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Lemures – a short story for the Halloween season

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Nemesis

Caius Attius Flaccus stood in the atrium of his villa and shuddered. Something ran up his spine like ice on bare flesh, making him quail and quiver on the spot.

He snarled at his own failings and took a step closer to the small impluvium pool, looking down into the gathered rainwater, disturbed by the occasional drip from the atrium’s sloping tile roof. A sad, slightly misshapen, warped face looked back up at him, and he resisted the urge to look away. Most often he looked away – almost always, in fact, he looked away – for that rippling reflection caused more than just a shudder.

The left ear was fine. A beautiful ear, even.  A classic example that would look fitting on a statue by Myron. The right? The right was a gnarled, curled thing. A hideous misshapen item, twisted at a young age with white-hot tongs. The nose was fine but, though his eyesight was more than adequate, those orbs were hard  to look at, pale and watery and with virtually no iris visible – the  result of having spent the first eleven years in a dark closet. The lips were thin, the bottom one jagged and mangled from all the biting where it had sobbed its woes into the ragged flesh, helping to endure the endless beatings.

And its skin… its skin so pale as to be almost translucent. The only colour to it was the veins criss-crossing that sallow parchment that coated its bones.

It was hideous.

He knew that, of course; knew he was unsightly and monstrous in the eyes of the world. On the odd occasions when Gaius was required to step outside the sumptuous villa and into the heart of the eternal city, no matter how much he kept to his litter and the four Numidian slaves, nor how much he played on the fact that he had been elected a pontiff this season and could cover his misshapen body and unsightly head with the white toga, the public would inevitably catch sight of him. Children would scream and women would hustle their young ones away from this despicable creature. Sometimes he wondered what he would have looked like if he’d been left to grow up like a normal boy. After all, all his deformities had been thrust upon him…

There it was again – that strange deep, guttural grating noise that had first caused him to stop as he passed through the atrium. How odd. Was one of his neighbours having works done at their domus at this time of night?

He spat reflexively at the biter taste of a name on his tongue and moved around to another side of the small pool, waiting until the ripples dwindled to look down into its damning depths.

Lucius Attius Flaccus. His father. If ever a man had needed another father, it was this poor, deformed soul. But he’d been stuck with Lucius, husband of Cornelia. He’d been a swine from the first day Caius remembered, and likely long before then. He had, after all, killed his wife when their baby boy was not quite two years old, flying into a rage over some imagined insult and beating her to death with a bust of his illustrious grandfather, smashing her skull to a pulp so that the brains had to be cleaned from every surface in the room. The bust had been sent to be re-chiselled, because he’d hit her so hard that he’d shattered the marble nose.

His mother. The only person who could have protected him from a monster of a father. None of the slaves would help, not that many lasted more than a season before the brutal beatings robbed them of their lives.

There was that odd grinding noise again, like the quern stones of Eurysaces’ bakery down the road. It really was odd. It must be coming from the direction of the Esquiline because he’d moved that way around the pool, and this time the sound was louder. Whoever it was was clearly most inconsiderate.

Outside, he could hear the traditional rites of the Lemuria – the exorcism of the restless dead from the homes of good Romans with prayers and offerings of beans – being carried out in other houses. But because no good Roman could observe a religious practice without the appropriate amount of debauchery, this hallowed rite was too often carried out in haste to make way for a lavish feast and possible an orgy with dancing girls, roasting oxen, prostitutes at a finger’s beckon and all the lascivious depth of Roman nobility!

Ha! Roman nobility! Caius’ father had been considered the very epitome of Roman nobility, even  as the neighbours were watching buckets of his wife’s brains being ferried outside and slopped into the drains.

Well Caius had carried out his own rite of exorcism three years gone, and had felt untroubled ever since. Certainly, he’d felt no urge to don a silly costume and start an orgy…

The grating again! Somehow it seemed even louder than the sounds of Rutilius’ debauched get-together next door.

The moon began to insist itself upon him in the dark reflection of his ruined face, and Caius moved to the third side of the impluvium pool to move out of its blinding silver light. His seething dark heart, born of so many years of imprisonment and stygian gloom, filled with spite as he remembered that night of the casting out.

The villa owners of Rome waved their expensive Arabian incense and spoke words to the counsellor Gods, offering beans and gold – for beans alone seemed so Plebeian to some of these people. They spoke the words by rote and offered set prayers handed to them on scraps of vellum. Not one of them had met the lemures – the spirits of the restless – who supposedly haunted their houses. And so they went about it as a common ritual.

Caius had had to do it for real. His lemure had been living, breathing and swinging knotted ropes. His father had been all too real. And he had not used beans to exorcise him.

One night, lurking in his dark alcove, Caius had finally summoned up the strength to do something about his predicament. Eleven years of torture had been enough. He had snapped. He had gone insane, yet was lucid enough to recognise the fact. He had scraped away the mortar and removed a brick from the wall of his cellar-prison, and when the slave had come to deliver his drab, pale dinner, he had hit the poor bastard with the brick, stoving in his skull. It was a low thing to do. The slave had really deserved saving, not a painful murder. But some things had to be done, and he had known the slave would not help him and risk offending his master. A slave rarely lasted six months in this villa.

