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Snippet

Looking for some opinions here.   This is a snippet from something I’ve been working on.  Let me know what you all think, and any suggestions or corrections are appreciated.

——————————————————————–

Appius Plinius stood in the small courtyard of the barracks complex.  The alternating pieces of iron and bronze that made up his lorica squamata scale mail winked in the late afternoon sunlight, which was streaming through the open gateways and doors leading to the barracks, stables, and storehouses that made up the small camp outside of Alexandria.  Under his left arm he carried his helmet, its scratched surface polished to a high gleam by his servant that morning.  Under his right hand he gripped the pommel to his long Gallic sword, which he never let get to the point that it needed polishing.   He unconsciously ran that hand through the short reddish-brown hair on his head.  It was this characteristic that had given him the nickname of “Rufus”, or “Redhead” among his fellow officers.  His men, however, didn’t dare to use it to his face, although it was occasionally used when he could hear it.  Some commanders might have dressed down a soldier for such familiarity, but so long as discipline was maintained, Appius figured he had better things to worry about. He was beginning to sweat through the cloth of the tunic he wore under his armor, but he disregarded this discomfort as he went over what he was going to do and say in the next few minutes.

Appius stiffened and saluted as his commander, Publius Aurelius Marcianis, legate of the Third Cyrenean Legion, walked into the courtyard.  The decorative scales of his lorica plumata armor had been intricately carved to resemble feathers, making him resemble a red-faced, bronze chested, rotund bird.   Appius had served with him for more than a decade, and knew that under the seemingly soft exterior of the senior officer lay a heart as dark and hard as any that could be found in service to the Republic.  He also knew that, while his decisions were well-considered and informed, he would have more luck trying to chop down the obelisk that stood outside of the camp’s gates than in getting Publius to change his mind.

“Hell, I’ve got to try,” he thought to himself as the legate returned his salute and waved him over to a pair of stools in the shade.

“Sir, about Cavarus.” he said, taking a seat after Publius had heaved himself down.

“Save it, Appius.  I didn’t get into this pretty armor or ride out here so that we could make a deal.  The answer is no.  What’s done is done, and your man will have to pay for what he’s done.”  said Publius, pulling his armor away from his tunic in a vane attempt to cool off.

“Sir, is there any way I can handle this myself?  I can demote him, or take away his pay.  Hell, I can assign him the extra task of cleaning the stables for as long as you want.” asked Appius, his mind racing to find an alternative.

“Appius, you know I hate doing this.  I’ve always let you try to keep discipline in your unit, but this is out of my hands.” answered Publius, “The young fool is the nephew of the prefect himself, and if this isn’t taken care of to his satisfaction, I will have Gaius Terranius breathing down my neck, possibly literally.  The best we can do is to get on with it, and try to keep things from getting out of hand.”

Appius sighed, and searched for something more to say. Seeing his discomfort, Publius put his hand on the other’s shoulder.

“Appius, this would be easier if this were the first time either this trooper or the whole unit hadn’t done something that was brought to my attention.” he said gently, “I prefer to let my commanders take care of things in-house, you know that.  But there comes a time when I have to act like a commander, and there also comes a time when a wound is lanced and a festering arm is removed.”

Appius looked up in surprise.  “Removed?” he said in a sharper tone.

“No one is going to take away your command, don’t worry about that.  I’ve always been impressed by you, both here in Egypt, as well as in Gaul.   It’s just that for the past few years, your men seem to have become harder to lead and control when they’re not charging after someone or out on patrol in this confounded desert.” Publius said sadly, “And to be honest, I’m getting tired of having to deal with complaints when a bunch of drunken Thracian auxiliaries burn down a brothel because they’re unsatisfied with the service.  I’m especially tired of having to send someone out here every so often to make sure that my best horse hasn’t been stolen again.

“But, I have a way to fix both our problems.  You and your men need something to occupy your time, and I need a way to get you out of my, and more importantly, the Prefect’s hair, and I think I have just the solution,” he continued, “I’ve been tasked with something that provides an opportunity to get your unit out of garrison for a very long time, which might be a good opportunity to get everyone, you, your men, me, and the prefect, back on track.”

Appius looked at his commander quizzically, “Sir,” he said, “we will, of course serve wherever you send us.  What is this ‘opportunity’?”

“We’ll discuss that after this unpleasantness is over, my boy.” answered Publius, raising himself up off the stool.  Appius rose as well.  “Come to see me tomorrow evening at my house.  We can discuss it over dinner.”

