The Roman fortress, Deva Victrix, erected upon the heights of a low sandstone ridge, overlooked the wide estuary of the silt-heavy river Dee to its west, where small, single-sail craft docked next to a sandstone quay at the head of the Dee’s navigable waters. Across the river lay untamed, heavily-forested green hills and valleys, beautiful, but dangerous, inhabited by a conquered, yet still hostile indigenous British tribe, the Ordovices. These fair-skinned, long-haired barbarians occupied this land to the westernmost beaches of the Hibernicum Sea. All Roman roads ended at the fortress, the tip of the spear to the Britons, the end of civilization to their conquerors.
Gnaeus Felix, fifty-two, the camp prefect, wore a scarlet woolen tunic, belted at his waist, a bone-hilted dagger at his left hip. He crossed the colonnaded courtyard of the legion’s headquarters, located at the center of the fort, where his commander, Legate Gaius Claudius Amantius waited.
“Welcome,” Amantius motioned with his right hand to a bench. He was twenty years younger than Felix. He wore his brown hair cut short, trimmed above his ears. He had a gaunt face with a thin, bony nose that ended with an asymmetrical twist. He was a Roman senator, appointed by Emperor Diocletian to command the Twentieth Legion two years earlier.
“The courier said it was urgent.” Felix rested on the seat.
The legate leaned back into his chair. His thin lips stretched tight. “I’ve got a job for you. Something unusual. Do you know Centurion Cassius Primus?”
Felix nodded. Who didn’t? Twins were lucky, but triplets, they were a rare breed indeed. Primus and his two brothers had served the Twentieth for ten years.
“His century is holding a fort one-day’s ride west of here, keeping an eye on the Ordovices.”
“I know of it.”
“A report arrived this morning. His youngest brother has been murdered.”
Felix snarled. “Bloody savages, sir, all the Ordovices.”
Amantius frowned and shook his head. “I’m not sure the Ordovices are to blame. The man was murdered inside the fort, and, he was the signifer.”
Felix scratched at the gray stubble on his chin. It was a great honor to be a signifer. He carried the unit’s standard, guiding the men in combat. But the signifer also served as the unit’s treasurer, accounting for money saved by the legionaries. It was rare, but some had betrayed that trust. It was a horrible disgrace, and not just for the man. If a soldier could not trust his signifer, whom could he trust? The cohesion of the entire legion could be jeopardized by such a scandal.
“Shouldn’t we give the centurion a chance to complete his report?”
Amantius shrugged. “I don’t want to take any chances. I want you to investigate. Besides, if there’s been embezzlement, I can’t let the thief’s brother conduct the inquiry.”
“I see your point sir.”
Amantius leaned forward. “Maybe the poor man just ran afoul of some burglar. But just in case, I know I can trust you to handle the matter with discretion.”
Felix stood. “I’ll leave today sir.”
Felix rode a chestnut gelding he requisitioned from the legion’s stable and arrived at the outpost late, the sun hanging low above forested hills. He crossed a wide earth embankment, raised taller than a man, and a wooden bridge, two wagons in width, that spanned a ten-foot-deep ditch. The fort’s inner walls were timber with towers erected at each of the square palisade’s corners. The gate sentries snapped to attention. Inside, soldiers were scattered about, some polishing armor, a few tending a fire, one sharpening a sword, but most focused on a game of knucklebones. Three men roared with what must have been a lucky roll of the dice. One in the group nudged the dice holder with his elbow and heads turned towards Felix. Backs straightened, men jumped to their feet, the players dispersed.
Felix entrusted his horse to the stable master, a stout, hairy-armed Spaniard with a raspy voice. He asked where he could find the centurion, but his question proved unnecessary. The fort’s commander walked briskly toward him at the head of two legionaries.
“Welcome sir.” The handsome centurion did not smile. His eyes nervously searched Felix.
“Don’t panic,” Felix said. “This is not a surprise inspection.”
Relief washed across the centurion’s blue eyes. “May I ask your business?”