Caius had emerged from the cellar with one single goal in mind. He’d found his father whipping a whore to death in his office. Caius cared not for the whore, of course, but the knowledge that his father was meting out yet more arbitrary agony had snapped his already fraying senses, and he’d had pulled an unlit torch from the wall, walked into the room, and begun the business of turning his father into little more than a piece of ragged meat.

He had not stopped the beating until his father was utterly unrecognisable. There was not an inch of skin left unmarked, and the head had gone, now just a wet mess of pink and white splayed across the bed. The whore had died in the process, catching many of the blows meant for her abuser. Caius had slowly returned to his senses, and had then begun the business of tidying up, with neither remorse nor regret tainting his heart.

Curiously, it had been the day of the Lemuria festival that day too, and apart from the slave assigned to feed and muck out Caius the villa was empty of staff, leaving the master of the house alone to abuse his whore unobserved. By the time the house’s major domo and the staff had returned just before First Watch the next morning, Caius had buried the smashed, pulped remains of his father and the broken whore under the flagstones of this very atrium, depositing the excess soil in the peristyle garden, disposing of the blood-and-brain-soaked upholstery in one of the ubiquitous piles of trash in the alley beside the domus. The room had been cleaned and dried and bore no sign of the bloody violence that had been perpetrated there, by a master against his whore or by a son against his father. The broken slave had gone into the ground with them, too, and it had been a work of supreme irritation putting the brick back into the cellar wall and cramming the powdered mortar around it, and then locking the cellar door from the inside and pushing the key back beneath it.

He had been found. He had been looked after. For three weeks the city was on alert, looking for the missing Lucius Attius Flaccus. But he had gone. Many said he had eloped with a whore, but those who knew Lucius and his dark tendencies doubted this. Caius had been consoled. His last living relative had gone and while he would inherit the domus, they commiserated, it would obviously be no replacement for a father. Idiots. If only they’d known.

Over the next half year, Caius had set his seal on his ownership of the Domus Attius. He became the master of his demesne. He treated his servants and slaves well, and they gradually overcame their fear of his physical deformities to accept him as a master with a great deal more respect than they’d shown his father.

There was that damned noise again! People had no consideration during a festival. It was almost certainly late night work in the bakery. He would have such a word with Eurysaces tomorrow! The jumped-up little ex-slave clearly did not know his boundaries.

Caius had changed things in the domus. He would not live in the room where his father had abused and murdered whores. He would not work in that office. The house had to be cleaned and redecorated.

But the most important change had been here in this very atrium.

For he would not have a statue of his despicable father glowering at him as he passed, standing so close to the secret burial place of the man it depicted. For Lucius had commissioned a life-sized replica of himself the year before he died, and it had stood proudly at the side of the atrium, watching as his son buried his mortal remains beneath the flags.

The statue had gone straight away, but not permanently. One never wasted good marble, after all. In response to a lifetime of abuse by the bastard, Caius had commissioned one of the better young artists of this generation to re-carve the statue into a smaller, more delicate one of Nemesis – the goddess of rightful vengeance.

He turned and smiled at Nemesis. It had been three years since he had buried the bodies and had that form reshaped. Three bodies, three years. Three years this very night, in fact.

His brow folded into a frown. There was something distinctly odd about the statue tonight. Perhaps it was his imagination, fuelled by the dancing lamplight? No, there was definitely something odd. For Nemesis was not a smiling goddess. And the somehow twisted face of the statue was grinning – a maniacal rictus that could not in any way be described as happy. Her eyes seemed tiny and set deep in a harsh face. This Nemesis was, frankly, hideous. As hideous as he himself.

He realised far too late where he had seen those features before.

The whore!

The whore his father had been abusing. The whore he had inadvertently – yet uncaringly – beaten to death as collateral in his father’s demise. The whore who was now the statue. The whore who was now Nemesis!

The marble hand closed around his throat.

Caius felt a panic the like of which he’d never before experienced. Only briefly, though. For that cold, unyielding marble hand gripped his windpipe and jerked him forward so that his head cracked against the grinning face. He chipped one marble tooth and three real ones.

He screamed.

There was no one around tonight. He always allowed the staff festival nights to themselves. And with the sheer noise emanating from other villas, no one heard or cared. He screamed and screamed, the shrieking descending first to a gurgle and then to a moan as the marble grip smashed his face into the whore’s horrifying visage again… and again… and again.

Finally, his body twitching in what he knew to be its death throes, Caius realised the statue had let go, and he had collapsed to the ground. His remaining eye stared up in blind, panicked confusion at the statue that had killed him. Once more it had revert to its divine polished glory. It was no longer the whore his father had abused and he had beaten to death. It was Nemesis, the lady of righteous vengeance, staring down at the bloody, dying heap of her murderer.

He felt cold. In the morning, the slaves would find him again, like they had three years earlier. But this time, he would be dead, having apparently battered his own brains out on a statue that had once been his father.

With a sigh, Caius Attius Flaccus expired atop the very slab that covered his erstwhile victims.

To some extent, it was a relief.

Happy Halloween, everyone (or if you’re an ancient Roman and it’s March, Happy Lemuria!)