“Come, let’s get on with it.” said Publius, turning toward the passageway to the parade field.  A slave waited for him, and handed the legate his ornate helmet.  As they stepped out into the harsh Egyptian sunlight, his armor and helmet gleamed.  Next to him, Appius looked positively dull, even though his armor had been polished just that morning.  Publius stepped off at a quick pace, and Appius fell in on his left, matching his stride and rhythm.

At the far end of the field, standing in three ranks, stood Appius’s men.  Their ring mail shirts, over tunics of Egyptian linen, would never gleam, but Appius’s trained eye could see that it had at least been kept clean and mended.  Their peaked helmets glinted dully in the sun, and their oval shields stood to their sides. As Appius and Publius drew nearer, the short gladius on each man’s left hip could be seen.  Shorter than the sword their commander had taken to carrying, it was a perfect weapon for closing in with a foe and tearing at his belly or neck.  All eyes were straight forward, although years of getting to know his men told Appius that a tense anger was sweeping through the ranks. Under his breath, Appius said a short prayer asking for calm in the next few minutes, or else Publius might have occasion to break out a truly harsh punishment against them all.

The hawk-like symbol of Horus had been freshly painted upon their shields, mimicking the gold and red standard that hung from a spear in front of them.  Terus, the detachment’s vexilarius, or standard-bearer, stood stiffly at attention in front of the formation, holding the standard perfectly straight.   Next to him, also standing at attention, stood Lucius Turranius Gratianus, military tribune of the Third Legion and aide to Publius.  He wore armor similar to that of the legate, although his helmet had been engraved with crossed swords and charging stallions, where Publius had an eagle engraved on each side of his.  A dark red stripe ran along the bottom of the linen tunic that flowed out from under his armor, denoting his status as an elected military tribune, the first step on the political ladder of the cursus honorem.  As he saw Publius and Appius approaching, he opened his mouth to shout a command, but was cut off as Cotys, Appius’s second in command, bawled out “Attention!”  The men did not move, as they had already drawn themselves up, but Gratianus’s face grew a deeper red than before, which almost hid the purple bruise over his left eye.

Publius stopped a few paces in front of the tribune and the standard bearer, while Appius marched to stand next to his standard.  He faced about, then raised his hand in salute and shouted “Sir, my unit is assembled as ordered!”.

Publius returned the salute, then took a moment to look down the long line of grim soldiers facing him.   After surveying the veterans and taking stock of their equipment and attitude, he called out “Bring him forward!”

Two legionaries, dressed in full battle armor, but lacking their rectangular shields and pilum, marched out from behind the formation.  Their armor was similar to that of the assembled cavalrymen, but the their tunics were dyed blood red, and their helmets were standard issue, while the Thracian auxiliaries’ were shaped into a peak in the manner of their homeland.  Each held an arm of a third man, dressed only in a plain robe, with his hands tied in front of him with leather thongs.  The prisoner marched in step with the legionaries, his head held high, and neither fought the hold on his arms, nor allowed himself to be pulled along. The trio marched to the front of the formation, stopping and coming to attention in front of Publius.

Publius leveled his gaze on the prisoner.  “Cavalryman Cavarus, Thracian auxiliary of the Third Cyrenean Legion, you are guilty of being drunk in the barracks, disobeying the order of one of the legion’s tribunes, and of assaulting that tribune when challenged for your behavior.  Since this is the third time I have chastised you for your conduct, you shall be punished accordingly.” he called out loud enough that the third rank of the detachment could hear him.

Appius heard the men draw in a sharp breath at that last sentence.  He fought an urge to turn his head and look at his men, but kept an ear open for the sound of sandles shifting in the pebbles and sand of the field.  “Mars, father of battle, please keep my men calm.  If you do this for me, I shall sacrifice a ram to you before the dawn breaks tomorrow.” he prayed silently.

“You shall be given ten lashes, and will forfeit a month’s pay for your crimes.  Should you transgress again, I will not be as merciful.” said Publius.

Appius let out a breath he had not even known he was holding, and he heard the men behind him do the same.  His worst fear would have been that Cavalus would have been sentenced to death, probably by being beaten to death by the other men of the detachment.  “Mars, thank you.  At least I won’t be trying to control a riot this afternoon.” he silently prayed.

At a nod from Publius, the legionaries marched Cavarus to a post which had been set in the  ground to the side of the formation.  Taking out their daggers, they cut the robe off of Cavarus, leaving him naked.  The taller of the legionaries took Cavarus’ hands and tied them to a ring atop the post.  Both legionaries took whips from their belts as they stepped a few paces back and to the side of the bound cavalryman.

