Sons of Rome
Karrie Roman © 2019
All Rights Reserved
Of the many things he would miss about his life, Drusus could not decide which he would yearn for most—his mother’s sweet smiles or his baby brother’s happy babbling. Of course, he loved the land around his family’s farm and would miss the beasts as well as the hard, honest work he toiled at day after day. But his family? Oh gods, how he would miss them.
Only two years ago, having barely reached his eighteenth summer, Drusus had become head of his family after the death of his father. Little Calpurnius, his brother, was barely two summers into his life then, having come along as a great surprise to his parents after many years of failed attempts at a second child. With his loveable nature and adorable face, Calpurnius had easily become the light of the Tuscus family. The time between Calpurnius’s birth and the death of his father had been a happy time for Drusus’s family.
“Drusus, you take too much time,” his mother called.
Agrippina Tuscus was devastated by the loss of her husband, and now, so soon after, she was losing her eldest son to the Emperor’s legions. Drusus had been conscripted. They’d always known it a possibility—more of a certainty—but, nonetheless, Drusus and his mother felt the blow when they finally came for him.
Drusus was not a coward, and he had little fear of battle. He dreaded leaving his mother and little Calpurnius though. They had slaves to tend the farm, and he knew each of them to be loyal. But there was no man of blood here, no Roman man left behind to defend what was left of his family should the need arise. And his family in danger scared him more than any battle could.
“I am taking the land into memory, Mother, so I will not forget what I am fighting for,” he answered as his mother came to stand beside him. Drusus was an unusually tall man who stood above most but towered over his diminutive mother. She looked so fragile beside him, and yet he’d seen her turn into the lioness when the need arose, especially in the care of her children.
“You fight for Roma, son. For Roma’s glory and honour. For Emperor Augustus.”
“I fight for you and Calpurnius too. I fight to keep you safe. I fight for this.” He spread his arms wide and cast them over the panorama of their land: the rolling green hills heavy with wandering sheep, snow-peaked mountains far in the distance, cypress trees swaying gently in the breeze. The wildflowers were due to bloom soon, bringing with them their honeyed fragrance as well as the chirps of a thousand cicadas.
He’d miss it all. The aroma of Cassia’s bread as it baked on the hearth, and even the dry dirt that needed tilling for seeding—and got everywhere—would be missed. The melodious banter of slaves as they worked at the jobs he should be doing were it not for his conscription, the bleat of the sheep, the low calls of the cattle in the field: he’d miss everything. Wherever he went, he’d experience similar sights and sounds, but they wouldn’t be home.
“I would have you stay, Drusus.”
“I cannot, Mother. It is a citizen’s duty to fight with the legions for Roma.” He pressed a tender kiss into her hair, the scent of olive oil and farm life potent in the strands.
“I know, son. I speak selfishly. I will miss you though. It will be many years before you return. Little Cal will not know his brother.” For twenty years, his life would belong to Roma; he’d be nothing more than another body in the cog keeping the Roman war machine turning.
Drusus saw his mother turn her gaze to where Calpurnius was playing with one of his kittens—exactly as he did—at the mention of his beloved brother. He watched the boy’s cherubic face light up in fits of giggles as the kitten rolled playfully all over him. With Cal’s white curls framing his pinked cheeks, he had the look of a god. All who met Calpurnius fell for his charms.
“Pray the gods I make it home before he is sent to the legions.” Drusus flinched at his thoughtless words, knowing they would cause his mother more pain.
As a true Roman woman, his mother ignored his insensitive words, stoically bearing Drusus’s departure instead. “Be safe, Drusus. And do not fear for those of us left behind.”
His mother wrapped her arms around him and held tight. Drusus mirrored her actions, doing his best not to think this may be the last time he held her—saw her. His sweet, kind mother.
He eventually pulled away and took her face in his hands, his gaze intent on her as he did his best to brand her image into his memory. Her dark curls and gentle eyes, the crinkles at the corner of them from years of laughter, her sun-kissed skin. She was still a beauty, even though youth had passed her. He had hopes she would find a good man to marry her one day soon, but he knew his father held her heart even from the afterlife.
