In Rome, when shaking hands with a stranger, you'd best count your fingers to see if they are still attached.
In 44 AD ancient Britannia is wild, unpredictable, and merciless. The dusty streets of Rome are chaotic and dangerous, home to incredible opulence, deplorable poverty, and a political web that catches anyone who dares to question the empire. Both places call to young Roman cavalry sergeant Marcellus Reburrus, who must survive a world of political treachery, in which one's life can be taken in an instant-by friend or enemy.
After enduring a ravaging storm, Marcellus's boots hit the shore of Britannia under the orders of Roman Emperor Claudius only to face deplorable conditions and a commander who would rather see Marcellus dead than reporting for duty. Despite the circumstances, Marcellus quickly makes a name for himself, earning awards for bravery, promotion to centurion, and further alienating himself from the evil commander.
Marcellus's arrival in Rome brings a whole new set of problems, the least of which are dodging assassination attempts, unraveling conspiracies, and falling in love. From the underground caves of beggars beneath the city to the magnificent homes of the Roman elite, Marcellus uncovers an elaborate plot of betrayal-one that can bring down the entire city. Can he find the conspirators before they find him ... and destroy everything he holds dear?
This beautifully descriptive novel brings to life the remarkable worlds of ancient Britannia and Rome-while following the brilliant Marcellus, whose entire life is turned upside down as he must solve a complex mystery ... and stay alive amongst backstabbing senators, murderous traitors, and an extraordinary city whose legacy is both inspiring and duplicitous.
|Publisher:||Milford House Press|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.66(d)|
Read an Excerpt
The Broken Lance
A Historical Novel
By Jess Steven Hughes
Sunbury Press Inc.Copyright © 2017 Jess Steven Hughes
All rights reserved.
Early February, 44 AD, the British Channel
"Secure the ship. Rig for storm," I heard the ship's master bellow over the wind.
The bearded Syrian glanced toward the swelling gray-green waves beyond the vessel's railing and black sky. He turned in our direction as the rest of the cavalry troop, sailors, and I ran along the deck of the old wide-beam merchant ship. As seamen covered hatches and struck sails, we troopers headed for the cages that held our horses amidships.
Roll after roll of thunder echoed across the ocean's turbulent surface. The rain sheeted down, nearly obscuring the ship's bow. From behind the stern, lightning flashed in a steely, wet light. Large rivulets of water washed along the creases in the timbered deck. Wave after wave smashed over the side of the aging vessel, causing it to rock and shudder.
Despite rain pelting our faces like sharp needles and soaking tunics and breeches, we fastened halters around the heads of the wide-eyed, terrified mounts, and tied them to ironwood belaying pins. We soothed the animals with reassuring words, stroked their heads, and patted their necks before lashing canvas covers over the cages' tops and sides to the deck with thick hawsers.
Our troop returned to the rat-infested hold. Creaking timbers echoed throughout the ship's dimly lit interior where the troopers were quartered and stored their gear. Four lanterns swung back and forth on rusty chains from the low crossbeams. The shadowy light danced from one end of the hold to the other. In the flickering light, the men's faces appeared as wraith-like ghostly images.
Shivering, teeth chattering, I cursed my lot in life. Soaked to the bone and freezing, we shook the water from our clothes. I dropped down beside my equipment, grabbed my bedroll, and removed the leather straps. We wrapped woolen blankets about our bodies letting the warmth enclose us.
I pulled mine tighter and thought back to the beginning of my journey.
At twenty-three, I had been sent to Britannia during the fourth year of the Emperor Claudius's rule. A lifetime ago. Our cavalry troop of thirty had left snowbound Germania, late in January, still in the clutches of winter. A week later we arrived on the frigid, windswept coast of Gaul, at the harbor of Portus Itius. Why we crossed then, I will never understand. The British Ocean, a channel really, is treacherous year-round, and in winter the worst. Storms and gales occur daily. I concluded that some Imperial bureaucrat in Rome, who knew nothing about winter seas, made the decision over the objections of Legate Titus Vespasian, commander of Legion Second Augusta in southern Britannia.