Publius turned to face Cavarus and his captors.  After a moment, he called out “Decurion Appius Plinius, call the count!”

Appius took a deep breath, and shouted “One!”

The tall legionary swung his arm back, then brought it forward.  The tail of the whip smacked against the skin of Cavarus’ upper back, leaving a red streak as it broke the skin.

“Two!”

The second legionaries arm was already cocked back, and at Appius’ shout, came forward in a fast movement.  His stroke crossed the mark of the first, causing Cavarus to convulse in pain.

“Three!”

The tall legionary shot his arm forward again, placing a new mark a few inches below and parallel to the first.  Cavarus shuddered again, but no moans or shrieks came from him.

“Four!

Crack

“Five!”

Smack

“Six!”

As the third pair of red marks on his back was completed, Cavarus’ legs went out from under him.  He hung by the wrists, the leather thongs pulling cruelly at his skin.

“Seven!”

The tall legionary adjusted his aim, bringing his lash down across the back of Cavarus’ thighs.  Cavarus twitched at the touch of the leather whip as it striped his legs in blood.

“Eight!”

Crack

“Nine!”

Smack

“Ten!”

The last lash cut down across Cavarus’ prostrate form.  He was not moving, but Appius could see him taking breaths as he twisted on the post.  Publius nodded at the legionaries, and the only sound that could be heard by anyone for several minutes was that of pebbles grinding under their boots as they marched back to the barracks.

Publius turned back toward the assembled cavalrymen.   Again, he surveyed the faces of the men, noting that they continued to stare straight forward.  “Men, soldiers, comrades, we can all learn lessons from Cavalryman Cavarus.  As soldiers, we should learn to maintain our discipline, lest we suffer his fate.” he said, his voice carrying across the formation.  “As men,” he continued, his eyes settling on the military tribune, who stared at Cavarus with a look of horror on his face, “we should learn to take our lumps without complaint, even as he did when the lash cut him.”

“Decorion, take command of your detachment.” Publius said.  Appius raised his arm again in salute, which Publius again returned.  Publius turned on his heel, and marched back to the barracks.  Tribune Gratianus fell in on the right of the legate.  Appius’ eyes followed the back of the tribune’s head, and he noted that the skin on his neck grew a darker and darker red as he moved away. He also noted that the young officer did not fall into the same marching cadence as that of his commander.  Appius suppressed a snort of derision at the young amateur.

Appius waited until the two men went through the portal that he and Publius had emerged from, then stepped forward to the place that Publius had occupied.  He turned on his heel, facing his men.  “Cavalrymen Cotys, lead the men to the barracks, and confine them there until I join you.  Vexilarius Tereus, stay here with me.”

Cotys turned his head toward the rest of the formation, and shouted out “Right, face!”  Each trooper lifted his shield a hands breadth from the ground, and pivoted on his right foot.  All thirty men brought their left foot forward and down at once, and the crash of their armor and booted feet echoed from the front of the barracks.

Cotys again turned his head and shouted “Forward, march!”, and each man stepped off on his right foot.  Cotys led them toward the barracks, and Appius was glad to see that he had the presence of mind to take them the long way to the back gate.  That would allow the legion’s legate and tribune to ride away with their guard detachment before his Thracians got there without him.

“Tereus, come with me.” Appius said quietly as he walked over to Cavarus.  The man had twisted over onto his side, and was supporting some of his weight on his knees.  Appius saw his chest rise and fall as he approached him, but the man’s open eyes did not see his commander and standard bearer as they walked up to him.

“Cut him down, Tereus.” Appius ordered as he removed his red cloak.  Tereus drew his dagger from the scabbard on his belt, and sliced through the leather thongs that held Cavarus to the top of the post.  The man dropped instantly, but Appius caught him before he flopped onto the ground.  Supporting Cavarus’ weight with one hand, he gently wrapped the cloak around the stricken cavalryman.  Tereus put up his dagger, then helped Appius lift Cavarus to his feet.  Cavarus was shivering as if he were cold, and his mouth worked as if he wanted to speak, but no sound came from him.

“Let’s get him back to the barracks.” Appius said as he stood up.  He pulled one of Cavarus’ arms across his shoulders, and Tereus took the other.  Cradling the standard in his other arm, Tereus said “That little whinging bastard left out of here, crying and blowing snot.  If he’d been any kind of man, he would have…”

Appius cut him off sharply, “Quiet.  Let me deal with the tribunus laticalvius.  Let’s deal with your brother, first.”

