Tristan, a Roman captain, and the sons of knights.
The horses were tired and the land offered no discernable landmark to guide their way back to the port, but still he led their growing number across the terrain.
The months spent doing so had already taken their toil on the Roman captain assigned to fetch the new brood of Samartian knights, a tedious task regarded as tantamount to disgrace among the ranks. He peered back wearily over his shoulder, eyeing with growing dislike the smattering of young men -- some of them still boys -- plodding along silently behind him on their own exhausted mounts. He thought he caught a few of them looking away quickly, but it was difficult to make out with the grime covering their faces and the filthy hair most of them wore long and unkempt. Regardless, the impression stayed with him when he looked forward again, the weight of silently hostile gazes stinging at the back of his neck.
A call came from the rear, where a soldier was gesturing for his attention. The scattered caravan came to a slow, disorderly halt as he made his way back through it, guiding his horse with one hand, the fingers of the other resting uneasily on the hilt of his sword.
He saw nothing worth the disruption once he reached the back, and eyed suspiciously the boys rounding up the pack, grimly satisfied when they looked down rather than away.
"What do you mean stopping us for nothing?" he spat at the soldier who had summoned him. The man sputtered an apology and awkwardly backed his horse a few stomping steps to reveal a tallish boy standing dead last behind the company.
He did not stand out per se, as dirty and ragged as the rest, but instead of wear and distrust on his face was unflinching appraisal and an unassuming determination the captain hadn't seen in months, if not years. He couldn't claim to have paid much attention to the boys in his care, but he'd looked each one in the eye at least once, upon taking them from their respective families, and he was certain he'd remember that gaze had he met it before.
His horse had gone unnervingly still beneath him, the beast's head lulling curiously toward the boy, who paid it no attention. The captain shifted in his saddle, the grip on his weapon tightening. He could feel the prickle of the sons' dour attention at the back of his head again, and he cleared his throat loudly in an attempt to dispel his own discomfort.
"Who are you, boy?"
"Tristan," the young man supplied, his voice already hoarse and deep with adulthood. "I've come to join your company and serve Rome."
Nearby soldiers snickered but the captain silenced them, studying the youth intently. Records of indentured soldiers were badly kept at best, families impossible to locate in this land, vast and inhospitable as it was; missing whole villages by little distance was not only possible but likely. The boy must've been waiting, somehow, then set after them when no one came for him.
Or perhaps not. It wouldn't be the first surprise this land sprung on him.
"And whose son are you?"
He thought he could detect a hint of amusement in the boy's face, though his tone betrayed nothing. "Only my father's, sir."
Annoyed, the captain stirred his mount into restless motion and eyed the boy with what he hoped looked like contempt. "And you wish to travel with us to Rome's outpost in Britain and serve as these men will?" he asked dubiously, unsure whether he should dismiss the insolent child without further thought, or add him to his count.
The boy surveyed the others with the same calm, unreadable gaze, letting the silence stretch without a care. The captain felt the begrudging gazes shift away from him and meet the boy's, who looked back evenly, and eventually even with the shadow of a smile at the corner of his mouth. "Seems like as good a cause as any other," he said at length, never quite looking back at the captain.
And he began walking again, making the horses near him stamp and shift, and he passed the soldiers, their captain, and the other boys staring at him openly from atop their horses, their faces unsettled out of the grim set of obstinate defiance.
The captain avoided his soldiers' questioning looks as he rode after him, hollering for the company to resume their pace at once.
He did not hear nor see the boy again in the following weeks of travel, but often felt his disquieting presence at his back. Glancing back, he would only meet the other's emboldened looks and smirks, and never once again caught any of them looking down or away.
It was only once they reached the shores of Britain that he saw the young man again, weapons and bedroll strapped to his body at odd angles and the sea wind having blown matted hair and travelled dirt from his marked face. As the captain watched him, the boy looked up at the circling gulls above, head tilted upward for so long the captain nearly looked to the sky himself, then he looked back down and ahead, rolled his shoulders, and nodded at nothing or no one before joining wordlessly the noisier ranks of his brothers.
Rome's records of the sons successfully summoned for duty listed thirty-four names, the last entry indicating simply:
Tristan - Son of Sarmatia