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Authors: S. J. A. Turney

Tags: #Historical Fiction

The Great Game (8 page)

BOOK: The Great Game
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Vindobona had immediately exploded into a chaos of reorganisation as men who had occupied barrack blocks for months were required to collect together their kit and march out across the Danubius. As had become the norm, there was no task or assignment for Rufinus and he found himself ejected from the Praetorian quarters and sent to his old room in the strangely empty fortress, a single man occupying quarters for five thousand.

Two more days had passed with an increased sense of solitude, the First busy in their temporary camp across the river while the few Praetorian cohorts manned the walls and gates of the fortress, awaiting the return of the Tenth to retake its position as garrison. It had been strange to return to barracks, comforting in some small way, with the familiar walls covered in lewd graffiti, but made more hollow and peculiar by the loneliness that accompanied it and the knowledge that as soon as his transfer was made official, he would be leaving the room again forever.

Such a sense of solitude should have disappeared when the Tenth returned, marching in triumph down along the thoroughfare cut into the woods across the river, buccinae blaring out, flags waving, men cheering. It did not.

The various returning legions scattered to create temporary camps around the periphery of Vindobona while the Tenth marched into the fortress, the camp prefect performing a brief ceremony and
receiving the passwords from the Praetorian tribune as his men filtered out through the fortress, already taking guard positions.

Rufinus had waited with a sense of anticipation and excitement for the other men in his contubernium to return to the room: men he had last seen in the woods of Marcomannia rushing to the signal before he stumbled across an ambush that had turned his life upside down. He had such things to tell them: he had met emperors, bathed in senior officer’ baths, ridden with the Praetorian cavalry. He yearned also to hear of the aftermath of the battle; the night after such a great action was always filled with drink and reverie as the survivors celebrated their continued fortune. Some of the best and funniest stories were born in such conditions.

They returned: five tired, dirty soldiers wandered into the room, chatting in a small group, telling stories and anecdotes and paying no attention to the desperately lonely man sitting on the bunk awaiting them. Only one of them even met Rufinus’ gaze before they dumped their kit and went to find food or the baths without extending an invitation to their long-term roommate.

Deflated and unhappy, Rufinus had wandered out and among the men of his legion as they went about the business of settling back into quarters long abandoned, putting to rights the changes made by their temporary occupants. He’d always been a reasonably popular man, except with those that had foolishly bet against him in fights. Now, though, hardly anyone seemed inclined to speak to him and few even made eye contact.

As he’d travelled around the fortress, moving like a ghost, unnoticed amid the chaos, the clouds gradually lowered and the first flakes of damp, soggy snow settled on his shoulders. Even the weather seemed to have turned against him.

A little judicious listening-in on supposedly private conversations had led him to the conclusion that he was no longer considered a legionary by the Tenth. Having been taken by the Praetorians and seemingly treated as though he were somehow different, the men of the Tenth had already labelled him ‘one of
them’
. His continued absence had reinforced their opinions, and it looked like there was little Rufinus would be able to do to return things to normal. He had been taken by Praetorians and was no longer welcome among the Tenth.

And so the last day had been thoroughly soul-destroying, with men he had long counted friends ignoring his very existence. Even
the centurions and optios seemed already to have more or less forgotten about him, and his name failed to appear on any duty rosters. To prevent the boredom and depression overcoming him completely, Rufinus had devoted all his time to his kit and preparations.

And now here he was, sliding his gladius into its scabbard and reaching for his helmet with the stiff, red horsehair crest. The room was empty; the entire
block
was empty, the rest of the men already on their way to the assembly. He’d have been the first man out had he not suffered a last moment panic, misplacing his sword, though a small, bitter part of his mind suggested to him that his former companions might have hidden it simply to aggravate him.

The blade had turned up eventually, propped in a corner behind the piles of mud-spattered kit strapped to their marching poles.