Together, the two men half carried, half drug their comrade back to the barracks.  Cotys met them at the door, and took Cavarus’ arm from Appius.

“Take him in and clean him up.  Keep the men inside until I say otherwise.  I’ll be back as soon as I can.” said Appius, turning to go without waiting for Cotys to acknowledge the order.  Appius walked through the gate to the camp, nodding curtly to the guards as he went through it and down the road to the village that had grown up outside it.

An hour later, just as the sun was beginning to set, Appius returned.  In his wake, a middle-aged man, wearing a tunic cut in the Greek style, and a small boy, bearing a bag on his back, tried to keep up with his brisk strides as best they could.  Appius walked up to the door to the detachment’s area of the barracks, and stepped inside.  His eyes quickly adjusted to the gloom, and he took a look around the open space of the barracks.

It was a converted stable, which some Roman officer had decided fitting for a detachment of auxiliary cavalry.  Appius had kicked up a storm over that, but his men had made the most of it, scrubbing down every square foot and constructing beds out of the wood from the stalls.   Each file had their own small area, while Appius had been given a small room at the far end of the hall.  Cotys had tried to have the men build it next to the door, but Appius had overridden him.  He liked to walk through the men’s quarters to get to his own, and that gave him an excuse to see how they lived, and to catch any that tried to push his luck with the regulations and Appius’ commands.

Seeing him and his two companions come in, Mostis, leader of his third file, called out, a little too loudly, “Attention!”

Appius ignored what was obviously meant to be a warning to the other men in the barracks, and walked to the cluster of beds used by the first file of the detachment.  Cotys was standing at the foot of Cavarus’ bed, while Tereus was giving sips from a mug to Cavarus.  The soldier was laying on his side.  His friends had washed him, but his wounds continued to weep blood onto the blankets underneath him.

Appius looked at the doctor, who had caught up with him when he paused at the door, and nodded. The man leaned over Cavarus and clucked his tongue.  “They did a good job on him, didn’t they?  That’s all right, we’ll fix him up.  Ajax, let’s get to work.”  he said, pointing to the boy, who unslung the bag and began to take pouches, vials, and bottles out of it.  Looking at Appius, he said “I will need better light, if that’s possible.”  Cotys took flint and steel from his belt pouch, and lit one of the lamps that hung from the rafters.

As Appius and the other cavalrymen watched, the doctor took the mug of wine from Tereus.  He opened one of the pouches, and shook out what looked to Appius to be dust mixed with herbs into it.  Using his finger, he stirred the mixture into a loose paste.  He then dabbed this onto the wounds on Cavarus’ back.  Cavarus again shook with the pain, but made no sound.

“It will sting a bit now, but this will ease your pain soon, and it will stop the wounds from festering.” said the doctor in a soothing tone.  Looking up at Tereus, who had not left his brother’s side, he asked “Will he want the scars from this to fade?”

Tereus thought for a moment, then said simply, “No, he will want others to see.”

The doctor nodded, then selected a vial from the collection the boy had unpacked.  Pouring it onto a cloth from the bag, he dabbed a purple liquid over the whole of Cavarus’ back and legs.  Taking a bundle of herbs from the boy, he lit them with the flame of the lamp, then blew their pungent smoke across Cavarus from head to toe.  The bitter odor of the smoke made Appius’s eyes water, but they seemed to have no effect on the doctor.

As he finished and stood up, he patted Cavarus gently on the shoulder.  Taking another pouch from the boy, he handed it to Tereus and said, “He will be able to get up by morning, but make sure he mixes a third of these herbs into his wine every morning until they are gone.  It will ease the pain a bit.” he said.

Tereus took the pouch with a nod of thanks, then returned to sit next to his brother’s bed.  The doctor gestured at his apprentice, who began to put away the medicines.  The doctor walked up to Appius and put out his hand.  Appius placed a pouch into it, and the coins it contained jingled as the doctor weighed them in his palm.  A smile came across his face, and the doctor bowed his head at Appius.

“Thank you, sir.  I shall sacrifice a pair of doves to Asclepius for you tomorrow morning, in thanks for the healing of your man.” he said.

“Thank you, physician.  Is there anything else to be done?”  asked Appius.

“No, he will heal with time.” said the doctor, “May we go?”

Appius pointed to one of the cavalrymen who had clustered around.  “Zisemis, escort the doctor and his apprentice back to their home.  Return immediately, Zisemis.  There will be no drinking or whoring for anyone tonight.” he ordered.  Zisemis nodded, and hurried off with the doctor and the boy in tow.