Calpurnius was playing with his kitten when Drusus took leave of his mother and went in search of him for their goodbyes. He wasn’t sure Cal comprehended what was happening. The little boy understood Drusus was going away, but the idea of twenty years meant nothing to a child of four. Drusus wondered how long it might take for Cal to stop thinking every day maybe this would be the one his brother returned. How long before Cal forgot him entirely?
“Dru, kitten scratched my arm.” Calpurnius thrust his arm out to show him the offending wound as he approached. His little lip quivered as he looked at the tiny knots of blood left in the wake of the little cat’s sharp claws.
Drusus kneeled before his brother and scooped him into his arms. He kissed the scratch repeatedly until Calpurnius finally giggled and pushed him away.
“Kitten was only playing, Cal. He did not realise how sharp his claws are or how fragile your skin is.”
“You go now?”
“Yes, Cal. It is time for me to go.” He pressed a kiss into soft curls. “I want you to remember you are a Roman man. Earn your honour through your duty to Roma and your family. Treat others well, Calpurnius, and you will make our father proud.”
Calpurnius nodded, clearly intuiting this was an important moment but not understanding why. Drusus seared his mind with this image, too, as his little brother watched him with large blue eyes burning with trust and love.
“I will miss you, little one. Always remember somewhere in the world you have a brother who loves you.”
“You come back?” Calpurnius’s tiny hands rested on his cheeks, pushing them and pursing Drusus’s lips as Cal loved to do. Drusus was willing to give anything right then not to have to go. He understood his obligation to Roma, but the ache in his chest was making leaving to complete his duty so difficult. He’d be gone for so long.
“One day, Cal. Give your brother a kiss before I go,” he requested. Calpurnius dutifully delivered a sloppy kiss to each cheek before Drusus leaned forward and blew into the side of his neck, making the noise that so amused the little ones. He set his brother on his feet and patted his bottom. “Off you go now, and find your kitten. Be good to our mother, Cal. Her heart aches today.”
Drusus watched him for a moment before he turned and walked away from everyone and everything he’d ever known without looking back. He feared if he did so his feet would stop carrying him to the road he must now travel. He didn’t know which legion he’d be sent to or what part of the world he’d be shedding blood and tears in. All he knew was the ache in his own chest at leaving was so painful and crippling that surely no wound he might suffer in battle could ever be worse.
9CE 17 years later…
Drusus Tuscus sat quietly watching his men as they gambled away much of their wages. He marvelled at some of his legionaries laying out two or sometimes three coins on a simple game of chance. It was a considerable sum coming from their paltry wage. He remembered those days of earning so little, but never being one to gamble, he’d put most of his wages to purchasing trinkets to remember his years in the legions or sending some home to his mother.
There were plenty of entertainments for the legionaries to spend their coin on outside the gates of the camp: drinking, gambling, whores. The Roman camp provided employment for many of the locals. Farmers sold their livestock and grain; women sold clothes to the soldiers, while others opened taverns or whorehouses nearby. Drusus preferred to frequent the craft shops and collect items to spark memories for him in the years to come. His seventeen years in the legions hadn’t been all bad; there were times he wished to remember—though many more he wished to forget.
Now he’d reached the rank of Centurion, his wage was excessive for a man of simple tastes. He saved much of it for the future—the one only three years away—when he’d be eligible to retire from service in Roma’s legions.
Until then, he had his duty to Roma and her Emperor. In only a few weeks, they’d be leaving the safety and comfort of their winter camp at Castra Vetera to begin summer campaigns. The days were already turning warm after the long months of bitter cold. Years spent in Germania helped Drusus adapt to the hostile cold, but he remembered the shock of his first exceptionally cold winter here, so unlike the mildness of his winters at home.
