The Second Legion moved no further that day as the surviving officers re-formed their units and took stock of their losses. They had answered grievously for Plautius' orders to join him as quickly as possible. Nearly a third of the Legion had been killed or injured and half the baggage train destroyed or immobilised by the loss of draught animals. A rough perimeter was in the process of being erected around the survivors although no-one seriously believed that the Britons would be able to regroup enough men to mount another attack. In any case, Togodumnus had been slain and his body was displayed, spread-eagled across his chariot, in front of the pen holding the British prisoners. They gazed at the body of their commander in sullen silence and wept, quite unashamed.
The Roman wounded lay in long rows waiting their turn for treatment as the Legion's hospital orderlies moved amongst them, sorting out the triage cases from those that stood a good chance of surviving their injuries. The air was filled with their moans and cries. To one side of the track, a huge pyre had nearly been completed and a growing pile of Roman bodies was being heaped on top: the pyre would be lit once night fell. In front of the hastily erected headquarters tent the pile of identity seals taken from the dead was mute testament to the price the Legion had paid. The dead Britons were unceremoniously thrown into a series of pits dug along the length of the track. Although a victory had been won, the men of the Second Legion had no desire to join the rejoicing of their comrades in the Fourteenth, whose distant cries of celebration could be heard from their camp at the edge of the forest.
In Vespasian's tent, an altogether different mood pervaded. He sat at his desk staring at the three men before him -Vitellius, seated, with a sickening hint of a smile playing about his lips as he listened to the account being given by the centurion and the optio standing to one side. Every so often he was aware of the hate-filled glances shot at him by the other two, but it only seemed to amuse him all the more as be bided his time.
Macro, filthy and exhausted, tried to make his report as clearly as possible but the intense weariness of the last few days clouded his mind and every so often he would turn to his optio to clarify a point, or to recall a detail. Cato stood stiffly at attention, his arm in a sling, still numb and useless from the blow he had received earlier.
The pair looked quite done in, reflected Vespasian, but he was secretly delighted with them. They had recovered the chest from the wagon in the marsh and even now the Legion's cavalry squadron had been despatched to retrieve it from its new hiding place. Not only that, but Macro had brought the body of Togodumnus into the camp and the corpse was identified by one of the British exiles accompanying the Fourteenth legion, a vile rat-faced man by the name of Adminius. With Togodumnus dead, only his brother Caratacus remained to co-ordinate the British resistance to the invaders. All in all, the legate decided, a disaster had been neatly averted, and had in fact been turned into something of a victory. In that light, his career was safe.
But there remained the sticky problem of the accusations being made against Vitellius by the centurion and his optio. As they spoke of Vitellius's attack on them in the marsh, their words were spoken with the simplicity of truth and all the doubts that Vespasian had ever entertained about the tribune seemed to be vindicated.
Macro finished his report and, after a moment's silence, Vespasian weighed up the evidence, while he stared intently at each of the three in turn.
'Are you quite sure about this, Centurion? Do you really wish to prefer charges against the tribune here?'
'What you say will sound quite incredible in a court of law. You know that, don't you?'
'Very well then. Very well. I will give your statements the fullest consideration and let you know my decision at the earliest convenience. You two are dismissed.'
'What is it, optio?'
The young optio paused to consider his next words carefully. 'I still don't quite understand why we were listed as deserters, sir.'
'The charges have been dropped,' Vespasian said curtly. 'No harm done.'
'Yes, sir, but why were the charges made in the first place? Who-'
'A mistake, Optio. Leave it at that. Now you're dismissed.'
As Macro and Cato made for the tent flap, Vespasian called after them. 'One last thing. You have my thanks for alerting the rearguard. I doubt we'd have lasted long enough for the Fourteenth to rescue us, if Plinius hadn't been able to hold that end of the column. Now, make sure you get some rest. Wait outside and I'll have my orderly fix you and your men some hot food.'
'Thank you, sir,' Macro replied.
Alone in the tent with Vitellius, the legate considered his next interview carefully. Already the established version of events had Vitellius down as the hero who had single-handedly found Togodumnus's column. Unable to fight his way back to warn the Second Legion, he had caught up with the Fourteenth causing them to turn and intervene, just in time to save the Second Legion from annihilation. Consequently the tribune had won fulsome praise from nearly all quarters for his gallant action. Yet the two men who had left talked of treachery and betrayal.
'I take it you will not be pursuing their wild claims any further, sir?'
'It's quite a story. Wouldn't you agree?'
'Yes, but still a story. And, like all the best stories, there isn't a shred of truth in it.'
'But if the rest of their patrol says the same then you're in a bit of a fix.'
'Not at all,' Vitellius protested smoothly. 'It's my word against theirs. The word of the son of a consul against a bunch of squaddies. Who do you think a court will believe, especially after I've risked my life to save the Legion from certain defeat? At best it'll look like sour grapes. At worst, it will look like a political prosecution and that's hardly likely to go down well with the plebes in Rome – they're rather partial to heroes, I understand. I'd let it go if I were you.'