More than thirty of us had been crammed in the ship's hold that reeked with the bitter smell of pitch, bilge water, rancid olive oil, and spoiled pork. The horses, cheap cavalry nags, were kept amidships in heavy wooden cages. The Poseidon's Eye, an old deep-hulled merchantman, once had plied the Mediterranean between Alexandria and Ostia, carrying grain to Rome's seaport to make free bread for Rome's mindless mobs. Now it ferried us across the British Channel from Gaul to Britannia because there wasn't another vessel large enough to carry our contingent of men and horses.
Earlier that morning we had set sail. The sea was velvet smooth under a warm sun. From the coast of Gaul, I observed the chalk cliffs of Britannia in the distance, an unusual occurrence during winter months. Normally, they were enshrouded in fog and rain. A good omen. Although less than twenty-five miles away, it would be the next morning before we docked in the south of Britannia at the Port of Noviomagnus.
Now, we were below suffering from seasickness. The sounds of retching and the sickening smell of vomit filled the ship's hold. Other than experiencing a slight churning of the stomach, I kept from puking my guts. The angry sea tossed the ship like a cork. I was certain the old scow was going to break in half.
"Form a bucket brigade!"
The captain's order snapped me from my thoughts. Water sloshed around my sandaled boots.
"The ship's pumps can't handle this deluge," the captain said.
Our troop joined the ship's crew. A human chain sent slopping buckets topside and passing them back empty. Sweating, swearing, gasping for breath, without respite, we kept at it through the afternoon and on into the evening.
With the bucket brigade never pausing, the ship's master came below, his face contorted with worry. He wiped the water from his eyes with a grimy hand. Although he wore an oilskin coat, he was soaked. Dark and limp, his long hair dripped about his neck. He conferred with our troop commander the Decurion, Sextus Rufius, beneath a swinging lantern at one end of the hold. When he finished speaking, the captain raised his head and the dancing light revealed resignation on his face. Laboriously, he climbed the ladder through the hatch returning to the storm-swept deck.
Sextus Rufius approached me and the other squadron sergeants where we stood a few paces from him and the ship's master. "We're taking on too much water," he shouted above the din of the gale raging topside. "But don't worry. The captain says we're not sinking, yet."
I studied the grizzled face of the oxen-chested decurion in the lantern's dim light. Each soldier had been issued two horses, but the ship only had room enough for one per rider. None of us had any idea when our spares, which should be coming from our old base in Germania, would arrive. As a sesquiplicarius in an auxiliary cavalry cohort of the Roman Army, I was the most junior sergeant in a troop of thirty men and horses. Each sergeant commanded a squadron of ten.
"Sir, what about the horses?" I asked. "How are we to get them off?"
"We'll herd them down the gangway as close to land as possible."
"What if we can't get them close enough?" another squadron leader asked. "I've heard the bottom is shallow and a long way out!"
A giant wave crashed on deck as Rufius opened his mouth. The old ship's beams groaned in protest. He looked upward and down again after a moment. "Then, by Melkart, we'll have to chance it. You three are responsible for getting the men and horses off safely. If we hit a shoal, pray that no one is injured. We can't afford to lose either men or beasts."
"The men will freeze to death as soon as they hit the water — it's as icy as the River Rhenus," the third sergeant said.
"Can't be helped," Rufius said. "They'll swim ashore all the quicker."
He paused, his charcoal eyes meeting mine. "The captain says ten or eleven miles — we can't make it."
A thunderous wave crashed on deck, followed by the howls of cursing men and whinnying horses.
I grabbed the low crossbeam to keep my balance.
"We'll be better off on shore even in this filthy weather," Rufius finished. "Gods know how much more this miserable tub can take."
We set about getting the men and ourselves ready. The troopers flung on their chain mail, iron helmets, buckled on long slashing swords, and woolen army cloaks around the shoulders of their blue tunics. They strapped shields, protected by leather covers, to their backs. Grabbing saddles, lances, and other equipment, we braced themselves for the inevitable shock of hitting the beach.
Above screaming winds, surf pounded as the ship approached the shore. Despite the storm's fury, the helmsman managed to turn the vessel shoreward. The tides were in our favor, and the ship moved rapidly toward the beach at a speed that would push us inland far as possible before breaking apart.
Waves cascaded over the deck as we waited by the open hatchway. Freezing water spewed through the exposed entry, drenching the poor devils standing too close.
