Number of Pages: 336
Description: Alexandrus has been hoping for his promotion to centurion for a while, not only for his own personal gain, but to make his father, a wounded veteran, proud. However, promotion does not come in the way he expects.
He finds himself posted to a frontier fort on the Northern Border, commanding a cohort of Celtic auxiliaries. Chosen for this particular job because his grandmother was British and he speaks the language, he sets off for his new posting, leaving behind a disappointed father and the relatively comfortable life he has known in the south.
When he reaches the fort, he finds it the most horribly run place he has ever seen. Men are sleeping on duty, no one seems to be motivated to do anything, and the decurion is "currently indisposed". He soon makes it his duty to join with the other centurions and whip the men into shape, but it proves difficult, for the fort is full of troublemakers, both well-meaning and otherwise. But the lack of discipline is not the only thing strange about the new posting. Where are the horses if it's supposed to me a cavalry cohort? Why do most of the men seem to have strange golden eyes, and why is it that most of them have bite scars? It can't be that they were all so unlucky while hunting for wolf skins, could it? Alex disregards an old story he hears about a Druid curse, but when it comes to the night of his own initiation, he begins to wonder whether there is truth to it after all.
It’s strange sometimes to look back on those few moments in life that seem to start out as nothing and end up as major events when you later realize their full significance to your fate. That’s how I feel now when I look back to that day I earned my promotion to centurion. I remember it so well even after all the years that have gone by, made longer for the events that took place between them.
I had been training in the field with the men, before I returned to the mess hall for the midday meal. I left my kit on the table with a sigh and my centurion looked over at me with a smile.
“Cheer up, Crispus, there’s only a little bit longer to wait before you’re out from under my wing. Legate Gallus won’t leave you languishing long.”
“The wait might be shorter than you think,” said the senior centurion, Aulus, coming into the mess with a tablet in his hand. “You’ve been summoned to see the legate at your earliest convenience, Crispus.”
I smiled despite myself. I had known promotion was coming, the legate himself had hinted it to me. As soon as a position was open, he promised to give me my centurionate. I had been looking forward to it for a long time, as had my father. My father perhaps more than I.
“How do I look?” I asked, causing the other men to laugh at my sweaty appearance. Maximus slapped me on the shoulder.
“You look fine. Gallus will hardly expect any different. Go on then, my optio of only a few more moments.”
I grinned and ducked out of the room, crossing the fort compound to the officers’ rooms where the Legate’s office was. I knocked on the door when I got there, jittery excitement coursing through me.
“Enter,” came the voice from inside.
I did so, saluting the legate smartly as he stood to greet me before waving me to a chair on the other side of the desk.
“Sit down, lad, I’ll not stand the whole time; I’m far too old for that!.”
I smiled as I took the seat. Legate Gallus was quite a bit older than most legates normally were, but he was well loved by those under his command, for he commanded like a father and to the younger officers, more like a grandfather, which is what he had always seemed to me. He was kind and had been there to help me from my first day as an optio, having known my father well when he served. He set me up with Centurion Maximus, who, being only a few years my senior, became like an older brother to me, and taught by example, and was always kind even though he wasn’t afraid to tell me when I did wrong. I would forever be grateful to Gallus for putting me with him for I didn’t think I would be half the solider I was today without Maximus’ guidance. I was sad that this was Gallus’ last year as legate, but if I were to change legions anyway, I supposed it would hardly make much difference.
“I suppose you probably know why I called you here, Optio Crispus,” he said with a smile, his eyes bright.
I forced myself to keep from smiling back, trying to stay professional. “I might have an idea, sir.”
“Bright lad,” Gallus said with a wink and picked up a tablet from his desk, opening it to scan the words. “And I think you will be proven correct, I am happy to say. You will be a centurion within the hour.” I felt my heart soar but heard in the legate’s voice that there was another part he had yet to say. “However, I am afraid it’s not exactly what you had in mind.”
“Sir?” I enquired, a sinking feeling entering my stomach, mixing with be bewilderment.