His men were blowing off steam—and their nerves—with excessive gambling, before they marched from the safety of this camp. Most of his men were battle hardened veterans, but over the winter they’d gained several new recruits to their legion after many men in the Eighteenth had reached retirement. A handful more were expected today. These young, untried men would be facing their first real combat in the coming months, so it was natural for nerves to grow as the campaigns approached. The arrival of raw young men was also an excellent time for the veterans to take advantage of the new recruits and win some coin from them. Drusus didn’t intervene; the new ones would have their time to do the same—those who made it to be veterans, anyway.
As centurion, Drusus’s responsibilities included overseeing the training of the new men in his century as best he could before they left Vetera. All recruits had basic training at the Fields of Mars in Roma, but once they reached the legions, the play-acting of training became reality. Drusus had to make them understand the fights out here at the edge of the Roman empire were fierce, brutal, and very real if he wanted to keep them alive.
As with every other time he’d had a new legionary join his century, he prayed to the gods the new ones were good and loyal men. After nearly two decades in the legions, Drusus understood the importance of those qualities. He’d seen men—friends—fall in battle because the man next to him had been neither good nor loyal. Courage was important, but loyalty and goodness of spirit often made up for any lack of courage a man might possess. Allegiance to a legionary brother could stay a man’s feet when every other part of him was screaming to run.
He closed his eyes, soaked in the afternoon sun, and listened to the joyful sounds of his men as they continued their games. He always did his best to get to know each man in his century well. Gaining the respect of his men was wise, but he’d observed attempting to befriend them instead invited danger. Drusus was quick to discipline, not hesitating to use his vitis to punish where needed, but he was fair, never cruel. He did not punish gleefully or excessively with his vine stick, but he had to be certain his men trusted and respected him more than liked him. His men knew if the vitis whip came down on their backs, it was warranted.
Most of the men in his century were decent and hardworking, eager to do their duty and quick to laugh. The most good-natured and light-hearted amongst them often cajoling others out of their sorrow. War was never fun, but some coped with it better than others.
“Drusus, your recruits approach through the Decuman Gate,” a fellow centurion on guard called.
Drusus opened his eyes and stood. Around him the sounds of his men and their games quieted. They were similarly eager to take stock of the men who would now be fighting alongside them. Men they’d need to depend on for their own survival.
He would speak to the recruits in front of their new brothers. Drusus had no secrets amongst his men. He left no room for gossip or misunderstanding or thoughts of favouritism. Each man would know what was expected of them and understand the others in the century did too. He’d ensure they understood the price of failure.
“Assemble,” he called. His men moved swiftly, well-trained in what was expected of them. There was little room in the space outside of their barrack for eighty men to stand together, but his men would form the expected lines in the forum. They were all appropriately attired, knowing Drusus did not allow men out of uniform to stand before him while he addressed his century.
They walked as a group behind him along via Quintana to the forum and assembled hastily. The standards of the legion and the banners of Augustus flapped in the breeze atop the parapets. A Roman legion camp was a fierce and intimidating thing to behold if you were the enemy. To the men housed within, it was a thing of beauty and great pride—and comfort. Each castra was laid out in a similar grid pattern so a legionary could walk into any of them and find his way.
Marcus Mutilus, his optio and right-hand man, came with the twelve recruits dutifully following behind him. Each of them looked shiny and young—too young in some cases, especially when viewed in contrast with Marcus’s barrel-chested, grizzled form.
Though he had been of that age when he first joined the legions, and he’d made it this far, Drusus thought these men mere babes. Barely a handful had whiskers, a few still kept their youthful countenances. All were covered in dust and grime after the long trek from Roma.
These new men had been drafted from Florentia, the lands around his home, but like all recruits had gone to Roma for training. The very idea of these men coming from the lands where he grew up was blinking to life nostalgia for his home that he hadn’t allowed himself to feel for many years. It did no good to dwell on home.
“Centurion.” Marcus stopped before him and handed him the parchment. His craggy face was pulled into a knowing smirk, his brawny arms filthy from the road, and his hair was far longer than regulation, but Marcus performed his duty with the seriousness and reverence he believed it deserved. “A special group I have brought you from Roma.” He winked.