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Written by SJAT

October 15, 2018 at 6:57 am

Tales of Byzantium

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I am something of a lover of all things Byzantine these days, and an avid reader of historical fiction, of course, and so it’s no wonder really that this book came to my attention. Tales of Byzantium is a collection of three short stories, and so I shall deal with each individually briefly, and then the whole thing to finish.

The first story is primarily a love story. It is the tale of Constantine Porphyrogenitus and his lady Helena (he’s one of my heroes, responsible for Tekfur Saray palace in Istanbul.) This story actually takes up more than half the whole book. Once I realised that this was a romantic tale, just a short way in, I thought I probably wouldn’t like it – historical romance has to be done exceptionally well to hook me. But oddly I stuck with this, and am glad I did, for it is far more than a love story. It is an examination of the characters, of what it meant to be a member of one of the great dynasties, to be the empress, it’s an examination of the dichotomy of the whole Byzantine world, in that they were such a cultured ancient people, who were the most powerful nation imaginable, and yet they were also riven by self-destructive tendencies and unable to come to terms with their both east and west and the changing world around them. Perhaps for me, most of all, I enjoyed the scenery, for Istanbul (Constantinople) is my heartland, and I could picture every location as it was brought forth. No. In honesty, it was the characters of Constantine and Helena. They were beautifully portrayed. So if romance is not your thing, brush that trend aside and read it anyway, paying attention to the people.

The second tale is more my usual fare, being a military story based around a siege involving another of my faves, Manuel Komnenos (or Comnenus in the tale). The characters in this (Manuel in particular) are immensely likeable and deeply realistic. The story is one that has something of a twist, and I liked the way it was framed as a retrospective view. There are action scenes, some humour, and a light exploration of the politics of the era. War fans will enjoy the moments of the actual siege. My one complaint about this tale is that it could so easily have been a much bigger story. It could have been played out slower and longer, as long as the first story, really, and that would have given us more tension over the events that are central to the story and more opportunity to come to know Manuel. All in all, it’s a nice story and a good read. I just feel it was a slightly missed opportunity for something larger.

The third tale is of an exiled princess, who, trapped in a tedious life in a monastery, manages to live a life in almost solitude despite being in a city of millions. Demeaningly for a woman of her status, she is given the task of teaching a young nun to read and in doing so decides that an unfinished story should be finished. This is Anna Komnena, who wrote the great Alexiad which documented the empire at the time of the earliest crusades. Once more, this is a beautiful vignette well-written and lovingly-researched, with well-fleshed out characters and attention to detail. Once again, though, I felt that this came across more as the prologue of a much grander work than a tale on its own. If Stephenson decides at some point to write a grand epic of the eleventh and/or twelfth centuries in thew Byzantine world, this would make a lovely start to it.

Overall, then, the writing is lovely. The characters are presented just right, there is a depth and colour to the world that Stephenson has clearly treated as a labout of love. The stories are entertaining and intriguing and tell of some of the great characters of the Imperial dynasties with a great deal of historical knowledge and accuracy. The whole book is a very easy and enthralling read. My only issue was that of the three tales only one felt complete, the other two being a little brief for me. But at 99p in ebook form, it is well worth the money and worth a read nonetheless, and certainly made me appreciate the author’s skill. I shall look out for further work by her.

Written by SJAT

November 17, 2016 at 2:00 pm

Caesar’s Emissary

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You might remember that some time back I reviewed the first short story in this series with mixed feelings due to the heavy use of modern vernacular. Well, recently I have been reading pre-publication manuscripts, my own work for heavy edits and very serious research texts, and so with a couple of days free, I picked up the second book, and thought ‘I’ve done too much heavy stuff recently, so why not?’

I’m glad I did. I cannot be certain whether it was because this time I was prepared for what I was about to read, or possibly that with a second story, Johnston had honed his craft some, but I enjoyed Caesar’s Emissary far more than the first book.

These, by the way, are very much not serious, heavy Historical Fiction. If you are looking for another Ben Kane or Conn Iggulden, you’re looking in the wrong direction. But if you’re looking for an entertaining light read to fill in a few hours, then look no further.

The humour in these books is akin to Ron Gompertz, I would say, if a little more direct. There is an odd undercurrent of the old ‘film noir voiceover’ in the way they are written. In this volume, Mettius is talked into going to Alexandria to sort out the grain shipments there. In the process he gets himself tangled up with the Ptolomaic rulers and all sorts. The highlight for me was a scene in a bar with a local comedian doing his skit.Sounds barking mad, but for some reason it worked and was a truly entertaining scene with some real laugh-out-loud lines.

This, for instance, is a joke from the sketch about the Ptolomaic dynasty:

“The other night [my wife] said she wanted to have sex with her brother. I told her I wasn’t in the mood.”

And here’s part of his description of Alexadria, which I love:

“Wild statues of bird gods and those weird animals with human heads they called sphinxes were everywhere. It was as if some deity had grabbed a cauldron and mixed Greek aesthetics, the Egyptian fascination with the afterlife, a pinch of balmy climate and a shitload of money…”

I think I am rapidly warming to these short, humorous episodes. And if you are a student of the era you will find a lot of in-jokes and colour that will sit well with you. Johnston’s stories have become my palate cleanser of choice between larger works.

