitellius?'
Worrying, most worrying. Yet what trouble could Vitellius have led the Third cohort into? According to the latest intelligence reports there was little indication of any rebellious sentiment brewing amongst the locals. Still, the cohort should have returned to base by now. And the intensity of the distant glow indicated a sizeable fire. Vespasian considered the damage his reputation would suffer if he sounded the alarm too easily, all too clearly visualising the mocking laughter of his men. But the thought was no sooner in his head than he quickly dismissed it. His pride came a poor second to his feeling of responsibility to the men of the Legion. He turned back to the duty centurion.
'Call out the horse squadron. I want them to scout the route taken by the Third cohort to the local village. They are to report back to me in person the moment they find anything. Then call out the Legion. I want all senior officers at headquarters immediately. Centurions are to have their men in full battle order and ready to move off in line of march. Except the First cohort. They stay and guard the base. Got all that?'
'Then go. And run!'
After the duty centurion had gone, Vespasian turned back towards the distant fire. Unless Vitellius had lost his way back to the fort, the fire had to be connected with the cohort's absence.
When he looked up Vespasian saw the concerned look in the young sentry's face. 'What is it, soldier?'
'Do you think our lads are in trouble?'
Behind them the first call to arms shrieked out across the base, to be quickly taken up by others, and out into the night, silhouetted against numerous doorframes, poured the soldiers of the Second Legion. Vespasian forced himself to grin.
'They'd better be in trouble, or else I've just pissed off four thousand men for nothing. And that wouldn't do, would it?'