Drusus nodded to him, unclear what he meant, and then cast his gaze down to the parchment. The names of the twelve men were written in a strong hand, each letter well formed in comparison to his own scratchy words. Drusus would make a terrible scribe.
While Marcus got the new men in correct formation among the rest of the century, Drusus looked down the list of names. His breath caught and his eyes widened when they reached the seventh name. Calpurnius Tuscus.
Drusus fought for control of himself as he raised his head and searched for a certain face amongst his men. It had been seventeen years since he’d set eyes on his brother; little Cal had only been four when he’d left to join the legions. Would Drusus even recognise his baby brother? Most of the men’s faces toward the rear of the century were unclear but there was one man, taller than the others, though still not quite of Drusus’s height, who drew his attention. Golden hair curled from his head, but his face was indistinct at this distance. Could this man be his brother?
“Men.” Drusus stepped onto the platform and raised his voice, so it reached the very back row of his men. His voice was naturally deep and loud so he didn’t have to use much effort to be heard. The new men, who needed to hear him most, were scattered in the crowd, but Drusus made sure to leave no one out as he glanced around, hastily resting his gaze on each man. “I am your centurion, Drusus Tuscus. You will look to me for your orders, your praise, your discipline, and your punishment. It is your great honour to join the mighty Eighteenth Legion, Cohort Two, Century Three. We are the fiercest legion in all of Roma. The men of this century, along with the rest of the legion, are your brothers. You will look to each other for your very survival. Failure to follow orders will be punished. Cowardice in battle will be dealt with harshly. You will toil and fight for the honour and glory of our divine Emperor Augustus, father of us all. You will claim victory for the honour of Roma, your centurion, and for the honour of your family.”
Drusus cast his gaze around the assembled men, satisfied with the pride stiffening their spines and raising their chins high. Stirring words could motivate the laziest of men. “Eat, find your beds, rest well tonight. You begin to train at first light. Dismissed.”
Drusus had given a similar speech many times before, when welcoming new men to his century, but it hadn’t been delivered in quite the same way this time, because his thoughts were snagged on the familiar name. Drusus had struggled to shift his gaze from the man he suspected to be his brother, and his voice hadn’t been quite as fervent. He stayed on the platform, watching keenly as the men dispersed. He wouldn’t approach the man yet, as much as he wanted to. Drusus had a way of doing things, and he’d stick to it, regardless.
Once the men left, Drusus made his way back to his barrack. By now, Marcus would be assigning the arrivals to their bunk rooms where they’d meet the men in their contubernium. A little after they’d settled into their barrack room, Drusus normally approached each man to meet them individually. He yearned to seek out the golden-haired man, but seventeen years of strict discipline in the legions had taught him control. He’d wind his way through the bunk rooms as usual.
Drusus placed his helmet in his private rooms and took a deep breath. He wasn’t quite sure how he wanted this to go. He yearned to see his brother, but he did not wish to meet him again as a legionary, knowing that Cal had been condemned to years of war as he had been. He was unable to imagine how he’d manage to fight effectively in battle with the fear of harm coming to his little Cal tightening along his spine. Though, of course, Cal was not so little any more.
Drusus was considered by many to be fearless in battle, but this was wrong; he wasn’t fearless—only a fool was. It was simply that he had managed to control his fear. Would he be able to maintain his ruthless control now that he might have something—someone—to desperately fear losing?
The twelve new men were being split up and housed in rooms three, four, and seven. Drusus made his way first to room three, where six of the twelve recruits were housed. In this room, they would cook, eat, and rest. It was a tiny space for so many, but the legions were not a luxury villa on the coast such as many senators might own. The other two occupants of the room were hardened and experienced warriors in his century. Drusus trusted them to guide the young men and not allow any trouble to brew amongst their new bunkmates.
None of the six men in room three were the golden-haired one. Drusus stayed for as long as his twitchy body allowed, taking time to learn names, memorise faces, and take their measure. He was pleased with what he’d seen of the new men in the small amount of time he’d spent with them.
