Talk about never throwing away anything.
It was August 2014, my life was pretty different, I was about to publish a new collection of Aculeo & Amunet stories and I mused about doing a spin-off of the series, focusing on the character of Centurion Nennius Britannicus and his contubernium.
For the uninitiated, the contubernium is the smallest unit of the Roman army – a band of eight men, led by a decanus, with two auxiliaries, and maybe a mule. The guys, called contubernales, lived together and fought side by side. It was a very tightly knit sort of military unit, and probably one of the (many) reasons why the Roman Legions were so awesome in the field.
So back in the summer of 2014 I decided I’d do a spin-off series, and call it Contubernium. I said I would be…
Something like Hill Street Blues, but set in Alexandria, in the Third Century.
A city filled with zealots, fanatics, weirdos and loose women.
With Lovecraftian creatures.
It would be fun.
But then the project went nowhere.
I had my Scrivener file with all its odds and ends and stuff, but quite clearly there was not a good story in there. So I filed the lot away.
Fast forward 30 months.
Two nights ago I was racking my mind to find a good idea to pitch to the fine guys of Occult Detective Quarterly – because ODQ is a great magazine and I want to be in there – and this thing about doing something in an unusual time frame came up. Enough roaring ’20s dicks and Victorian spooks.
Let’s do something different.
And as I was going through one of my usual bouts of insomnia I got this brief glimpse of a dusty city street under a relentless sun, and a guy in Roman armor with a face like Bob Hoskins being stopped by a girl that tells him “I know you!”
And I said to myself, Why not?!
Why not put back on the table centurion Nennius Britannicus and his merry men – Dunius Licinius Clericus the cheeky decanus, Euthichyus Marcellus the team geek, big bruiser Brennius Scaevola and all the rest – and set them up as heroes of an occult detective story?
After all, the Aculeo & Amunet series is straightforward historical fantasy, sword & sorcery like in the times of old. Trying to do something similar with the spin-off was probably what killed the whole project: the Contubernium stories must walk a different path if they want to become a thing, and not just a bunch of notes.
Britannicus and the boys always had this sort of noirish, hard-boiled procedural feel about them. And Alexandria is just right as a mysterious city filled with mysteries and supernatural.
So I started revising my notes, and put down a tentative 1500 words – of which more than half I’ll throw away, but it was good to get reacquainted with the guys, and try some dialogs.
Also, details came up that make the background thicker. For instance: why is a centurion leading such a small unit, doing patrol duty on the streets?
Is this some kind of punishment? Not-exactly-a-demotion-but-almost?
Mithra knows that Nennius Ulpius Britannicus can be pretty hard on the nerves…
So, story going, outline loosely set, the guys are ready to roll.
“I know you!”
Centurion Nennius Ulpius Britannicus did not even turn. He just lifted his hand, and tried to wave the girl away. “Not interested,” he said wearily.
He heard the boys behind him snigger.
“No, really! I know you.”
Ranulfus laughed out loud. “The boss found a girlfriend.”
Dunius Licinius Clericus silenced him with a growl. But he was snickering.
Somebody will probably tell me again that ancient Romans did not talk like that.
But this is my story, and I’m sticking to it.
More news as stuff happens. Wish me luck.