Written by SJAT

November 11, 2016 at 10:35 am

Caesar’s Ambassador

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Caesar’s Ambassador is a short story I picked up at random somewhere along the line and has just sat there on my kindle. Recently, I had a day free in my reading schedule, so I decided to give it a read.

The story is set in a very familiar milieu for me, being the first year of Caesar’s Gallic Wars (the setting for Marius’ Mules I) and takes as its main character one Marcus Mettius, who is a minor supporting character in Caesar’s book. Mettius is one of two men the general sends to negotiate with the German king Ariovistus and who are captured and held by the man. That’s pretty much his run in history apart from minting coins the year of Caesar’s death. Virgin ground to work with then for a storyteller.

This is only a short story, but if you like it, there are a run now of about six shorts in the series, which probably adds up to a good sized novel between them. As you may know, my policy on reviewing books is to only review those I consider at least 3* books, since poor reviews can damage an author’s livelihood and it seems unfair to do that simply because I don’t like it. For me, Caesar’s Ambassador was really hard to rate. In the end I’ve given it 3 stars, but it could have gone up or down from there because there are so many things about it I like and, while there’s only one thing I don’t, it’s pretty crucial.

So on the positive side, this is a truly fresh and interesting angle on the events of Caesar’s De Bello Gallico, an interesting, bold and inventive choice. Mettius himself is an interesting character with an intriguingly uncharted history, and Johnston has done a sterling job of bringing him to life, giving him real personality and filling in history’s blanks. He’s also done an excellent job of depicting the times and the locations, with some of the detail being exquisite (a scene in a tavern particularly stands out.) Better still, given Mettius’ history, Johnston has chosen a character he can take on from there, and I know he covers quite a few years in subsequent books. The story is pacey, the characters vivid, the descriptive excellent. Additionally, there is a quirky humour throughout that really hits the spot, reminiscent for me of Ron Gompertz’s novels.

So what didn’t I like about it then? Quite simply the heavy anachronisms. I’m hardly free of blame for that myself, though I have gradually ironed out such things as I progress. But even at my strongest, I was nothing to this. Johnston’s idiom and terminology are almost entirely modern American in the tale, and some of the phrases used in an ancient setting just had me wincing. I’ll hold my hands up and say that as a Brit, perhaps I’m not the target audience and that for all I know this is a standard in the American market, but I don’t think that’s the case. For me the idioms and modern, anachronistic terms marred what could have been an excellent tale.

I still enjoyed Caesar’s Ambassador, and I will read the second in the series when I have the time, and so I leave it up to you whether this is a story for you, as I cannot doubt that what damaged it for me will certainly appeal to some readers, and I’m not so arrogant as to think I am right all the time. To be honest, at $0.99 it’ll hardly be breaking the bank to take a punt on it and see what you think.

Written by SJAT

July 21, 2016 at 8:57 am

Destiny – A Roman short story for Halloween

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My name is Marcus Annius Blaesus and I am a man with a destiny, for all the good that might do me. Before this night that has changed, poisoned, destroyed my life, I have been acclaimed a good man, a strong man, even a hero. I am a legionary of the Twentieth Valeria Victrix, based at the great red fortress of Deva in the province of Britannia. It is the year of the consuls Gavius and Aquilinus, under the glorious reign of the great emperor Decius, who has vanquished the Arab named Phillipus and taken the throne, may he live for a thousand years. But this is not his story, nor indeed mine, in truth, It is a story about one of my room mates by the name of Caius Pincius Baritus.

It began three weeks ago…

For the love of blessed Minerva, was it that recent?

The bastard emperor Phillipus was dead. The news came through the trade routes and the grapevine of the ordinary folk hours before the official report was proclaimed in the fortress to a parade ground full of tired, worn legionaries. And we heard that Decius, the renowned and beloved commander of the Danubius, had donned the purple cloak. It suited us all. Phillipus had been a watery, odd Syrian with no real ability or strength, while Decius was of good senatorial stock, from a Pannonian city and with a pedigree in the legions.

But the news didn’t go down so well with everyone. You see, being a soldier of Rome these days is a little like betting on the horses, or the gladiators of the Deva ludus. You put your money on a claimant to the throne and if he stays in power long enough for you to claim your retirement benefits, you’ve won the game. If your stake is attached to one of the more numerous would-be emperors that barely have time for buttock to meet throne before sword meets neck, then your career can be in tatters at a remarkable speed. And so can your neck, for that matter.

A number of the Twentieth’s officers – even the senior officers… especially the senior officers – had put their money on Phillipus. Several of our tribunes, our legatus, our camp prefect – even the damned medicus and the chief barber – owed their position and the hope of a future career to the poor, rapidly-decomposing Phillipus.

Yes. If I’m going to tell you this, I’ve probably vacillated enough, and I should start in earnest here.