The legate closed the tablet and leaned across the desk to me, his hands folded in front of him. “I’ve had reports from Legate Lucretius—he’s up north, Crispus, you probably have never met the man. He says there is a fort on the frontier that has been having problems. Issues with the men, the officers are having trouble keeping them in line, the normal thing. Anyway, he’s afraid they will revolt or desert, and you know the kind of pressure that is put on the rest of us when there are fears of revolt. Most of them are British auxiliaries or at least part British, quite like yourself, but not from the south where even the natives have become civilized; they’re from the north. That’s where your grandmother came from, I believe?”
“Yes, sir,” I replied, my feelings still sinking.
“Anyway, to the point: Lucretius wants the legion disbanded, but myself and several other officers decided it would be more prudent to find a competent officer to go up there and whip the men into shape instead of shipping potential deserters and troublemakers out to other legions. Jupiter knows we have enough problems as it is in these parts. I know what this sounds like, Crispus, and I know the kind of officers who usually get sent to these sorts of postings, but believe me when I say I mean no offense by it, but rather that I choose you out of the highest respect. The men, the Wolves as they are called by everyone, will be disbanded if they cannot be pulled together, and their posting is vital to the frontier, and if anything bad happens to that cohort, no one will serve there willingly again. You know how superstitious the troops are. You are a fine young man, Alexandrus, and you will make a fine officer. You, of all the men I know, can get these men into some sort of military semblance.”
“Sir,” I inquired, hoping I didn’t seem ungrateful. “I apologize, but why me over another? I can’t possibly be a better choice than Maximus or Decimus or the others. And surely someone with more experience would be a better pick.”
“Perhaps,” Gallus admitted. “But you speak the language and you have British blood in your veins. The men will be more willing to welcome one of their own, than a foreign young rip right off the ship from Rome.”
“I might have British blood, sir, but I was raised in Roman ways. I think they would resent me more for that,” I replied, unable to help speaking the truth, even though I knew I was arguing when I shouldn’t be. I knew Gallus meant well; as I said, he had ever been kind to me, but this task he gave me would be quite a thing to handle. And my father… What would my father say about it?
Gallus stood up and I followed suit as he came around the desk and placed a hand on my shoulder kindly. “I know this isn’t what you were looking for, nor is it the one I would have chosen for you in normal circumstances, but there wouldn’t be another position for months, perhaps not a year, unless someone met an untimely end. Think of it this way, dear boy: if you can make it through this, you shall be able to make it through anything. And if you do a good job, it will be easier to find a better position when your mission is completed—and I assure you that there will be one for you if you distinguish yourself. I have great faith it you, Alexandrus. I think the posting will benefit from your leadership.”
I forced a smile. “Yes, sir. I thank you for considering me capable of it.” I didn’t know what to say. I had thought the day I got my promotion would be glorious, and joyful, and I would ride home to my family in my new uniform and bring the news to my father and see how proud he was. Now, I feared telling him the news. I might have been able to get through the disappointment myself, but my father’s disappointment and shame would nearly kill me.
“Here are your orders,” Legate Gallus said, handing me a sealed tube. I took it and tucked it into my belt. “You will leave in the morning.” I was glad of that, at least. I wouldn’t have to sit around under my father’s disapproving eye more than one night.
“Go see the quartermaster about your new kit,” Gallus told him. “Then you may say your goodbyes and go to your family for the night.” He smiled then and patted my shoulder once more. “I wish you the best Centurion Crispus. I know you will do well.”
“Thank you, sir. I wish you the best as well. And I must thank you too, for treating me with kindness.”
“Your father is an old friend, and I see much of him in the son,” the old man said fondly, his eyes glazing over with thoughts of far off battles beside old comrades. “If fate had not been so cruel we would serve together still.”
“Yes,” I replied quietly, then saluted again. “Sir.”
“Centurion Crispus,” Gallus replied in farewell and I turned to leave the room.
As I walked to the armory, my thoughts were a jumble of feelings. In part I was still excited to be a centurion, and now that I knew what was ahead of me, I would try and make the best of it. But another part of me also was still disappointed, and I knew it would be so much easier to live with this if it wasn’t for my father and his anticipated reaction that I could foresee all too clearly.
