Read The Great Game Online

Authors: S. J. A. Turney

Tags: #Historical Fiction

The Great Game (4 page)

BOOK: The Great Game
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‘I don’t think he likes me.’

The guard laughed quietly. ‘That’s because he doesn’t know you. He never likes the unknown very much. When he
get to know you, that’s when he’ll begin to really despise you.’

Rufinus threw the man an uncertain smile, not at all sure whether that had been a joke. There was certainly something about the tribune’s face and demeanour that suggested he was a man it would pay to avoid.

‘What’s your name?’ he asked the guardsman on an impulse.

‘The lads call me Mercator, like in the Plautus comedy. Now shut up, face front, and pay attention and do whatever the prefect tells you until we reach Vindobona.’

Rufinus sighed. To think that today had started out with the simple fear of facing a horde of slavering Quadi?

II – The city at the edge of the world

THE frozen sun had reached the western horizon by the time the great sprawl of Vindobona and the heavy fortress at its centre became visible. The hillside sloped gently away, clear of obstructions down to the Danubius River - a wide avenue had been cut through the woodland at the time of the city’s rebuilding following the Marcomannic raid which had utterly destroyed it. A strong timber bridge marched across the swift, deep torrent to the great Imperial centre - a bridge that was a tenuous link between the Roman world and the lands of the barbaroi which would one day be rebuilt in stone, when the newly conquered lands were incorporated into the empire as the province of Marcomannia.

Vindobona, the largest settlement in this Gods-forsaken corner of the world, was home to thousands of loyal subjects of the emperor from all walks of life, from the ancient Roman noble blood that controlled the ordo - the city’s council - down to the local traders and metalworkers who had barely a word of Latin. Smoke rose from the roofs of hundreds of houses and workshops lining the roads which radiated out from the centre, a mark of Vindobona’s success and prosperity.

And yet all of this was just the periphery of the conglomeration. The focus of Vindobona and the reason for its creation, growth and importance remained, as always, the army. At the centre of the spider web of roads, lanes and buildings stood the great fortress with its high stone walls, water-filled surrounding ditch, towers and red-roofed internal buildings. The fortress that had played host to four legions in its various incarnations, the latest being Rufinus’ own, was powerful and imposing and now held the centre of administration for the entire empire, due to the presence of the Imperial family during this protracted campaign. The column moved down the wide avenue, trudged across the bridge in the dim light and reached the artificial island which housed the massive fortress.

Just six years ago, as a fresh-faced young man, Rufinus had arrived in this great place as part of a trade caravan from northern Italia, seeking a position in the military far from the influence and intervention of his father; a place where the name Rustius Rufinus was as unknown as he himself. The Tenth had been the resident garrison of Vindobona for six decades now, had suffered crushing
defeats against the Marcomanni and watched the city burn before returning the favour and then rebuilding stronger and grander than ever. There was a commonly-held misconception among the non-martial public that the garrisons on the borders of the empire earned their pay by sitting in barracks, raping the local economy of its strength and growing fat and intemperate with wine and rich food. Such was never the case here, with the arrogant and expansionist tribes across the river.

Rufinus had settled into barracks in the knowledge that any peace and prosperity the city seemed to be exhibiting was ephemeral and could be whisked away in mere moments when the tribes beyond the river decided that they were once more strong enough to challenge the rule of Rome.

And then, after three years of growing used to garrison life, learning the ways of the legion, training as a soldier and earning his double-pay status by bringing the First Cohort the inter-century championship, the world had exploded into frenzied activity as the Imperial court descended on the fortress. Eight more legions and thousands of auxiliaries came in tow - the final, total conquest of the troublesome local tribes foremost in the mind of the great Marcus Aurelius.

Six years…

The column passed from the still new, resin-odoured timber of the bridge and onto the snowy-blanketed turf that lay before the magnificent walls just as the braziers, torches and watch-fires were lit and the buccina call for the fourth watch rang out across the town.