With a sigh, he jammed the helm on his head and turned to leave, tying the chin-straps together as he left. Across the fortress, the buccinae rang out with the second call. By the third such blast the legion had to be in position, and punishments would be handed out for failure to attend in time. Grasping the heavy, rectangular crimson shield by the door frame, he strode out into the bright, crisp, cold morning and jogged along the street. The snow had let up early this morning as the sun began to show on the horizon, almost as if the emperor had commanded a good day for the gathering of the eagles.

Other men were still filing out of their quarters here and there, rushing for muster, jamming on helmets and struggling to carry their kit while fastening cloaks. The fresh snow in the streets of the fortress had already become a soggy slush, brown and unpleasant, which soaked into the boots and numbed the toes no matter how thick one’s socks were.

Out onto the Via Praetoria he jogged, turning with the other tardy men, rushing toward the headquarters and its gathering. There the Tenth would finish mustering before marching out to present themselves as part of Aurelius’ victorious army. Past the granary, the hospital and the bathhouse Rufinus hurried, finding himself in a cluster of men pushing their way through the entrance to the great complex. As they burst through into the courtyard within, men rushed to find their place and fall in with their centuries.

Ducking past two panicked-looking legionaries, Rufinus slowed his pace and made for his unit, the centurion giving both he
and the three other latecomers a black look. The third and final blast rang out from the legion’s chief musician and the men were in position, the last few still settling into place, looking miserably forward to a few days of unpleasant duties for their tardiness, mucking out latrines or similar. At least, if the proposed transfer actually occurred, he would avoid such punishments.

Barely was the assembly complete before the centurions began to bellow out calls and the buccinae blared again, the legion turning to move off by cohort and century in full parade form and at a slow march toward the gathering.

Slowly, with a sedate and impressive pace, eagle, flags and standards glinting and fluttering, the Tenth Gemina filed out of the great gate of the headquarters, along the Via Principalis and out of the fortress. The legatus and his tribunes led the column, riding immaculately-groomed horses, their cloaks flapping in the breeze, each cohort and century following on in line.

As the legion traversed the causeway that crossed the fortress’ defensive ditches and moved into the street of the civil settlement, folk leaned out of windows and doors and cheered. Families stood beneath the wooden verandas of their buildings watching with awe and glee as the victorious Tenth passed by. Out of the corner of his eye, before they fully emerged from the defences and into the street, Rufinus caught sight of another legion marching across the open ground before the fortress, having just crossed the river. That was either the First Adiutrix or the Third Italica: the two legions encamped within the land that would soon become the province of Marcomannia, across the Danubius.

Every part of the emperor’s glorious army was parading today.

Past houses and tabernae, workshops and stables they marched to the cheers of the crowd, boots churning the endless slush and slurry of the streets, eyes on the sky, praying to a hundred different Gods to hold the weather off until they had returned to the cover of the barracks.

Past the new gleaming marble temple of Roma and Victory they marched, past the temple of Epona: a Goddess worshipped almost exclusively by the indigenous folk and cavalry troopers, past the animal market, the great granaries, the infamous ‘Grape Field’ tavern than had robbed so many soldiers of their pay and their senses in varying degrees, past the side road to the main docks with its
endless stream of heavily-laden carts and wagons: past the thriving heart of civil Vindobona.

Finally, ahead stood the high, gracefully arched exterior of the new theatre, not yet opened, though nearing completion and due to be dedicated to the glorious name of Marcus Aurelius in Aprilis. Yet another avenue of celebration for the final quashing of the tribes across the river.

At the edge of Vindobona, the theatre stood some thirty feet high in its most complete section, covered with wooden scaffolding and hanging ropes like a shredded spider web. The wooden boards and platforms were packed with workers and civilians all trying to get a view of the great parade ground that had been designated on the wasteland opposite, the snow shovelled off early in the morning in preparation.

Already three of the legions had arrived at the great space and were standing to attention. Crowds of civilians heaved and jostled at the periphery, occasional over-excited members leaning out toward the assembled soldiers, though none were stupid enough to actually approach the army. This may be a great parade and spectacle, but every man and woman in Vindobona knew quite well how battle-hardened and prepared for trouble the assembled forces were. With the emperor present, even the slightest move forward from the crowd could be construed as a potential threat and the Praetorians were prepared to deal with any such infraction.