It was early November and Deva was slowly drowning in a sea of soggy brown leaves, the trees denuded and reaching up like skeletal hands to the lead-grey skies above. The winds in Britannia in November are more insistent than Catullus and more piercing than a Thracian chorus. They cut you down to the bone, and leave a wet, chilly corpse in your place. I think you know what I’m getting at. Think northern Etruria in January and make it wetter, browner and colder, and you’ll be about right. It ruins the mood of every serving soldier. And there is little more depressing than standing on a soggy, leaf-strewn parade ground listening to a senior officer bang on about loyalty and duty and what it means to be Roman, unless it’s doing so while your best mate is busy rubbing his neck incessantly and you have to cover for him.

Baritus was constantly ravaging his neck that morning, as though a thousand insects had bitten him around the throat. I stood, half-listening to the legatus, mostly trying to keep an eye on the centurion and the optio to make sure Baritus wasn’t made an example of. And every time an officer looked our way, I had to grind my hobnailed boot down into my mate’s foot enough to stop him rubbing until their gaze moved on elsewhere. It didn’t do to be considered inattentive when the commander spoke. That sort of thing ends with you mucking out the latrines.

Indeed, just as my patience was wearing to its thinnest, Baritus stopped entirely. I risked a sidelong glance. His neck was pale – as usual – but where he had rubbed it a wide ring of ruptured red flesh gave him a self-made collar above his scarf line. I tried to ignore him. He’d gone quiet and still. Instead I paid attention to the tribunal stand, where the legatus was busy addressing his men.

He was busy now droning about the values of an emperor and the qualities of a leader, as though any of us thought further than the next payday, the next drink, the next whore. I almost missed it, so wrapped up was I in my own weather troubles and my friend’s current weirdness. I snapped back to staring at the legatus and ran my memory over the words I was sure I’d heard from the man, but there was really no need. If an officer has to say something he likes the sound of, he’ll find a way to work it into a speech five or six times anyway. And there it was again. Our allegiance should be given to a legitimate emperor – an emperor of the people, who knew what the provinces needed…

I felt the familiar sinking feeling. Decius was our legitimate emperor now, and we’d already had that speech a few days ago, when the news came. Them the legatus had been virtually fawning at Decius’ name, and already he was intimating a need for revolution. How quickly had the commander changed his tune, eh? I heard Pulcher’s name and that sinking feeling went subterranean. Marcus Martiannius Pulcher was the governor of Britannia Superior – a man with senatorial and military form, popular with the chinless officer class. We’d all seen or heard enough of governors being proclaimed emperor – Decius, after all, was one of them – but while Decius was approved by the senate, I was now aware that my own commander was pledging the legion’s support to the governor of Britannia instead. A usurpation. Treason en-masse. Stupid. Far from lacking in guts to suggest such a dangerous thing, but stupid. Most of the men knew that Decius would be attentive to legion pay and honours until he was secure, and little matters more to a soldier than pay and honours. Certainly not the value of a man who understands the provinces. Of course, some of the men would cleave to the legatus in the belief that he would do what was best for them. Those who didn’t know how the upper class worked, anyway…

I struggled to hold my peace in the face of such treason being proclaimed in the name of my own legion, but I didn’t have to for long, anyway. A centurion from the third cohort bellowed his loyalty to Rome and to its legitimate emperor, Decius, defying his commander. He barely had time to finish his sentence before a mob of legionaries jumped him from behind and dragged him to the ground. Even as the officers shouted themselves hoarse, trying to assert control, the parade ground erupted. Legionary against legionary, those who thought they might gain from supporting the commander shoved and punched against those who thought they would best achieve their goals by maintaining their allegiance to Decius.

For all my recognised scepticism and cynicism, I had been thrown by the development, and I was standing, almost dumbfounded, when some soldier I barely knew in the next line punched me in the jaw, spinning me round. I struggled to right myself and defend myself, but he was already off, fighting someone else. Instead, I found myself face to face with my friend Baritus, who jabbed at my shoulder and pointed off towards the fortress gate.

‘Come on.’

I guess I was still befuddled. I certainly had no desire to stand in the midst of this growing chaos. It resembled the largest bar brawl in the city’s history, five thousand legionaries pushing, shoving, punching and ducking, their officers mostly bellowing in an attempt to instil some sort of order (although in fairness, a number of officers were busy laying into one another too.) Well, they say you should never discuss politics, and certainly not in a volatile crowd of trained warriors. As Baritus and I ducked and dodged through the chaos, making for the fortress, where a skeleton garrison remained atop the walls, watching developments with interest, the brawl turned nasty. Someone, somewhere drew his pugio dagger and plunged it into the belly of a comrade. There was a tiny, odd pause, as though the world shuddered, while the enormity of the act hit those involved, and then suddenly more weapons were drawn. Men bellowed their battle cries of ‘Decius imperator! Decius the god!’ or ‘Pulcher! Pulcher for Britannia!’

Idiots.

But then we’d had years of peace in Britannia and at least half the legion had never seen action more brutal than digging ditches or arresting wayward locals. Those of us who remembered real battle and real killing were in much less of a rush to experience it again over something that it was not even our place to decide. Men started to die.

Baritus and I were the first men from the parade ground to reach the gate, which stood open, waiting for the return of the cohorts. A quick glance over my shoulder confirmed that many of the veterans were also running for the relative safety of the fortress. Sadly, not far behind them, the legatus was running for his safe headquarters, a small group of officers and men clustered around him for protection.