Room four housed another four of his new legionary, and again Drusus was pleased with the men, though none were his brother. Through the wall he heard the men next door—relaxed now their centurion had left—talk and laugh as they got to know one another. After he felt he’d stayed long enough in room four, Drusus left knowing the same sense of relief came to those men once he’d gone. He was popular amongst his men, well regarded, but the sign of a good warrior—and good leader—was a healthy respect from his men. They could relax around him, but he wasn’t foolish enough to believe there wasn’t a small part of them on alert whenever they were in his presence.
As he approached room seven, a tingle of nerves coursed through his body. The tall, fair-haired man who could be his brother had to be in this room, and Drusus was unaccountably nervous. His baby brother, who had once followed him like a shadow, mimicking his gestures, was possibly a mere pace away. Drusus steadied his nerve and entered the room.
All eight men stood, as was expected, and turned to their centurion. Drusus sought out the tallest of them. The white curls were the same, the cherubic face and pudgy body had of course changed, but Drusus saw the small boy he’d known in the handsome man standing before him. Calpurnius wore a smile, so like the ones Drusus remembered that he couldn’t stop his own from forming.
“Brother,” he gasped, almost losing hold of his control. “It is good to see you grown into the man I knew you would become.”
“Mother hoped I would run into you, Drusus. Never would she have expected this.” Calpurnius smiled wider at the mention of their mother.
“She lives well, brother. She married a good man, who treats her as a goddess, some years back. You need not fear she has been left alone.”
“I am glad of it. I have heard nothing for many years. Letters do not easily make their way here.” Drusus caught a glimpse of some of the other men in the bunk and easily noticed their confusion and surprise. “This man before you is my brother, Calpurnius. I have not seen him since he was little more than a babe.”
Calpurnius shook his head and smiled at his bunkmates. “Brother,” Calpurnius said, “this is Caius Vitellius. His family are our neighbours. We trained together at the Fields of Mars before leaving to make our way here. He is a good friend to me and an excellent soldier.”
Drusus turned to greet Caius and found himself short of words. Caius Vitellius must be one of the gods. He was not quite as tall as Calpurnius, broad in the shoulder and narrow in the hips. His muscles were well formed but not overly thick. A mop of wild bronze hair framed his chiselled face. Full lips pouted below a straight Roman nose and eyes that penetrated and warmed the constant chill in Drusus’s bones. He stole Drusus’s breath.
He soon found sense and words to speak. “It is good to have such a friend to my brother and another able soldier with us, Caius.”
“The honour is mine, Centurion. Cal spoke well and often of you from the moment I met him.” Caius’s voice was deep and cultured, and Drusus had the strangest sensation as though lightning had struck his spine.
Drusus had shared his body with other men many times. He far preferred the hard planes of a man to the rounded softness of a woman. But he had never been so drawn to another person before; he’d never felt as though he may burst into flames at the sight of another. Blood flooded to his cock, and, mortified, he knew he must not linger in the man’s presence.
“He remembered me?”
“Your mother kept you in his memories. She shared stories of you and your letters with him. He shared those stories with me, and he allowed me to read some of your letters. I felt as though I knew you before I even set eyes upon you.”
Drusus coughed, spluttering a little as he replied, “I have some matters to attend to, but I will see you at meal. I have ordered meat for your arrival. We usually eat together as a century when we have new men join us. Tacitus, see to them.” He turned and fled the room.
He’d been abrupt in his response to Caius’s kind words, and eight men were left behind in the room no doubt questioning what they had just witnessed, but Drusus had been too shocked by his reaction to Caius to stay. He needed to regain command of his body before he saw the beautiful man again, so he sought out his room.
Unfortunately, when he reached the solitude there was no control to be had. Images of the bronze-haired man tormented him even as he tried to do some work. In the end, he tossed his stylus aside, frustrated with his inability to forget Caius Vitellius. He groaned and eventually relieved the ache in his cock by his own hand. In the moments after he’d found his pleasure, he knew the release was empty and only temporary. When he was once again looking into those warm brown eyes and listening to Caius’s dulcet voice, he’d undoubtedly find himself in the same predicament. Drusus wondered if he’d ever be able to slake the lust Caius Vitellius had aroused in him without taking the man himself into his arms—and perhaps not even then.