The imperial family, along with the senior commanders and a few of the more important civil officers in the city stood on a raised wooden dais at the riverward side of the ground, backed by a palisade that displayed trophies of captured Marcomannic and Quadi weapons, armour and shields, all interspersed with expensive furs.

The personal slaves of the most important attendees stood patiently at the foot of the platform, looking for all the world like a human shield between the nobles and the massed ranks of the legions. Rufinus tried, as he moved into position, to spot a certain young lady among them, but they were too numerous and distant.

Two groups of captive enemy noblemen stood chained, defeated and dejected, at each end of the great podium, on display for the public to jeer and spit at, Praetorians with drawn weapons watching them keenly. The braver of the townsfolk threw rotten vegetables at the fallen Quadi and Marcomanni warlords, even small
stones. Only the braver, though, for the possibility of accidentally striking one of the Praetorian guards was ever-present.

In addition to the Praetorians on the platform, guarding the prisoners and gathered in small contubernia at strategic points for crowd control, the bulk of the guard surrounded the entire structure and its occupants: gleaming white forms, attentive and impressive, alert for any threat to their emperor and his companions.

Slowly and with stately pace, the Tenth moved to its assigned position and, as he gratefully came to a stop, settling his shield into position along with the rest, right hand by his side, Rufinus scanned the area. The sound of the crowd cheering and shouting back away from the assembled troops, some sitting in precarious positions on the scaffolding, managed to almost drown out the creaks and clanks of the assembled legions. As the last men of the Tenth moved into place, already the Third Italica was visible between the buildings back on the main street as they moved toward the assembly.

The imperial family stood on the platform, their feet at shoulder height to the men. Lucilla and her husband had contrived somehow to look even more irritated and bored than they had that evening in the headquarters, while Aurelius and his son stood in full armour, glittering and impressive. Close by, Paternus watched the assembling units with a professional eye, while tribune Perennis stood at his shoulder with his usual glower.

The assembled legionaries watched their co-emperors with a sense of awe and respect that was almost palpable, much as Rufinus had always done. The men of the legions saw only a great gesture of unity and the tight imperial family bond, as Commodus turned to his father and clasped his wrist in the age old gesture of comradeship, leaning in to speak in his father’s ear. Rufinus, his eyes now opened to the truth, had seen not a gesture of family closeness, but a desperate move of support. Doubtless none of the ordinary soldiers had noticed the slight stumble in the emperor’s step and the look of concern that briefly passed across Commodus’ face as he moved in to prevent his father from falling.

Strangely, while Paternus seemed to have noticed the stumble and had turned his concerned gaze on his master, Perennis, at his shoulder, shot a look at the back of Paternus’ head that was filled with so great a malice and hatred that Rufinus was amazed no one else seemed to have spotted it. Did he loathe his commander
that much
?

As the remaining legions moved into position on the square, followed by the few auxiliary units that had been granted the privilege of sharing in the parade, Rufinus kept his keen gaze locked on the dais.

The emperor had quickly recovered and was smiling at his legions, though Commodus never moved more than a foot or two from his father’s side, keeping his hands free and his arms unfolded in case he might need to make a quick move. In a similar manner, Paternus had straightened his own arms and his fingers flexed regularly as though he too were prepared to make a desperate lunge for the emperor.

Tribune Perennis continued to flick his evil gaze to and fro, occasionally fixing it on a man who somehow especially irked him. Rufinus found himself staring at the second in command of the Praetorians, trying to weigh him up.

Initially, he had thought that the man simply coveted Paternus’ position and harboured a grudge. The more he watched, however, the more he was beginning to come to the conclusion that there was no
special
enmity between the two Praetorian officers, but more that Perennis simply hated everyone on a roughly equal basis, and was incapable of forming anything other than a disapproving frown on those sour features.

BOOK: The Great Game
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