Baritus burst through the gate with me at his heel.

‘What now?’ I said rather breathlessly. We would not have long. The chaos outside would soon move inside the fortress and would not end until one side or the other became ascendant.

‘We’ve got just moments,’ Baritus muttered and there was something odd in his voice that sent a shiver up my spine. I had once heard a haruspex pronouncing disaster at a public event, and this carried those same expectant, dreadful leaden tones.

‘What do you mean?’

My friend turned and grasped my shoulders and the look on his face was even more fear-inspiring than his voice. His eyes had taken on a hollow, glassy look. He squeezed my shoulders, in the manner of a father sending his son on a long journey. It was perhaps the eeriest thing I’d ever experienced… thus far, at least. He swallowed and sighed. ‘My time’s up. And I can’t do anything about it. But you… you need to go. Once this settles, get away from here. As far as you can and as fast as you can. Don’t stop until… just don’t ever stop. Do you understand?’

‘No.’ And I didn’t. Baritus gave the most humourless smile I ever saw and said ‘pick a building.’

‘What?’

‘Pick a building. For us to go hide in and wait this out.’

I shrugged. ‘Have you been at the medical supplies?’

‘How about that one?’ he asked, gesturing to a long, low, flat structure.

‘The smithy?’ What in Hades was the man saying.

But already men were beginning to flood into the fortress behind us. Fights were breaking out under the gate, in the street, on the walls. The idiocy was spreading and following us. The legatus, cowering and fleeing like a fox caught in the hen house, was running for the headquarters, surrounded by armed men. I stared at the smithy. ‘Why there?’ Although I was already running for the door.

‘Because it’s my best chance.’ Again, he rubbed at his ruined neck, and I frowned as we reached the door. Pushing it open, we scurried inside and ran the length of the building towards the storage area at one end, where the nails, rivets and plates of iron were kept. I couldn’t quite fathom why we were there, but Baritus was so forceful, so purposeful, so adamant…

‘We could hide in our room. This will be over in less than an hour one way or another and no one’s going to start searching barracks.’

Baritus shook his head. ‘This is my best chance, I think. Though even then, I know in my heart that there’s no chance. Watch and learn, Blaesus, and when it’s over go out to my place in the canabae and sort through my things. Most of my stuff is there, not in the barracks. Take it and run.’

‘You’re raving, Baritus,’ I rolled my eyes. ‘To desert the legion? And bring that dishonour and punishment down on my head? You’re out of your mind. And anyway, won’t your favourite little woman be there? She will want your stuff.’

‘Annilia has gone back to Gaul,’ he said hoarsely. ‘I sent her last week.’

I frowned. The canabae was the settlement that housed the civilians outside the fortress, and Baritus and his girl had had a house there for five years. He’d been expecting to live there with her as husband and wife when he was given his pension in a few years’ time. But now… all this talk of his time being up, and Annilia having been sent away? Another shudder ran the length of my spine.

‘Listen,’ I managed, getting a hold of myself and trying to talk over the noise of the fighting and arguments in the streets outside, ‘I don’t know what all this morbidity and weirdness is about, but I’m not having it. We’ll sit it out and then everything will return to normal. A few officers will be told to fall on their swords, but most of us will just settle back into daily routine. And then you’ll stop panicking and you’ll send for Annilia again.’

‘When you go there,’ he said, apparently ignoring me, ‘make sure to check the back room. I have the most important things in there.’

There was a bang as the door was thrown open at the far end of the smithy and two men tumbled in, punching and roaring. For some reason, as Baritus ducked down behind a table, I found myself joining him.

‘Time’s up, Blaesus,’ he smiled. ‘See you on the other side.’

As I frowned in complete incomprehension, my friend withdrew a coin from his purse, pushing it under his tongue to pay the ferryman, and sat back in an oddly relaxed pose.

I shook my head in disbelief.

‘Listen…’

If it hadn’t happened before my very eyes, I would not believe it. You won’t believe it, so insane does it sound. As I watched in disbelief Baritus lower his gaze to the floor, sitting peering down between his knees, I could hear the two struggling men a few tables down the room, battering at one another and slamming back into cupboards as they fought. And then one of them fell away and the other took the advantage of freedom to pull back his arm and throw. I have no idea what it was he threw, only what it did. For one thing it missed its intended target as that other soldier ducked to the side. But the truly terrifying and unbelievable thing was that the thrown object smashed into the wall above us and there was a tremendous metallic shudder as the shelves of stored gear shook and rattled. And then, like the hand of the Furies, a single item fell.

A cleaver.

I watched in disgusted horror as the blade slammed into the exposed neck of my friend, shattering his backbone as it dug deep into the flesh. Baritus’ legs spasmed and shook as blood fountained up from his neck, the cleaver, its job done, falling away to the floor with a metallic clatter.