Appius looked around the room.  The entire detachment was gathered around to watch the doctor’s work, and now their eyes bored into him.  A casual observer might have thought that the Roman was an outsider to the Thracians, but years of hard patrols and fighting, along with Appius shielding them from the worst when their behavior off duty had gotten out of hand, had bonded him to them.

“Sir, Cavarus didn’t deserve this.” said one of the troopers, his dark eyes reflecting the flame of the lamp.

“No, all of you deserve it.” said Appius, “He was left alone, drunk, in the barracks.  None of you stayed behind from your quest to drink all the wine in Egypt and sleep with every whore in Alexandria.  When the tribune came looking for me, there was nobody but him for that officer to talk to, and nobody to stop Cavarus before he punched him.

“All of you take a long look at what has happened to Cavarus, and think about what you could have done to prevent this.  I can’t protect you when you do something this stupid, and Cavarus is suffering because of it.”

Appius looked again at his men.  Most of them looked as if he has punched them in the gut, which matched how he felt after the day’s events.  After looking at each of them, Appius looked to his second in command.

“Cotys, nobody leaves this barracks tonight.  I want guards at the door, and a count taken every hour.” he ordered.   Cotys nodded, with a mumbled “Yes, sir.”

“And, Cotys, I want every swinging dick in this detachment on the parade field tomorrow in full battle armor.  No horses.  We’re going to get a little exercise.  Might be good for our souls.”

Appius spun on his heel and headed for the door.  Pausing to put on his helmet before walking through the portal, he looked back at his men.  “Now, if you all will excuse me,” he said, “I owe a ram to Mars.”

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15 Comments

  1. Engrossing.

  2. Nicely done, and interested in where you’re going to take this one. 🙂

  3. Corey

     /  February 25, 2015

    I liked it looks very interesting

  4. akjfm

     /  February 26, 2015

    I’d buy the book this was a snippet of. Vide nice.

  5. Bryn

     /  February 26, 2015

    This sounds promising. With a little luck, you’ve got the basis of a series of novels there. More please!

  6. Roy

     /  February 26, 2015

    This looks very promising. I would, however, remove such modern military syllogisms as “swinging dick”. To me it just doesn’t have the ring of truth for an ancient Roman mercenary army.

  7. JohnD

     /  February 26, 2015

    I’d review it a bit as it sounds too ‘English’ for me (and that’s coming from a Brit). Would I buy it? Absolutely!

  8. I had the same reaction as Roy a time or 2 but I have no knowledge of speech during that period except that frequently, it was crude / blunt. As for JohnD, I gladly sacrifice authenticity for ease of reading. I read fiction for pleasure. If I have to work, I don’t enjoy.

    I thought you blended facts seamlessly. I had no questions about why, etc. and I appreciated the moral.

    It was a vivid stand alone that is well-written with intriguing possibilities.

  9. Roy,

    Based on Roman grafitti, I had no issue with ‘every swinging dick’ myself. (Start translating their grafitti, and you start thinking they make San Francisco look like it’s inhabited by prudes.) But then, I was rather expecting plenty of familiar military phrases sprinkled with some of the more interesting historical ones…

    All in all, a good start that promises an interesting story! If we’re spending a lot more time with Rufus’ soldiers, I’ll ask that you layer in a quirk, a bit of character, or description of some sort for them as you introduce a couple of them, because I really couldn’t keep who was who straight with all the other latin terms being thrown in as well. But that could just be me, so have some salt to go with my opinion.

  10. Thanks, guys. This was a rough first draft of the chapter that introduces Appius and his men.

    Roy, I’m currently on the hunt for a dictionary of Roman insults and rough language. Unfortunately, most of what I’m finding seems to have been written by 8th grade Latin teachers.

    JohnD, as a matter of fact, I wrote this just after I finished listening to the audiobook of a biography of Julius Caesar, read by a very English gentleman. That might be where that comes from. All of the characters are going to get a bit of a roughing up in successive drafts.

    Sandy and Wing, I’m going to try to cut out some of the ‘correct’ terms and make it a little easier to read without having to take a course in Roman military equipment and terms.

    This is what I work on when I’m stuck on other projects. Hopefully this gets done within the next year or so.

    • Thanks again, Wing! I’m going to try to incorporate some of these, along with some that are more common now, into these stories. Some will be an anachronism, but I’ll try to not overuse them.

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