A short time later, Drusus wandered amongst his men as they engaged in a rowdy evening meal. Usually his men cooked their own food and ate with those of their contubernium in their room, but tonight they ate together as a century. He’d paid for the meat from his own purse in celebration of the new men who were joining them. He had seen other centurions do this when he’d been a legionary. He always believed it fostered goodwill amongst the men, both new and old.
Calpurnius was easily spotted, thanks to his height and vibrant hair. Drusus longed to sit with his brother and talk. He longed to learn what type of man his brother had become. He had written many letters home, but very few from his mother had found their way to him. Beside Cal, sat Caius; his head was tilted back in laughter. Beauty was a rare thing in the life of a legionary, but he beheld it there in Caius’s amusement. Drusus had never seen anything more beautiful than Caius caught in that moment. He’d never seen a person so consumed with joy before—Caius’s entire body screamed with it.
“Centurion,” Calpurnius called as Drusus approached, his smile wide. “Will you share wine with your brother?” Calpurnius was as happy at twenty-one as he had been at four. Though Drusus knew he’d yet to see true battle. All the new men of his century were untried in combat. Drusus’s blood shivered as fear that his brother’s easy smiles could not last in his new life wracked his body.
“Gratitude, Cal. I would talk with you.” Drusus squeezed into the space his men made for him, doing his best to avoid turning eyes to Caius. He couldn’t risk another flush of lust because of the handsome man.
Calpurnius poured him some wine, and Drusus dutifully took a mouthful. He’d eaten earlier in the privacy of his room, so he was free to simply talk with his brother.
“You have grown strong and tall, Cal. You are healthy?”
“Mother says I am as strong as a bull, and I cannot be destroyed, as hard as I may try.”
“And he has tried many times, Centurion. He is fearless,” Caius said, bumping his shoulder against Calpurnius’s as he spoke. The simple gesture spoke of the warm friendship between the two men. Drusus’s body crackled at the thought of such intimacy with Caius—though his thoughts were not of mere friendship with him but of something far more.
“He was fearless as a babe, forever getting under hoof of the beasts, though often they walked by with a lick to his fat cheeks. And he was many times reckless—a trait I hope he no longer bears.”
“The gods watch over me, Drusus, but I am no fool.” Cal smirked and Drusus imagined the memories he must be recalling. He’d missed the entirety of his little brother’s life and the familiar ache of that knowledge pressed upon him. “How have you fared, Drusus? I see your hair greys at the temple. It suits you well.”
“I’ve had some wounds, but the gods watch over me too.”
“Come, brother, share some stories of your bravery in battle. Tell us how you came to receive the torque and amulae I see you are wearing.”
“It was a matter of being in the right place at the right time.” Drusus shrugged while fingering the golden necklace about his throat. He knew his measure as a man and never needed to boast of it. He would not wear the decoration if it was not expected of him.
“Our centurion does not like to boast of his courage, but I was there the day he earned his prize. His battle cry shook the earth, and he slew countless in our advance, defended many of his men and fought till the last. He looked like Mars himself on the battlefield,” Marcus called loudly to the cheers of his men.
Colour and warmth rose in his cheeks under the praise. His gaze caught on Caius, whose warm eyes were fixed on him, what lay behind them unreadable in this light. Drusus flicked his gaze away but just as swiftly glanced back at him. Caius’s gaze was unwavering and Drusus burned under the scrutiny.
“Your brother has not your desire for notice, Cal,” Caius said, his eyes lowering to take in Drusus’s form. Drusus’s body reacted to the attention, his blood heating, muscles tensing. “He is not one to strut about and seek out praise.”
Drusus swallowed thickly, searching for a response, though none came. This attraction to Caius was something new and dangerous. As the chatter around him continued, Drusus wondered how he would manage it.