The vessel struck a hidden shoal just below the surface. Grinding along the bottom, the ship jarred to a halt, throwing men, including myself, to the deck and scattering equipment.
My shoulder ached from the fall. I got up quickly and looked about. Crispus, my second-in-command, was on all fours shaking his head like a dog. "Still alive, I see," I said.
He stood and focused his black eyes on my outstretched, calloused hand. "I'll live if my skull ain't cracked. What about you?"
"Same with my shoulder," I answered while massaging it. "Check the others."
The rest of the squadron, including crooked-faced Obulco and the giant half-Greek Kimon, dragged themselves to their feet. Except for a few minor bruises, no one appeared seriously injured.
From above came loud scraping and sliding, as if one of the cages that held the horses had torn loose from its bindings. In terror, the mounts whinnied. Water gushed through an open hole in the side of the ship.
We were sinking.
The men grabbed their gear and rushed topside. Biting wind and chilling rain lashed through the night. It slammed my body like a sheet of ice as soon as I stepped upon the deck. I staggered, my shield pulled on the straps against my shoulders and neck nearly choking me. I almost dropped my saddle and bridle, before regaining my balance. I took a couple of deep breaths.
Rufius pulled himself to his full height and planted his boots squarely on the deck.
"Get those nags over the sides!" he barked. "Sergeants, move your men!"
Men rushed to cages lining the sea-swamped deck. Wide-eyed, whinnying, and jerking their heads from side to side, the terrified mounts attempted to break loose from halters tied to the thick, wooden bars. We flung open the doors and untied the horses, soothing them as best we could. I set down my lance and quickly placed the saddle on my mount, Argento, a silvery-gray Moorish gelding. After cinching him around the girth, I grabbed my weapon and moved the horse to the gangway. Crispus was the first over the side with his black gelding. His wiry body dipped beneath the churning waters. Seconds later he surfaced, coughing and sputtering. He grabbed his horse and pulled himself astride. "Take it easy with the nags!" he shouted into the wind. "The water's shallow and rocky as Hades!" A wave crashed over him. He sputtered then yelled, "Hang on for your lives!"
Although the troop had made many deep-river crossings in full gear, none of us had ever experienced the fury of a stormy sea. For the first time, I feared that some of us might drown.
I held tight on to my horse's reins when he tried to rear. A cracking groan shook the ship as the stern broke away and rolled over. A churning swell crushed it against a submerged reef. It splintered into countless pieces.
In the distance, the rolling white surf struck the black beach with a ferocity I had never seen before. Amid flashes of lightning, jagged silhouettes of wind-blown trees stood beyond the shoreline.
A thought raced through my mind. Would the enemy, savage Britons, be waiting for us on the beach? No. Roman forces occupied most of the Southern British coast, and even if the ship was blown off course, we would still land in friendly territory.
Above the beach, rising chalk cliffs towered like immutable monuments, defying the storm's onslaught. For a fleeting moment, standing amidst the confusion, I visualized the gods dancing on the inky clouds above, causing the thunder to explode in our ears. Lightning bolts flashed directly overhead, crooked luminous spears hurled by the mighty Jupiter at some invisible enemy.
Perhaps we were the enemy. Perhaps it wasn't Jupiter but a god of the Britons, angered by our intrusion upon his land. Yes, maybe their Taranis, the Thunderer, intended to destroy us.
Feverishly, the animals, men, and supplies were unloaded into the sea. Following Argento, I caught a high swell and slid down the ramp into the icy waters. The freezing cold sliced through my body like a Cretan arrow. I nearly succumbed to the numbing pain. For a split moment, a swell devoured me. Salt water rushed up my nose and down my throat.
Quickly, I surfaced, retching and throwing up water and foul-tasting bile. Coughing violently, I grabbed Argento's mane and pulled myself onto his back.
I had to get my men out of the frozen sea before they died of exposure. I cursed the god Neptune and his killer waters. The other squadron leaders and I herded the surviving men, troopers and sailors alike, and animals ashore. When we regrouped and tallied our losses, three of our men had drowned while eight out of twenty from the ship's crew had been lost. Five horses had to be destroyed because of broken legs. A tragic day indeed.