I picked up my new gear and made my way back to the barracks. As I entered I found Maximus and Decimus, two of the other centurions, taking their ease for the part of the day they had no duties to attend to. They hooted as I came in bearing my new gear, and stood up to greet me.
“What’s this? New togs? Should you be needing help figuring out what goes where?” Maximus asked in jest and I couldn’t help but grin as I dumped the things unceremoniously onto my cot.
“Hey there, you can’t be treating it like that until it’s seen action,” Decimus said in mock seriousness. “What’s gotten you in such a mood, oh newly minted officer?”
“I’m posted to the frontier,” I said, sitting down on the side of the cot and accepting the glass of wine Maximus handed to me.
“Frontier?” Maximus asked incredulously. “Bad luck! What did you do to get on Gallus’ bad side? I thought you two got on well.”
“It’s not about getting on anyone’s bad side,” I said. “Apparently the post needs someone to go in and clean things up a bit, and Gallus thought I’d be the best man for the job. It seems I wouldn’t have gotten a chance at promotion otherwise, unless one of you two got kicked off.”
“Well, that’s nice, and after all we did for him,” Decimus said, jesting.
The two made a face at me, but I could tell they were sympathetic to my plight. No one wanted to be told they were going to be sent to a frontier posting. It was something of a stigma in the legions.
“It wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t for my father,” I said grimly.
“Ah,” Maximus said in understanding. “I can see how that might prove a problem. But I think he’ll understand once you explain it to him.”
I wasn’t so sure, but I didn’t want to contradict Maximus, mainly for the fact that an hour ago he had still been my superior, but also for the fact he was my friend and I knew he was only trying to cheer me up. I finished my wine and stood up, reaching under my cot for my things.
“I should probably be going. I need to leave early tomorrow morning, and I want to try and get some sleep tonight.” I packed my things up and began to don my centurion garb. Maximus pretended to wipe away a tear.
“Ah, what shall I do without my brave little optio? I still remember nursing you on my knee when you were hardly but a babe…” I threw an extra sandal at him to shut him up.
“If I was a babe when I came here you were hardly more than a boy. If I recall, you had only just been commissioned at the time.”
Maximus grinned. “Oh yes, I was that. I wasn’t too much of a tyrant, was I?”
“Oh, you have no idea,” I told him.
“Well, you learned from the best then. Make sure to use some of my skills while you’re whipping those troops into shape up north. It will take a hard hand. Do not favor the staff.” He picked up my vine staff and cracked it menacingly into his hand. I took it back from him as he adjusted my cloak and checked the straps of my breastplate. He rapped his knuckles against my helmet. “May as well make a good impression for your father. We’ll even see you out in honor.” We shared a brief embrace, forearms clasped.
“It was an honor to serve under you, Maximus,” I replied honestly.
“Oh tush,” he said, but I could tell he was secretly pleased. “I wish you good journey, Alex.”
I said farewell to Decimus as well and continued to gather my things while the others went to gather the men to apparently see me out. Once I had packed all my things, I stood in the room with the beds and took a deep breath. The fort on the frontier would likely look much like this, but with foreign faces and certainly ones that held no fondness for a southern officer come to put them to rights. I knew I would not be welcomed, and perhaps it would be easier because of it. I wondered if I would ever see these men again.
I left the barracks and found my horse waiting with a stable hand outside. I secured my bag to the back of the saddle and swung myself up, nearly getting tangled in my new cloak as I did so, and burning with embarrassment, glad Maximus and Decimus weren’t there to witness. I kicked the offending garment aside and clicked my tongue to urge my horse into movement. I couldn’t help the grin that spread across my face as I saw my comrades lined up on the parade of the fort in fine order, knowing that this was likely the last time in a long while I would see such fine military form. I saluted them, and they saluted back as I rode out of the gate. Even Legate Gallus had come out to see me off and I nodded respectably to him.
“Fortune go with you, Centurion Crispus,” he said as I rode out the gate.
I told myself I wouldn’t look back, but I did. Just once, and felt heavy in my heart because of it. I turned around swiftly and urged my mount into a canter as I made my way down the road for home.
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