Boy Centurion Sample

CHAPTER one

‘Rider!’ A shout from one of the sentries attracted the attention of the three friends as they huddled around a brazier, warming their hands against the chill of the late February morning.

‘Something’s up,’ Florin announced, needlessly. At sixteen years of age, Florin was the oldest, but being the shortest and most boyish looking, it was hard to see beyond the freckles and spots covering his face. He was also a nervous type, ever vigilant and worrying.

The hinges of the heavy wooden gates groaned loudly as two auxiliaries pulled them open, just wide enough for a horse and rider to pass through. Seconds later, the messenger galloped into the compound and pulled harshly on his reins. He jumped down and sprinted towards the office of the tribune commander.
His horse, agitated from the punishing ride, shook its head, snorted and pawed the ground. Its flanks were covered in sweating foam and it heaved and shivered from its exertions.
The gates were quickly slammed shut and the heavy locking bar lifted into place.

‘That horse is completely blown,’ Atticus said. Marcellus Quintus Atticus, was the son of the tribune commander. He was in his fifteenth year and looking forward to his coming of age ceremony, when he would enter manhood. Like his father, he was tall and athletically built. Also like his father, he had hazel brown eyes and dark hair that had a soft natural curl.

For once, a little excitement was on the horizon. Atticus stepped back from the warmth of the brazier in order to take in the full picture.
‘What do you suppose it means?’ asked Florin, rubbing his hands anxiously. Florin’s father, Asper, was a merchant of some means. Weeks earlier, he had ingratiated himself to the camp quartermaster by finding ways of supplying food, animal fodder and other essentials to the slow moving Roman column as it lumbered southwards. It was often problematic to maintain supplies on the move. Foraging for game and wood only went so far, so when supplies ran low, as they invariably did, it came down to buying provisions from towns and villages. This had also become a problem. It had been weeks since the last supply wagons had arrived. The legionaries grumbled about their lack of pay, but they were also used to delays during the winter months. In time, their purses would be filled again and the discontent would evaporate as soon as they stumbled across the next alehouse.

However, word spread quickly. Village storekeepers, at first keen to supply the passing traffic with bread, wine and provisions, quickly learned to hide their stocks. Promissory notes, with some justification, were regarded as worthless. It was hard cash or nothing.

The situation had become increasingly tense. The last thing the cohort tribune wanted was a return to the bad old days of pilfering. It had taken a long time to pacify the tribes of Britannia, but the fragile peace could be undone very quickly. What followed would be bitter resentment and violence.

The tribune gave orders to cut rations and for overnight camps to be erected well away from settlements in an attempt to avoid conflict. When Asper showed up at the head of a supply wagon, it was like a gift from the gods. He was all smiles and unlike most traders he was prepared to accept promissory notes. His only condition was that his family be allowed to accompany the cohort on its long journey to Eboracum, the main northern garrison of the Sixth legion. The tribune agreed. That same night his men filled their bellies with meat and warm wine. For the tribune, it was one less thing to worry about.

Florin nudged Atticus. ‘Can’t you find out what’s happening?’ It was said more in hope than expectation.
‘You know I can’t,’ Atticus answered flatly, ‘just because I’m the tribune’s son doesn’t mean I can cross the line.’

The line was a rubble-filled groove carved into the earth, separating civilians from soldiers. Legionaries, auxiliaries and a small contingent of cavalry, occupied the area nearest the main gate. The other part of the camp housed families and those considered worthy of the Empire’s protection. The garrison itself was constructed in the standard fashion; a sturdy wooden palisade surrounded by a deep ditch, filled with sharpened stakes pointed at odd angles.

It was still technically against regulations for serving legionaries to marry or have families, but ever since the Empire had expanded into Britannia almost 400 years earlier, something of a blind eye had been turned to such matters. So long as the efficiency and effectiveness of the fighting soldier was unaffected, it was tolerated.

That was, until now.

With Rome’s borders increasingly under attack from Goths, the overstretched legions had gradually been ordered to depart the shores of Britannia and return home. The full extent of turning a blind eye for so long was only now becoming clear. As the tribune’s extended cohort withdrew from its base in the Northern territories, almost twice the number of women and children accompanied nearly 900 soldiers.

Atticus knew his father was furious about the situation, but above all, he was a pragmatist. Much of what Atticus knew came from overheard or snatched pieces of conversation between his father and mother, or sometimes officers. It was during one of these exchanges that he discovered the men of a different garrison had mutinied when officers attempted to exert their authority and insist families were left behind. It took two cohorts to storm the mutineer’s fort at the cost of many lives, before it was finally quashed and those responsible were put to death. Although his father claimed he was confident about the loyalty of his own men, it appeared he was in no mood to test the waters by attempting to separate his men from their families. They faced continual raids by northern tribes and bands of brigands who, sensing weakness in their Roman adversaries, had become increasingly bold. He needed his men focused and ready to fight.

‘I’ll tell you what’s happening,’ Brin said confidently, ‘it’s trouble.’ He glanced at Florin and watched his anxious expression crumple further. Brin was a head taller than his two friends. A fully Romanised Gall, his features were exaggerated by his long sandy hair and a recent insistence in dressing in the manner of his tribal ancestors, the Parisii. He was tall and broad shouldered. Even at 15 years, he cut an imposing figure.