As they approached the northern gatehouse, the optio commanding the watch called out, asking for the approaching column’s identification. The commander shouted back the response and the gate swung ponderously open. The loud, ominous creak of the hinges and the detritus that had built up against the wooden gates spoke eloquently of how rarely this gate was opened, standing somewhat redundantly facing a river that few would cross in peace.

As the column passed through the gate, Rufinus shuddered. It felt strange returning after so long. Though the fortress was the closest thing he’d had to a home in six years – possibly in his whole life, now he thought about it – returning under escort of the Praetorian Guard and to an uncertain reception robbed the event of any comfort.

The men of the First Adiutrix, currently garrisoning the fortress in the absence of its own legion, watched as the white-clad riders passed by, some with awe and respect, more with jealousy and greed, and others still with barely concealed sneers of contempt. The Imperial guard always drew a variety of reactions, often depending upon the previous experiences of the observer. While they were nominally the elite of the army, well-paid and with exceptional benefits and a position to which most legionaries aspired, they also had the ear of the emperor and more power than many approved of. A bad word from a Praetorian could result in a severe beating for an ordinary soldier.

Eyebrows were raised in surprise and interest as the single red-cloaked legionary rode past in the middle of the column. It was unusual, to say the least. On the men rode, up the Via Praetoria and toward the great headquarters at the centre. Rufinus found he was holding his breath. Until this point, all he had thought about was reaching Vindobona, not what would happen when they arrived. He glanced aside wistfully as the riders passed row upon row of barrack blocks, side streets running off in ordered lines. Less than halfway along the great thoroughfare, he recognised the end of the road upon which his own quarters resided.

The column filtered to the right side of the street without breaking pace as they passed three huge carts unloading a late night delivery into the enormous granaries, raised off the floor on bases of heavy stones and with a loading platform at the end. This far into winter grain was being shipped in from very far afield at enormous cost, and no delay in its storage could be brooked, given the chance that it may become damp or fall prey to the multitude of rats that occupied every army base.

Rufinus’ stomach growled and he realised just how long it had been since they’d last stopped for food. Now that he’d thought of it, visions of roasted meat and fresh bread, vegetables and fruit swam through his thoughts. Perhaps there would be a silver lining to the cloud of returning in uncertain circumstances after all. The Tenth legion would be on hard rations for days yet.

His eyes strayed back across the street to the right, where the rows of barracks had ended, giving way to the huge hospital complex. Few lights flickered in the windows and all was calm and quiet. Rufinus’ mind flashed back to the grisly scenes he had witnessed outside the temporary camp a day and a half to the east as
the capsarius had bound his injured arm for the journey. If he had some free time to himself in the coming evening, he probably ought to go see the First’s medicus and have his arm checked out more thoroughly.

As his gaze wandered back to the left again, past the end of the granary, his eyes fell on a familiar and welcome sight: the bath house. Smoke poured from the roof as the furnaces worked hard, belching hot air throughout the numerous channels beneath the floors and up through the hollow wall tiles. Indeed, the heat of the building was revealed by the fact that the settled snow had melted some six feet around the entire complex.

A thought struck him and he leaned over and nudged Mercator, who was staring ahead, glassy eyed as he inhabited a world in his own mind. The guardsman shook himself out of the reverie and turned to him.

‘When you’re dismissed and the horses are stabled, will we be given the chance to use the baths?’ Rufinus asked hopefully.

‘Me: Yes. You? I have no idea. I don’t know
the prefect has planned for you.’

Rufinus nodded dismally; nor did he.

The column reached the centre of the fortress and the buccinae call went up sharply to rein in. As the guardsmen sat patiently waiting for further instructions, a decurion rode back from the head of the column, the twin white feathers in his helmet no longer jutting proudly, but sagging under the weight of the water. Reining in next to them, he cleared his throat. The look on his face suggested that he felt he was addressing a criminal or an animal or some other, lower, form of life.

‘The prefect commands the presence of the legionary Gnaeus Marcius Rustius Rufinus and his escort at the vanguard.’

Rufinus blinked in surprise and his heart began to race as Mercator gestured to the two men on the far side and one in the row in front to join them.

‘Come on’ the guardsman said, watching the optio’s retreating form as he rode off to the van.

