haven’t updated in a while and just wanted to share a draft of the first chapter of my other series – The Roman and the Goddess, which I hope to have available in a few months time.
It opens in Hibernia in 81AD, a small force of Romans have landed to reconnoitre, prior to launching an invasion from Brittania.
‘Kill them all.’
For Marcus, it was the first order he’d balked at in twenty years of loyal service to Rome. Had it come from a seasoned commander who’d earned the rank, Marcus would have thought twice about refusing. But Gnaeus was a jumped-up legion reject hopelessly under qualified for command. Added to which, he was the easiest man in the Empire to offend and had a streak of cruelty that would put a Persian to shame. Marcus eyed him with distaste, his hands itching to unsheathe the gladius slung at his side and put an end to the man.
Only Gnaeus was stupid enough to order the needless killing of three captive boys. With a leaden heart Marcus studied them, huddled against each other, bound and unable to run. Their eyes held unmistakable fear but also anger. Despite their perilous situation, Marcus discerned an air of entitlement about them that set all his instincts tingling.
He turned his glare on Gnaeus but the man was oblivious, peering into the misty drizzle for imaginary foes. Marcus snorted, they had seen precious little in the way of native population since they’d arrived. Gnaeus whipped around at the sound, scowling at the three boys.
‘Why are they still drawing breath?’ he said, his face screwing itself up into a parody of distaste, ‘did I not just order their deaths?’
The order could have been for any of the five legionaries in their compact little unit, but it was upon Marcus that Gnaeus’ vicious gaze alighted. Such was his luck of late, always catching the wrong eye at the wrong time. But then again, Gnaeus always had the wrong eye out for him. The autumn wind that whipped around the exposed hillside was less frigid than the atmosphere between Marcus and his commander.
The sea voyage and the last three days floundering on foreign ground, had whittled away the traditional deference due a superior officer from a subordinate. Anyone who spent more than five minutes in their company would divine who the real leader of the expedition should be. Marcus’ natural ability and past experience as a senior officer with the legions made him a man the others instinctively looked to for guidance. Gnaeus was just bright enough to realise that, while also painfully aware of his own shortcomings as a leader. And so he duly perceived Marcus as a threat to his command. Shunning the common sense of using Marcus’ talents for his own gain, the petty little bastard had instead chosen to put upon Marcus at every opportunity.
Ah, Gnaeus, what an utter and complete shit for whom the skills of leadership would be a perpetual mystery.
‘Are you deaf? Cut their throats!’
With a jolt, Marcus realised he’d been openly glaring at the commander whose countenance was growing darker by the second. By the amused looks on his comrades’ faces, his thoughts had been plain to read. To add the general air of tense misery, the drizzle that had been their constant companion all day now turned to rain.
‘What’s to be gained by killing these striplings?’ Marcus asked, playing for time.
Maybe Gnaeus could be persuaded that not all foreigners should be executed for the crime of not being born Roman. Maybe something could be rescued from this disaster of an expedition, a pax formed with the boys’ tribe even. Would the man be made to see the practical sense in that?
‘We don’t even know who they are,’ Marcus continued, ‘what if they’re princes of their tribe? What then? We’ll open ourselves to reprisals and we don’t have the men to repel an attack…’
A quickly stifled laugh from one of the boys made Marcus’ heart sink. Gnaeus’ eyes narrowed dangerously as he swung about to face the three captives.
‘They understand us,’ he spat, ‘and thanks to you they now know our strength. You fool!’
Marcus sighed as the leaden weight in his chest seemed to grow even heavier, the boys had all but signed their own death warrants. They’d played innocent when captured earlier that day, betraying no trace of comprehension when he’d caught them spying on the Romans’ scouting the area. He’d got nothing from them but shrugged shoulders and smiles. Expressive, but hardly illuminating.
The other soldiers exchanged nervous looks, plainly the idea of revenge attacks had not occurred to them. Marcus was a veteran of many foreign campaigns and as a general rule, he tended not to immediately murder the first natives he encountered. It unfailingly engendered ill will with the local populace. But Gnaeus was well past listening, his face had turned a dangerous shade of puce and he’d worked himself up into an almighty froth of rage at the turn of events.
‘Cut their vile throats and be done with it!’ he screamed, spit flying from his mean little mouth.
Marcus nodded wearily, it’s what he’d expected to hear. He’d known from the moment they’d caught the three lads what their fate would be, but he’d be damned if he’d play the executioner and do Gnaeus’ dirty work.
‘Fuck you for a lazy bastard, Gnaeus,’ he said, ‘Kill them yourself, I’ll have no part in it.’
The boys’ eyes darted nervously between Marcus and Gnaeus, waiting for the next riposte.
Gnaeus remained perfectly still for a moment, an idiot’s grin stuck on his face. The colour faded so quickly from his cheeks that Marcus had a cheery moment thinking the Fates had intervened to cut the thread of Gnaeus’ life with apoplexy. His cheer died quickly however, as a dangerous glint sparked into being in Gnaeus’ beady eyes. It was a look Marcus had seen but once before and that had led to a great deal of pain.