Brin came from Parisii nobility. The Parisii were originally Galls who had settled in the north east of Britannia. A fierce and proud race, they had eventually been worn down by the Roman war machine and had surrendered. Those nobles, like his father, who continued to give their allegiance to Rome were allowed to retain their status and were even afforded Rome’s protection. But allegiance to Rome came at a price. The nobles might be left alone, or even provided with gifts, but their people suffered. Some were sent into slavery, others worked on in order to pay the taxes relentlessly demanded by Rome. Resentment simmered and grew, so when news of the northern legions departure became known, a very few of the most loyal nobles were invited to accompany them. Loyalty, of course, was determined by handsome payments to corrupt officials. The cost of not paying their extortionate demands was to be left behind. Whatever status the nobles once enjoyed had long dissipated. Romans were the enemy, but the nobles who became their puppets were regarded as traitors to their own people. So it was that Brin’s father handed over much of his great wealth in gold and silver coin.

Brin was unaware of the bribes and the potential danger he and his family shared. He was perplexed as to why they had to leave at all. His father was a distant, moody character, who was used to getting his own way and not having to explain. Brin understood there was a threat, and assumed it was due to the raids by northern tribes. Once the Roman’s sorted themselves out and crushed the invaders, they would surely be returning home, he reasoned.

Brin was far more Roman than he cared to acknowledge. He had been tutored in the ways of Rome, could speak both Latin and Greek and actually struggled a little with the language of his own people. He could name every Roman God, knew Roman history and could quote some of the great philosophers. But he chose now for an emerging interest in his own heritage and culture. It was poor timing. Atticus had tried to caution his friend not to be insensitive during times of heightened tensions, but Brin was stubborn. Protected by his special status, he appeared unaware of the fact that many Romans still regarded the native Britons as little more than semi-tamed barbarians. With attacks increasing and casualties on the rise, Atticus was aware of some legionaries casting suspicious glances in the direction of his friend. Fear of spies and betrayal was never far beneath the surface. Through it all, Brin seemed unaffected. He stood proud, feet apart and arms crossed, brazenly wearing the checked tunic and trousers of his ancestors.

A face appeared from behind the doorway to the tribune’s quarters. The two legionaries standing guard hurriedly lowered their shields and javelins and ran towards the barracks.

Florin let out a giggle. ‘How long?’
The others quickly picked up his meaning. Atticus grinned. ‘Ten heartbeats,’ he said.
Brin snorted derisively. ‘Twenty, at least.’

The centurions quickly emerged and ran towards the tribune’s office. Florin slowly counted off his fingers.
Finally, centurion Rufus appeared. He was last, as usual, half-dressed and still attempting to pull on his helmet.
Brin creased over with laughter. It was infectious. Then Brin looked up, tears in his eyes, attempting to lay claim to winning the bet. He was about to speak when Rufus tripped and his helmet tumbled away. The three collapsed in fits of laughter as Rufus stumbled down the incline after his helmet, cursing his bad luck.
Florin was the first to come up for air. ‘It gets better each time,’ he gasped.

Some of the women had begun to emerge and were standing by the line. They were being watched carefully by one of the auxiliary soldiers, who decided to pace up and down and stare menacingly. It cut little ice with the women, who either ignored him or threw an insult or saucy comment in his direction. One of them spotted Atticus and strolled over. She was a hard-looking woman, with a pinched expression, but she smiled as she approached, exposing a set of dark brown and broken teeth. ‘I expect you’ll know what’s happening, young sir?’ she said, probing for information.

The friends were used to Atticus being tapped for information or asked for favours. His father’s status afforded him a certain position in the rigid Roman hierarchy and on this military camp his father held power over life and death. Atticus, however, was rarely afforded the privilege of the information others assumed he possessed. Most of the stuff he picked up came from the gossip spread by others. Naturally, he remained tight-lipped about the eavesdropped conversations of his parents and he had been repeatedly warned as to the toxic and damaging effect of repeating gossip. As a result, he tended to simply shrug and protest his genuine lack of insight. Which was exactly what he did on this occasion.

‘Oh come on,’ she persisted.

Atticus felt under pressure. He looked at Brin, who merely raised his eyebrows. Florin, who disliked anything that could lead to a disagreement, feigned indifference and continued to look in the direction of the tribune’s office.

Atticus was within his rights to order her away, but he became aware of a small gathering of women, all looking to him for information. It was silly, he realised, but he began to feel a little flattered by all the attention. He cleared his throat. ‘Well,’ he said, sounding a little pompous, ‘usually a call for officers means either someone important is about to visit, or there’s a problem.’
‘And on this occasion it’s safe to say, there’s a problem,’ Brin added solemnly.
The woman turned her attention to Brin and looked him up and down. He looked like a barbarian, a clean one mind, yet he spoke perfect Latin. ‘And why do you say that?’
Brin rolled his eyes. ‘Stands to reason,’ he answered. ‘There have been several small attacks on patrols recently, my guess is something bigger is brewing.’
Atticus suddenly felt the chill and pulled his cloak tighter.

Moments later a repeated blast from a buccina called the stand to. The centurions hurried out of the tribune’s office as troops began to spill out of the barracks and form up in their centuries. It took just a few moments for the well-drilled troops to assemble, shields to one side and javelins grounded. By now, it felt like the entire garrison was outside, troops and civilians.

The tribune appeared. He was in full armour. Even in the dull light of the morning his cuirass and helmet shone. He looked around and caught the eye of his son, Atticus. He smiled and gave a nod in greeting. Atticus raised his hand in acknowledgment and felt his chest swell with pride. His father was a tall and imposing figure. Even at a distance the deep scar across his forehead was visible. He was a soldier’s soldier, promoted from the ranks. He led his men from the front. When they went hungry, so did he. When they slept rough, he did too. He expected nothing of his men that he wouldn’t do himself. In return, he had the respect and loyalty of his men. But less so, the newer recruits.

He stood next to the standard bearer and took a moment to look at the many battle honours attached. It was a careful contrivance, designed to remind his men of their place amongst the other legions and the glory they had shared. He adjusted his position and was about to speak when a lone voice rang out. ‘Where’s our money?’

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