I was dumbstruck. The blade had neatly struck the line of red welts where my friend had been scratching his neck all day. I barely even registered that I was covered in his blood. My hearing seemed to have gone dull and all I could hear was my own racing heartbeat. My eyes bulged, seemingly unable to leave the grisly sight beside me, my eyelids apparently unwilling to close. In the end I tore my gaze away from him like a man pulling a boot from deep sucking mud, and rose, shuddering, freezing, white as a sheet. The two combatants in the room had met in a final clash and one was now busy beating the other senseless with a wooden mallet. As I staggered past him on the way to the door, shock filling me to the seams, the survivor snarled ‘who are you for?’

‘What?’

‘Who are you for?’ he repeated vehemently.

‘Me,’ I relied quietly and staggered off through the door.

Already things were changing outside. One of the more respected centurions had managed to pull together a couple of centuries of men and form them into a proper unit, and was even now moving through the fortress, drawing officers to his side and bellowing at the men to stand down. I hardly noticed. I had other things on my mind.

Through the chaos I stumbled, heading for the south gate. The canabae. Baritus’ house.

I was faintly aware of what was going on around me. You’ll know, of course, what happened in the end that day. Despite the seeming chaos, nine men in ten held true to the new emperor Decius and only the legatus and two tribunes paid the price for attempted insurrection. That centurion with great presence of mind rallied the whole legion and placed the legatus under arrest, offering him the chance to take his own life before he was dragged off in chains. The man hadn’t even the guts to do the right thing then. I hear that Decius has him in the carcer already, trying to decide what punishment fits best. And of course the Twentieth has received the honorific Deciana for our honourable defence of the true emperor in the face of treason. It’s all great and good, and makes some of what happened that day worthwhile, anyway. But not for me. And certainly not for Baritus.

I staggered out through the civil settlement until I got to his little love nest near the bridge. It was not a great villa or anything. Just four rooms, but it was his and it was dry and neat. Not locked, though.

I entered the front room and noted the fact that everything of Baritus’ was already packaged and labelled. His valuables were on the table in piles, his treasured graves made by an Italian armourer on the pile of unworn spare tunics. It was eerier even than the man’s freak death in some ways. I had no intention of climbing the stairs to the couple’s bedroom, and wandered through to the rear door, taking in the neat piles of his kit around me.

I opened the door to the rear room and stepped in.

And my life changed.

This was where he kept the most important things.

The room was well lit by a large window. Illuminated enough for me to realise that the room was bare. Completely devoid of possessions or furnishings. The door to the small cucina – the kitchen – stood closed. But despite the lack of anything I could possibly have catalogued or disposed of, I knew instantly what he had meant by his most important things.

Someone had painted the walls. Someone with little talent, in truth, and I had the suspicion it had been my friend himself. I know that to be the case, now, though then it was a mere notion. A series of painted panels ran along two of the walls. I found myself turning to the first, fascinated. The crude depiction of Baritus and myself at the gladiator fight last month was poorly painted, but executed well enough that I could recognise us. Us and the old hag that had tried to press us for money to feed her brood of feral children that were busy trying to rob innocent passers-by. I remembered that day. We had both done quite well at the book-makers.

The second panel showed another scene I remembered. Last payday at the fortress. There were the crowds of angry soldiers bellowing for their pay, since the money was late. One of the unfortunate side effects of an unexpected change of emperors is that sometimes things like pay for provincial legions gets put to the back of the queue.

Other panels followed. I recognised many of them for what they were even if I hadn’t been there. Images of my friend, painted by himself.

And then, as I changed wall, there was an image of his head and shoulders, like a marble bust, though with a red ring around his neck. I shuddered and fearfully flickered my glance to the next panel. There was an image of the emperor Phillipus stuck with half a dozen military daggers. It came as little surprise to me to see that in the background of that image, legionaries struggled and fought one another. There were three panels left. I could hardly bear to move on, and yet some morbid fascination drove me.

There it was.

The next panel.

Baritus crouched with his head hanging forward and a hole in his neck, blood everywhere. Me next to him, with a baffled expression. My heart groaned at the sight. Had Baritus been living with this premonition for weeks? No wonder he’d been rubbing his neck this morning. How had he…

My heart jumped for a second.

There were two more panels…

I stepped a pace to my right, my eyes squeezed shut. I could feel my heart racing, my blood thundering through my veins, chilly as ice water. Somehow I had the feeling the Fates were watching, and that they were far from friendly.

I opened my eyes. There I was. Crudely painted, like the rest, but it was definitely me. And I was sitting at a table in a bar, talking, just as I am now. Innocuous, eh?’

The last picture drained all the blood from my face and the heat from my body. There I was half naked with a red line of welts and scabs running from my left armpit to my right hip.

Go on. Tell me I’m being stupid. I would. I did. I’ve been there, remember?

Want to see the marks? The itching started before dawn and try as I might, I just couldn’t stop myself. All the way from armpit to hip. And you know what? Baritus’ advice was useless. Here I am, a deserter – a wanted man with a death sentence hanging over me, for all that might bother me now. And I’ve run all the way to Gaul to escape what’s coming, but it makes no difference. It follows you. I know that now. And I know that by dawn tomorrow I’ll be clasping hands with Baritus across the endless river. I even have my coin ready, you know?

What? You don’t believe any of this? No, of course you don’t. Nor would I had it not happened to me, but mark my words that everything I told you tonight is true.