‘Fuck you then, Marcus, l will,’ said Gnaeus, his voice almost too low to hear.
Marcus swore quietly, berating himself for pushing his luck so boldly.
Terror dawned on their young faces and three pairs of eyes turned to Marcus, wide with pleading.
Marcus sighed, his hand dropped to the hilt of his sword. They were fourteen at most, they’d done nothing to deserve a painful death at the hands of an alley dog like Gnaeus. A recent memory surfaced of the fate of a young Silurian slave, unlucky enough to displease Gnaeus by spilling wine on his tunic. The poor boy had been made to suffer most agonisingly at the commander’s hands, his flesh sheared from his slight body piece by piece by a thin cruel blade wielded with relish by its owner. Marcus’s stomach roiled at the memory. Gnaeus licked his lips and withdrew a long thin blade from the depths of his cloak, a feral glint in his eye.
On such small things are fates changed utterly. Marcus did not hesitate. His gladius was in hand before he’d drawn a full breath, the boys’ bindings were neatly sliced apart in three quick moves. He put himself between them and his most inferior superior officer, who was standing in slack jawed amazement as the three erstwhile captives wasted no time in taking to their heels. The other four soldiers took off in pursuit, but the fleet footed natives outdistanced them easily.
As their whoops and yells faded into the damp autumn air, Marcus couldn’t resist a quick satisfied grin. He’d never disobeyed a direct order before, such a thing meant instant execution in the legions, but the sick weight on his heart was considerably lighter. Watching the Hibernian boys escape brought a surge of elation he hadn’t felt in years and now he couldn’t stop smiling. He’d heard of other soldiers who’d snapped after years of loyal unquestioning service, perhaps this was just his time after twenty years in the legions. Or perhaps Gnaeus was just a trial too far for any man to bear.
He gripped the gladius firmly, ready for whatever might come. Gnaeus, and the four soldiers puffing with exertion from their brief chase, were staring at Marcus as though he’d grown an extra head.
‘You fucking traitor!’ roared Gnaeus, ‘those little shits will spill their guts to the first person they see!’
Marcus shrugged, his smile fit to split his face. He hoped they did and further, he hoped that Hibernia was better at waging war than Britannia had been.
‘Kill him!’ screamed Gnaeus.
Marcus dropped his stance keeping his four adversaries in his field of vision. Experience said he could take two of them; four working together would stand every chance of killing him. Things could get bad very quickly. But his companions in arms made no move at all, only shifted uncomfortably on their feet, their eyes swivelling between Marcus’ unnerving grin and Gnaeus as he stood shrieking into the wind like a madman.
‘What are you waiting for? Kill the traitor!’
Marcus took a chance and lowered his blade.
‘I have no wish to spill the blood of a fellow soldier,’ he offered, ‘if it’s all the same to you.’
Gnaeus was blubbering now, no longer capable of words, just incoherent screeching. The four exchanged looks and seemed to reach a wordless agreement. Petrus, the oldest of them, sheathed his sword before swinging round on Gnaeus and punching him squarely in his jowly jaw. Gnaeus dropped like a sack of salt and a blessed peace descended.
‘I served with you in Jerusalem,’ said Petrus, ‘I know the difference between real soldiering and what that dickhead does.’
Marcus scanned his memory, Jerusalem was a blood-stained blur, the man’s face didn’t seem familiar. But clearly, Petrus remembered him.
‘Give the word,’ Petrus continued, ‘yon dickhead will be dead a moment later.’
Marcus shook his head.
‘No more blood on my account or his, friend,’ he said, ‘besides, the Governor won’t believe that he died a soldier’s death and you lot survived him. You’ll want to go home after all this, I expect? ’
‘I’ve a wife and three children,’ he said.
‘Well, I’ve got no one waiting for me, Petrus,’ said Marcus, ‘so by your leave, I’ll find my own way from here.’
‘As you wish, friend,’ he said, booting Gnaeus’ supine form in with a disappointed air, ‘we’ll get Gnaeus back to camp and say you ran off.’
Within a moment, Petrus had any spare food wrapped in a sack for Marcus to take, no need to worry about water, enough of it was falling out of the sky.
‘You saved my life in the streets of Jerusalem,’ Petrus said conversationally, ‘doubt you even saw me, but your blade went clean through the throat of a Zealot about to do for me.’
Marcus swallowed convulsively, the Galilean campaign was nearly fifteen years ago and something he only remembered in nightmares.
‘If that is so, then I think myself well repaid this day,’ he replied.
Marcus offered his arm and Petrus took it.
‘Vale,’ Petrus said. Farewell.
Marcus nodded his thanks and then started in the same direction the boys had fled. As he walked, his heart grew lighter with every step. For the first time in twenty years he was his own man, no more orders, no more duty and no more killing. Here, on the very edge of the Roman Empire, Marcus Cassius Fortunatus had finally come far enough to be free of it.