* * *
I could not sleep that first night. My clothing was soaked. Getting up, I futilely wrapped a woolen cloak around my shoulders and clamped on my icy helmet. I stepped outside of the ragged tent, which sheltered my squadron of men, not sure what I would do or where I would go. The gale had blown itself out, chased by a cold, piercing wind from the sea. I left the wretched little camp of a half dozen squalid tents pitched about fifty paces inland from the shoreline. Rufius had set a watch. Three shivering sentries, one from each of the three squadrons, patrolled the area. The horses had been strung to a guideline between a couple low bushes, but hobbled for good measure. A few men huddled around small fires — we found little drift wood. For want of a better reason, I decided to hike to the debris-strewn beach, and there I stood looking towards the Poseidon's Eye and beyond to Gaul. I strained to see the vessel, as the inky sea merged with the black sky — the foaming white caps erasing the horizon. There it was — the shattered remains of the ship's stern and a few splintered ribs from the hull. A dark blot suspended between heaven and Earth.
I don't know how long I stood watching and thinking — it seemed like forever. As I was about to return to the bivouac, I saw Crispus standing on the edge of the beach gazing in the same direction, staring blankly, lost in thought.CHAPTER 2
With the ground too frozen to dig proper graves, we cremated the dead troopers in the gray dawn of the next morning. Using freshly cut tree limbs, which burned poorly, the incineration of the bodies on the funeral pyre was a slow and acrid ordeal.
Later, after a miserable breakfast of hardtack biscuits and vinegar water, the troop broke camp. The main food supplies and fodder were lost with the ship. The horses foraged on sparse grass above the beach line. Until we explored thoroughly, we dared not allow them to stray too far. Fortunately, we discovered a spring nearby to supply fresh water.
As the men from my squadron of ten hitched their mounts for the journey ahead, they were still in a dismal mood. Thick-lipped Albinus whined as he did about everything. "What are we doing in this gods forsaken hole? My guts are still empty."
"Aye, so are mine," Kimon, another complainer, added in a heavy Greek accent. "Why did they send us instead of the Germans and Thracians?"
A few other troopers, including Obulco the interrogator, muttered in agreement as they stood near their mounts. Crispus peeked across his horse in my direction but remained silent.
I straightened after cinching up my saddle glaring at the men. Silence. Then I stepped over to the half-Greek and Spanish giant, Kimon. I placed my hands on my hips and stared up into his pale-blue eyes. "Because we're Spaniards," I said, "the best horsemen in the army, that's why we're here. Our orders are to join infantry cohort, First Asturum, as a temporary detachment for reconnaissance duties. The rest of our cavalry cohort are expected to arrive in the spring."
Kimon's grumble came from deep in his throat. "Maybe so, but I'd rather be in Germania. At least we'd be in warm barracks and have full stomachs."
"So would I, but we're not. No telling when we'll return to Germania, if ever. Get used to it."
I turned to the other men. "That goes for the rest of you!"
* * *
As I returned to my horse Argento, I, too, wished that we were still with the Fourth Legion, at Moguntiacum on the upper Rhenus River. Then I could have returned home, in southern Hispania, near Gades, to be with my mother for a couple of months. About a week before we had left Germania, she sent news of my father's death, along with his ornate, gold belt buckle. It now belonged to me. Her letter said he died of heart failure. Although the old man had been stern, I held a deep affection for him. Because he had taught me so much, I truly mourned his passing. But it wasn't manly to display my grief. Instead, with Crispus's help, I got drunk. My request for leave was refused. Our troop was being transferred to Rome's newest and most remote outpost.
My mind returned to the task before us. I watched Crispus study the arrangement of his mount's breast plate. He wiped it once more with a doeskin cloth and glanced my way. "I thought the wind blowing down the Rhenus was like a fucking razor," he said, "but after crossing the channel, it's like a mild summer breeze."
"Aye, this is a land only the damn British and their gods could love," I said.
"When do we get to Iping?" Crispus asked. He stood near me holding onto the reins of his horse.
Excerpted from The Broken Lance by Jess Steven Hughes. Copyright © 2017 Jess Steven Hughes. Excerpted by permission of Sunbury Press Inc..
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