His breath coming rapidly and his skin prickling with nerves, Rufinus and the four-man escort rode along the side of the column, raising a number of looks of varying degrees of interest or malice from the rest.

Paternus and the tribunes had already dismounted by the time they arrived, guardsmen taking the reins of their horses ready to lead them away. As Rufinus and his escort came to a halt and saluted, another two white-clad soldiers reached for their reins and motioned them to dismount.

Turning with an expression of mild surprise, as though he’d not expected to see them, prefect Paternus clapped his hands together and rubbed them against the cold.

‘Ah, good; Legionary Rustius Rufinus. You’ll be coming with me. You four will escort us as far as the Imperial court and then return to your quarters and arrange temporary accommodation and clean, dry kit for this man.’

Rufinus felt his heart skip a beat and panic began to set in again.

The Imperial court?

Could Paternus really be meaning to present him to the Emperor? His mind raced through a thousand pitiful excuses and listed a thousand more things he could potentially do wrong in the presence of the great Marcus Aurelius. The master of Rome was reputed to be a man of moderate temper and good humour, intelligent and introspective, but then his predecessor had been possessed of similar traits and yet still the Rustii had found
bad side. Rufinus was well aware of the dangerous games the patrician class liked to play. The loss of one such game had led to the Rustii relocating from the Esquiline hill and putting a sea between them and the anger of the former emperor Antoninus

And now, in one fell swoop, Rufinus could take the lucky escape into exile of his family and turn it into damnatio and enforced suicide for the entire clan.

As Paternus and the mono-browed Perennis, tribune of the First cohort, marched off to the great, ornate archway that led into the headquarters building, Rufinus’ eyes darted this way and that. In six years of service with the Tenth, he had been inside the headquarters building precisely three times: once when he arrived, to see the clerk and quartermaster, once to have his duplicarius status confirmed, and once to stand before the tribunal for an unfortunate, drink-fuelled punch that had felled an optio after a game of dice had gone very wrong. All that was in the years before the Emperor had resided at Vindobona and set up his office in the structure.

Passing beneath the arch, his pulse quickened again and Rufinus, gauging that the officers were far enough ahead and paying little enough attention that they would not hear a conversation, nudged Mercator and spoke in a low whisper.

‘They can’t be meaning to take me into the emperor’s presence like this?’

He indicated with his hands the bedraggled nature of his clothes, the dirty armour already spotted with tiny brown stains as the weather got to work on the plates, the lack of shield and kit.

The two officers ahead stopped sharply and the guardsmen almost walked into them as they turned. Paternus’ mouth twisted up at the corner in a quirky smile that looked peculiar on his aquiline features. Perennis, however, stared at him coldly, his dissatisfaction at this breech in military etiquette clear.

‘May I ask, legionary Rufinus,’ Paternus asked quietly ‘why you are unfit to be seen by the emperor?’

Rufinus fumbled his words for a moment and finally croaked ‘should I not be bathed and in fresh uniform, sir?’

Paternus smiled. ‘You are being presented as a valiant soldier of Rome, fresh from a battle in which you were wounded while endangering your life to save an officer. Some of the effect of that could be negated if you are clean-shaven, well-dressed and smell like a Syrian perfumery, could it not?’

Perennis rolled his eyes and turned to his prefect. ‘Are you sure you want to do this?’

Paternus nodded. ‘Oh yes. Words of retreat and the cost of war are poured into the emperor’s ear on an hourly basis. Any time the success and value of the army and this campaign can be promoted it is our duty as Romans to do so.’ He narrowed his eyes and Rufinus suddenly had the impression that a wide rift existed between these two men - a rift across which trust could barely reach. ‘See to the disposition of the men, Perennis. I will present the news.’

The tribune went pale with suppressed rage. Rufinus was impressed at how well the man controlled his frustration as he saluted and turned without word to stalk back along the corridor. The remaining six men walked on across the wide courtyard toward the basilica and fore-hall where they would find the imperial presence and as they approached the entrance, Paternus gestured for them to wait, striding on ahead to speak to the guard.

BOOK: The Great Game
6.81Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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