No, I don’t expect you to do anything, and I don’t want any money. Don’t you see? I’m not here for charity or aid? I’m here because this is where I have to be… where I’ll die. And I’m here to give you this. Go on… unfold it. I really recommend you do.

You see, while I was on the run, I started painting. It turns out I’m much better at it than Baritus was, and I’m sure you can see the resemblance, can’t you?

Can’t you?

 

THE END

Written by SJAT

October 29, 2015 at 9:30 am

Flames of Cyzicus

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How long has it been since I last read of Cassius Corbulo in ‘The Black Stone’? Well I’m not sure, but it feels like half a decade. And I don’t know how long we have to wait for the next instalment. It gets like that with a really good series, doesn’t it? Like a drug. You’re waiting, twitching, for your next fix. Luckily, Nick Brown has given me enough of a fix to keep me going until his next novel is released.

Flames of Cyzicus is a short story of around 10,000 words, which is long enough to tell a good story, but short enough to make a quick and easy read in one session. It is a self-contained tale and once again represents Nick Brown at his best.

Corbulo, an agent of Imperial Security (a frumentarius or ‘grain man’) is currently in the Anatolian city of Cyzicus, working on the staff there with the responsibility for arranging the grain supply for a visiting legion, when in the dark of night one of the city’s four main granaries is incinerated. Faced with the loss of a quarter of the grain for which is is responsible, and fearing that other such disaster is still to come, Corbulo sets out on an investigation to discover the cause of the trouble.

If you have read Nick’s series so far you will find this tale to be every bit as action packed, humourous, intriguing, intelligently-plotted, character and plot driven and exotic as the novels. The plot works in a surprisingly tight arc.

If you’ve not read any of Nick’s work, this might very well be your perfect entry point to the series, to dip your toe in the water, so to speak. There are no major spoilers for the other books and just hints as to what Corbulo has gone through, so at 99p you can afford to try it and see whether you fancy the series. My hunch is that you will.

Just go buy it, eh? It’s the price of a packet of biscuits but much more nourishing…

Written by SJAT

April 13, 2015 at 9:25 pm

Highwayman Ironside

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I’ll warn you at the outset that this is a review of a short story, not a full novel, since I know a number of folk don’t read short stories. To be honest, I rarely do, except when they’re penned by authors whose full works I regard very highly. Then, often the shorts are side-adventures of their main characters from their novels and thus I tend to read them as part of a series.

I have had Ironside sitting on my kindle, bugging me to read it for quite some time. The reason I hadn’t? Precisely because it was an independent short story and not part of an ongoing series, and with my towering reading pile, there was no easy space to slot it in. But it was never removed from the list, because the author – Michael Arnold – is one of my absolute faves in the historical genre at the moment. He’s something of a ‘golden boy’ for me, since each time he releases one of his ‘Stryker’ novels, I know damn well it’s going to end up in my top 10 at the end of the year. So despite not having got round to reading this short work, I knew I’d enjoy it. And then, surprisingly, last week I found a book in my reading list had been withdrawn temporarily, and I had time. Well, how nice.

Highwayman Ironside is a quick read. Roughly a third of the length of the majority of novels on my kindle, I raced through it rather quicker than I would like, since I hate reaching the end of a book I’m enjoying. And, sadly, the problem with HI is that I had just got into the characters and the swing of things when it ended.  Still, I am not downhearted, partially because for less than the price of a beer, this is a few hours of top-notch entertainment, and partially because the more people tell Michael that this is a lovely intro to the characters and can we now have a novel, the more chance there is that he might do just that!

If you are not familiar with Michael’s books, then shame on you! Check out my reviews on the right-panel listing under ‘Stryker’. You’ll see just how highly I rate them. The Stryker novels are set during the English Civil Wars and follow a Royalist captain on a series of adventures. The character has been compared to Cornwell’s Sharpe, though I prefer Stryker myself. So enter a new milieu in the form of Highwayman Ironside. The tale is set in the 1650s, in the aftermath of the series of bloody civil wars that have devastated the land. They feature a trio of criminals on the highways of southern England, each of whom is interesting in their own right, led by Samson Lyle, known as the Ironside Highwayman.

A former Parliamentarian during the wars and a close companion of Cromwell himself, Lyle has become sick of the new regime, having witnessed firsthand the slaughter in Ireland and, disillusioned with the lack of change under the new revolutionary government, he has been named a traitor and a criminal. Driven by a sense of righteous revenge over the death of his loved ones, Lyle now rides the highways, seeking out those he sees as responsible and doing them mischief.

As you can see there is considerably more to the character than a simple highway robber. He is no Dick Turpin. To some extent, I occasionally caught a shadow in the story that made me think I was looking at the future of Captain Stryker. This story takes place over only three different scenes, yet tells an exciting tale of robbery, single combat, chases, infiltrations and investigations, flight and even a somewhat romantic interlude. In all, the story is well worth the read and I urge you to have a go. And then, hopefully, we’ll have bought enough copies to make Michael pick up his quill and pen a full-length tale of the Ironside Highwayman.

Written by SJAT

January 16, 2015 at 3:08 pm