Vespasian smiled. 'Even heroes still have to call their superiors "sir",' he said quietly.
'My apologies – sir.'
'Let's, for the moment, agree that the centurion spoke the truth. How did you find out about the chest?'
Vitellius did not reply immediately as he sized up the legate. 'You know, I could deny all knowledge of the chest. I was, after all, acting on your orders to scout for sign of Togodumnus. I could say I just happened to be in the marsh at the same time as your little team. A thick mist, a case of mistaken identity… all perfectly understandable.'
'Understandable, but not true.'
'Of course it's not true, sir. But it doesn't really matter.'
'Because nothing will ever come of it. Not one word of what passes between us now will ever be uttered outside this tent.'
'And why might that be, tribune?' Vespasian smiled.
'I'll come to that, in a little while. Since you seem to be quite keen to know the truth about things then I'll indulge you. Actually, Narcissus told me about the chest.'
'He told me before we'd even left the base on the Rhine. You see, I'm the imperial spy you were told about. He wasn't entirely sure about you and wanted me to keep an eye on the operation. Of course, I was only too happy to oblige.'
Vespasian managed to smile at the irony of the situation. Even the cunning Narcissus had his blind spots. Motive and alibi had been handed to Vitellius on a plate.
'But while he told me about the wagon, he didn't tell me where it was. That's why I needed to see the map on that scroll. Unfortunately someone beat me to it. Not only that but they tried to frame me for its theft. Still, it was simple enough to have Pulcher follow your men down into the marsh and send for some assistance the moment they started digging. I genuinely hoped to avoid any bloodshed, amongst my men that is. If I'd managed to persuade Macro to give up the chest we'd only have had to kill them afterwards. As it was, he demonstrated an unfortunate penchant for the most resourceful soldiering in adverse circumstances. And so the chest has been won for Claudius.'
'But why would you want the chest in the first place?' Vespasian asked. 'You couldn't possibly have hoped to use such a vast sum without attracting attention.'
'Absolutely. I hope you don't take me for that much of a fool, sir. I never intended to spend the money on myself.'
'Then why go to such lengths to obtain it?'
'For the same reason the Emperor wants that chest. Gold is power; and with that kind of wealth I could buy the loyalty of pretty much any, and every, man I wanted to.'
'I see.' Vespasian nodded. 'Then that would make you the traitor Narcissus warned me about. It never occurred to me that the imperial spy and the traitor were the same person. I think Narcissus will be equally surprised when I tell him.'
'Me the traitor? Is that what you think?' Vitellius laughed. 'Hardly! As it happens, I am still the imperial spy – always have been. At least that's what Narcissus believes.'
'So why try to kill him?'
'Kill him?' Vitellius frowned. 'Oh, that business on the road to Gesoriacum. Not guilty, I'm afraid. And anyway what could I possibly gain from his death? I needed him to get to the army and help crush the mutiny. After all, how could I hope to get to the chest unless the invasion went ahead? No, that ambush was the work of someone else. My guess is that the person behind the ambush wanted to prevent the invasion. You know as well as anyone how important it is for Claudius to win approval for his elevation to Emperor. With Narcissus dead, the mutiny in full flow, the invasion abandoned, and the fortune in the chest denied him, how long do you think Claudius would last? Believe me, until I could get my hands on the chest I was only too keen to further the Emperor's aims.'
'And what then?' Vespasian asked. 'You could hardly produce such a large fortune all at once.'
'Of course not. I don't need it right now. I'm just planning for my future. Claudius won't last for ever and someone has to be Emperor – why not me one day?'
'You?' It was Vespasian's turn to laugh.
'Why not? Come to that, why not you?'
'You can't be serious?'
'I'm serious. Deadly serious.'
'But Claudius has heirs, a family to ensure someone succeeds him.'
'That's very true,' agreed Vitellius. 'But you must have noticed how easily members of the imperial family succumb to all manner of peculiar deaths. They're quite a tragic lot. And if something is to happen to them, I intend to be there when the vacancy is announced. But I'm in no hurry just now. I can bide my time and make sure that I move only when I have the resources to buy the necessary support. Thanks to those two outside I'll just have to wait a little longer.'
Vespasian was shocked by the tribune's naked ambition. Was there no limit to what the man would do in his desire for power? Yet there was a more immediate question that demanded an answer.
'If you aren't the spy acting for the traitors, then who is?'
'I was wondering when you would ask that.' Vitellius leaned back. 'The truth is, it took me a long time to find out. I should have known much earlier, certainly before my man Pulcher beat it out of the ring-leader of the mutiny.'
Vespasian suddenly recalled the way in which Plinius had looked at the scroll he had retrieved from Titus that evening back in the command tent, and the convenient way Plinius had distracted the guards at just the moment when the thief had been searching through his document chest. 'Plinius?'
'Plinius!' Vitellius laughed. 'Him? Oh, do be serious, sir.'
'If not Plinius, then who?'
'I would be wary about someone much closer to home if I were you.'
'What do you mean?' Vespasian felt a cold, sick feeling rise in his throat.
