Julius Gavros did not know whether to laugh or cry, seeing his new command for the first time: a tumble-down fort in the furthest corner of the world, with the gulls crying over it in the grey drizzle, a thin mewing that sounded utterly remote from the world of men.
Long ago the fort at Castellum had been at least a Roman fort, in the manner of Roman forts from the mud-brick of the Nile to the sandstone of Britain. But now it was a ruin. The tiled roofs sagged perilously - those that were still standing. As the Third Ordo, Frontier Wolves clattered in through what had once been the Praetorian Gate, a fox trotted out of the brambles and looked at them indignantly, before scrambling off over a half-collapsed wall and disappearing.
It was not what Gavros had hoped to be commanding by this stage in his career: a ruined fort and an Ordo of tribesmen in rough wool and wolfskin cloaks, to look at at least, more wild barbarian than disciplined forces of Rome.
But after all, it was a start. An independent command suggested a certain level of trust, at least. Political disgrace did not have to be forever, as his uncle had written to him, kindly and with hope. And it was not as though Gavros himself had done anything wrong. Handle this well, and perhaps there would be a hope of promotion, an escape from this distant frontier and the Wolves who guarded it, to a real command in Germany. Perhaps even somewhere closer to home... Macedonia, or Thrace one day.
In the meanwhile, there was work to be done. He turned to his senior Centenarius first. Centenarius Felix was a weather-beaten old man who had spent his life riding these Northern hills, without, so far as Gavros could tell, ever wondering what lay beyond them. But he was utterly reliable, and worth his weight in silver accordingly.
“Felix, get a couple of patrols out - just the immediate area will do. Get someone to go down and find out who is still living in the old town - those sheep we saw must belong to someone. Check for water supplies, grazing - and make sure we have men keeping an eye out so nobody catches us unawares while we start to get this lot sorted out.”
Next, to the junior Centenarius, a quiet solemn-faced man :
“Lucius, get your lot started on clearing space for us to make camp tonight. Find out if any of those buildings have roofs that will stay up overnight, and if not, clear the square so we can get the tents pitched and the horses picketed. Oh, and get someone on to checking the wells inside the fort too. If they are actually still usable, that will be a start. If they aren’t, find out what needs to be done to sort them out.”
“Quartermaster Kaeso,” The little red-faced man nodded abruptly, “The supply ship should be coming up the river soon. Take ten men over to the quay and make sure that there’s enough clear space to unload and try to sort out a temporary store: I think the granary will need some work before we can use it. No,” he held up his hand as Kaeso began to protest, “We really have no choice : take a couple of the tents with you if you think the goods will spoil before we can get the granary in order. So then - get going!”
There was a sudden bustle as the Frontier Wolves swung into action. Gavros held up a hand to attract the attention of a lean, freckled man.
“Optio Hilarion! You’re with me: bring a couple of the lads with you. We’re going to walk the walls and find out just how many gates this place has got.”
The optio, who had been leaning with one arm draped negligently across his horse’s neck, in, Gavros thought, a thoroughly unmilitary manner, straightened up. “We are blessed with gates indeed - there may be one gate for each of us,” he commented half over his shoulder, as he gestured two men to follow, and then as they set off, “Do they really intend one Ordo to defend all of this, sir? It must have been built for a Cohort at least!”
“We don’t have to defend it, Optio - or I very much hope not, anyway. We just have to live in it and keep our ears and eyes open. As for the gates, I think we shall have to wall up some of them. But let us see how many there are and what state the rest of the place is in.” He set off along the Western side of the fort, pushing a way past the hazel scrub that had thrust up here and there in the shelter of the walls.
“The walls seem sturdy enough, at least,” Hilarion observed. They came to an opening, where the worm-eaten remains of a wooden gate blocked the way. Hilarion pushed at the crumbling wood with a cautious finger, and the main timber of the gate fell outward and down the hill with a heavy, damp thud. The collapsing timber flattened the nettles that had grown almost up to the gateway, and they stepped through, smelling the sharp green scent of the crushed wet foliage.
“Look!” Hilarion said, with sudden interest. “Bless those old soldiers of the Emperor Septimus Severus for loving their comforts - surely that is a bath-house!”
They scrambled over the fallen gate and picked a way down to the building, which stood a little outside the fort. There was no door, although rusting hinges in the doorway suggested that there had been one long ago. The dark green leaves of ivy twined thick up the Western wall.
Gavros poked a cautious nose through the doorway, with one careful eye directed upwards onto the roof-tiles, many of which had already shattered on the ground around it. Charred marks on the floortiles inside suggested that someone had made a fire with the remnants of the door in what had perhaps once been the atrium, but even that had been many seasons past.
One of the Frontier Wolves, a foxy-haired man named Vedrix, moved along the side of the building. He drew his sword, and used it to push up the catch on the old wooden shutters, so that they could peer in through the narrow window. There was a wet smell inside, like rotting leaves, and damp had traced dark patterns on the lime-washed walls within, which were illuminated in patches by light coming through the holes in the roof. The old sunken bath at one end of the long room was almost empty, but a dark scum filled the bottom of it.
“A bath-house is certainly what it was once,” Gavros agreed “But whether it will be a bath-house once again is another matter. The roof-beams look sound enough, as far as I can see from here - but I fear it will take us long enough to put the stables and the barrack-rooms back into order, optio. I think you will be waiting a long time for a bath.”
“ A pity,” Hilarion replied with an expression of exaggerated woe, “ I do love a hot bath - and you, Commander, it must seem strange to you to live without the basic comforts of a civilised life?”
Gavros looked at him thoughtfully. There were commanders who would have taken Hilarion’s tone as insubordination, but, Gavros thought, the question was bound to come up - troops always wanted to know every detail of a commander’s past. Particularly if that past was a little chequered. Perhaps it was best to tackle the matter head-on.
“You must know, optio, that I have been in Britain for some years now,” he said, choosing a deliberately light tone. “Constantinople is indeed blessed with far less mud and mist, and considerably more hot water than Castellum, or even the Governor’s headquarters in Eboracum, I imagine. But when one serves in a Caesar’s bodyguard, one does not expect to spend much time thinking about baths. Britain may be long on mud, but it is at least blessedly short of imperial politics - and assassins.”
There was an exclamation as foxy-haired Vedrix stepped into a nettle and bent to rub his stung leg. Gavros thought that probably some sort of bet had been lost, or won.
Hilarion’s eyes were narrowed with interest and, Gavros noticed, for once he was not lounging against anything. “So it is true then? We have the commander of Dalmatius Caesar’s personal bodyguard among us? An honour indeed for the Frontier Wolves.”
“Not the commander,” Gavros smiled at the thought of his very aristocratic old commander, Marcellus Flavius, mired up to the top of his fine leather shoes in the thick brown mud of this distant frontier. Although perhaps he would have preferred Castellum, after all, the poor man. He had taken the blame for the Caesar’s death, for all that the execution had taken place by direct order of the lord Constantius, the Caesar Augustus himself.
“I was just one of the junior men. When Dalmatius... died, most of his personal bodyguard were posted to the corners of the Empire. I got Britain.”
He looked at the three younger soldiers with a wry smile “And now you have the whole story of my dismal past. Try not to get it twisted as you pass it around. And now we must see how many more of these infernal gates there are in the wall for us to guard, before the light goes.”