The Centurions quartet
He was called Correus, after a chieftain of his mother's people in the old days, and he was conceived in a tent in a marching camp between Syria and Rome. His father was a professional soldier, Appius Julianus, legate of the Tenth Legion Fretensis, urgently recalled to Rome by the Emperor Claudius in that ruler's last days. His mother's name was Helva and she was seventeen, bought as a slave after a minor rebellion in Gallia Belgica some two years before. As a mistress she was entirely satisfactory. As a companion to a man who suddenly found himself up to his ears in the Emperor's business, she became a liability, and he installed her among his young wife's waiting women. Before he returned to the Emperor his wife had also conceived.
Appius Julianus did his best for the aging Emperor, but in the end it did little good. Claudius died, amid whispers of poison, and Appius Julianus wisely made his peace with Nero, the Emperor's great-nephew and successor. He then returned to his legion in Syria, which was about as far away from that unstable prince as he could get, and resumed his career with his beloved army.
Behind him he left two sons, half-brothers, born within an hour of each other, and each a dark-side shadow image of the other.
The bugler outside the leather walls of the tent was putting his all into "Wake Up," and the man inside on the camp bed groaned and pulled the blankets over his ears. He had come back to camp only four hours before, and four hours is just long enough for the drugged sleep of exhaustion to make waking almost impossible.
As the last strident note died away in the cold air, he drifted up reluctantly from the depths of sleep to shrug back the covers and to feel on the foot of the bed for the tunic that should be there. His hand came up instead with a filthy shirt and breeches, and he sighed and put them down again, rising to rummage in the clothes chest for his tunic. As he pulled it over his head, he caught his reflection in the mirror propped against the tent wall on top of a second, higher, chest.
He stared balefully at the face in the mirror, leaning his hands on the chest, which rocked on the uneven dirt floor. When it rained, as it did at every opportunity in Britain, even in summer, little rivulets formed and flowed through the tent, bearing twigs and drowning insects on the tide. Isca Silurum was a half-built fort, and the half yet to come included the barracks rows.
A dark-eyed Briton with a sharp-angled face peered back at him from the mirror, behind the luxuriant growth of a brown mustache that got in his food and made him feel as if something had landed on his face. His brown hair was too long and had last been cut with a dagger blade. Somewhere in this Briton was Correus Appius Julianus, cohort centurion of the Ninth Cohort of the Second Legion Augusta, currently on the emperor's service in Britain, but he was hard to find. Hard enough that the gate sentries the night before had wanted to toss him into the guardhouse until the legionary legate should rise and deal with him in the morning. Only a grasp of Latin profanity that no Briton could have matched and the recognition of Centurion Vindex, whose cohort had sentry watch that night, had saved him from that fate.
The Emperor's Games
"Request permission to transfer." Correus slammed the wax tablet containing his request down on the desk. The wax cracked off at the corner, and he glared at it, thumbs hooked in his belt.
The optio in the headquarters at Misenum Naval Base scooped the tablet into one hand. "I'll see that it goes through," he said, blank-faced. Centurion Correus Julianus put in for a transfer once a week, regular as sunrise. Another tablet in the stack wasn't going to make any difference, but the optio wouldn't have dreamed of saying so. Centurion Julianus was a senior officer and a man plainly on the thin edge of his temper. "A bad week, sir?" he inquired carefully.
"Oh, no," Correus said sarcastically. His aquiline face was tight-stretched, and a few locks of brown hair stuck out untidily from beneath his helmet rim. He looked as if he had jammed it on his head in a hurry. "I'm a professional soldier. I put in nine years in the field so I can come here to ship fourteen lions and a hippopotamus up the Tiber! Along with a herd of goats to feed the lions. Have you ever slept on a ship where they've been slaughtering goats? Have you ever smelled a lion? Mithras god, I can still smell their stench on me, and I soaked in the bath with half a bottle of my wife's scent!"
"Well, I expect the next run won't be so bad, sir," the optio said soothingly. The duties of a peacetime navy got on most men's nerves, but Centurion Julianus looked ready to go around the bend.
"No, this time we'll get to ship a hold full of sand. Sand, mind you – we'll need half the whole damned fleet because Italian sand isn't pretty enough! And now the emperor wants a water fight, bless him, to cap off the big day for his games. On the old Augustan lake by the Tiber. It hasn't been filled in thirty years, and we'll probably drown half the audience. If I'd wanted to be a damned actor, I'd have put on a gold wig and a dress and gone into the theater!"
The Border Wolves
"Good to see you back, sir." Decurion Blaesus, gave him a salute and a look that said plainly that he was telling the truth. "Sorry to chase you down at your mother's funeral, though."
"I got three days out of the saddle," Correus said. "My backside aches." Behind Blaesus, Correus's headquarters optio had appeared, wearing a face of morose welcome. Correus decided that he didn't like the look of either of them.
"The scouts came in not an hour ago," Blaesus said. "They're one man short, and they say there's a war band the size of two legions out there somewhere, across the river. I sent a courier to Viminacium."
Correus headed for the Principia, talking as he went. "Is there any chance they're just picking a quarrel with the Getae?"
"I doubt it, sir. That's too many men just to go horse-stealing. There are also rumors about a marriage between one of the Dacian princesses and the king of the Getae, so that argues against a raiding party too. I told the governor my assessment," he added. "I wish you had been here to put your name to it. Do you want to see the scouts, and send another message on, concurring?"
"Yes, fetch them in." Correus pulled his helmet off and set it on the desk in his office, rubbing at the callus that the helmet strap had left under his chin. Nearly fourteen years under a helmet, he thought. It was a wonder that his head didn't fly off without it. Correus looked at Blaesus. "Get your wife out of here. Send her east to Servitium."
"You think they're going to cross the river, sir." It wasn't exactly a question.
"I've been thinking they were going to for a year." And telling the governor for nearly as long. Well, ten thousand men should wake Oppius Sabinus up, if they didn't burn Moesia to the ground first. And if that's all there were. The Ala Dardanorum was one of the new milliary alas, a thousand strong instead of the usual five hundred, but he couldn't take on ten thousand with it, even if the ala were up to strength. There were a thousand men on paper. There were eight hundred and four fit to ride in Singidunum.