'If what Narcissus tells me is true then it seems that someone was trying to frame me over that business in the tent.'
'You deny that you tried to steal the scroll?'
'No,' admitted Vitellius. 'But the scroll I had Pulcher steal from you was blank. Someone had made the switch before I could get to it.'
'It couldn't have been blank,' Vespasian countered with a smile. 'Because it couldn't have been switched in the first place. It was already out of the safe-box, Flavia found it, she said Titus had…' Vespasian felt his blood turn icy cold.
'Flavia found it. How convenient.' Vitellius smiled at the legate.
'It's not possible,' muttered Vespasian.
'That's what I thought at first. You have to hand it to her, Flavia is a slick operator.'
'But… but why?'
'Why? I can't pretend to fully understand her motives. I don't suppose for a moment that she's half the Republican she pretends to be. I'd say it was more likely that she was easing the way for you, to advance your career.'
'Me?' Vespasian was shocked.
'My dear legate, you may think that your moral integrity does you great credit, and that to serve the Emperor unquestioningly is the first duty of your office, but the very fact that you don't suspect your wife makes you all the more useful as a political pawn. What better candidate to step into the gap following Claudius's fall than a man who honestly believed he had served the old boy to the fullest extent of his ability and loyalty. The plebes would love you. I bet you could have given Antony's funeral oration over Caesar a run for its money.'
'How dare you?' Vespasian said quietly, struggling to control his rising temper. 'How dare you suggest that Flavia – could even begin to do the things you accuse her of?'
'You never suspected? I suppose that's to your credit as a husband. And I'm sure you'd make a great statesman, but you'd be a lousy politician. The men who attacked Narcissus came from a cavalry unit commanded by Gaius Marcellus Dexter, one of Scribonianus's officers and, as it happens, a distant cousin of your wife. You don't think that's a coincidence, I hope. Face it, Flavia's cover is almost blown. I'd have a word with your wife very soon. Encourage her to cease her meddling in power games and Narcissus might just miss her part in all this. If you want to keep your wife in good health, I suggest you make sure that I never feel the need to tell anyone about her extra-curricular activities. I haven't yet told Narcissus what I know. You give me your silence about all that we've said in here and I give you Flavia's life. A fair bargain, wouldn't you say?'
Vespasian stared at him, his mind still trying to deny the evidence his memory relentlessly reassembled from the events of the last few months. That moment in the tent when she fumbled the scroll she had retrieved from Titus. It had been deftly swapped, he now realised.
'Sir, I don't expect you to agree to my offer right now. But think it over carefully. I won't deny that I've been rather careless in many respects. And I might just be able to persuade Narcissus that any charges you bring against me are unfounded, or even unscrupulous. But the merest suggestion that I have been anything but the good and faithful servant he believes me to be, will surely undermine my position. So you see, if you force all this out into the open we'll both suffer the consequences. Moreover, I'll be forced to reveal what I know about Flavia. I'm sure you'll accept that it's in all our interests to be discreet about every detail of the last few months.'
Vitellius waited for a reply but Vespasian was looking down, wrapped in a growing despair and oblivious to the tribune's final comments. He raised a hand to rest his head on, still shattered by the revelations.
'Oh, Flavia…' he whispered. 'How could you?'
'Now, sir, if I may go? I have my duties to attend to.' Vitellius rose to leave the tent. 'And I trust we'll hear no more about Centurion Macro's charges against me.' For a moment Vespasian struggled for words to continue the interview. Words to express his shame and fear – and rage at the smug superiority of the tribune. Some words to put Vitellius in his place. But no words came and he simply nodded in the direction of the tent flap.
Outside, Cato and Macro were sitting on some forage left out for the staff horses. Macro was fast asleep, head bowed down on his chest and snoring heavily, having finally surrendered to a terrible need for rest. The loud snores drew disapproving glances from passing orderlies bustling in and out of headquarters. The peat-soiled clothes, grimy skin and dark dried blood of Togodumnus smeared over his hands and face had reduced the centurion to a pitiful state. Yet Cato regarded him with affection as he recalled Macro's honest delight at finding him alive and well on his return to the Second Legion. The sense of belonging that Cato had been so clearly aware of during the battle had remained with him and he sensed that this was how it felt to be a legionary, at one with his comrades and the unforgiving way of life he had been thrust into. The army was his home now. He belonged body and soul to the Second Legion.
And it was as well, he reflected, as he looked up and caught the eye of one of the hundreds of Britons sitting quietly in the prisoners' pen, spoils of war destined to be shipped back to Rome and sold into slavery. But for his late father's request, Cato might still have been a slave, like that poor savage in the pen. A lifetime of the worst kind of slavery awaited them all. Back-breaking agricultural labour on some huge estate, or a faster death on a chain-gang in a lead mine was all that uncivilised prisoners taken in battle could expect.
Yet there was something in the prisoner's eyes that spoke of an unbroken spirit, of a will to fight to the bitter end at any cost, of a fire that burned within as long as one man bore arms against the invaders. Cato knew that the campaign to subdue these people was going to be a long and bloody struggle.