COMING UP - CRESCENTIUS THE GREAT

I am currently working on my second novel, the events of which take place about ten years after Centurion's Daughter. Here is an extract from the opening chapter. Enjoy!



Now other Roman soldiers, also, had been stationed at the frontiers of Gaul to serve as guards. And these soldiers, having no means of returning to Rome, and at the same time being unwilling to yield to their enemy who were Arians, gave themselves, together with their military standards and the land which they had long been guarding for the Romans, to the Armoricans and Franks; and they handed down to their offspring all the customs of their fathers, which were thus preserved, and this people has held them in sufficient reverence to guard them even up to my time. For even at the present day they are clearly recognized as belonging to the legions to which they were assigned when they served in ancient times, and they always carry their own standards when they enter battle, and always follow the customs of their fathers. And they preserve the dress of the Romans in every particular, even as regards their shoes. – Procopius, History of the Wars XII


Prelude

March AD497

The horsemen travelled silently, as they always did when hunting their quarry.


Their mounts, though large, moved noiselessly, their hooves covered in leather to still the sound of their footfalls. Along the narrow forest path they travelled like ghosts, almost wraith-like in the cold late-afternoon mist that hung between the trees like a funeral shroud. There were perhaps ten or twelve of them, making their way in single file through the tunnel of leaf and branch.

The leading horseman raised a hand, bringing the company to a halt. Ahead of them the faint silhouette of a figure on foot approached, resolving itself as it drew near into a man dressed in a faded green tunic and trousers with a strung bow across his chest. Without any pause he went up to the frontmost rider.

“They’re ahead.” he said in a low voice.

“How far?”

“Two hundred yards. Just past the forest edge. Scouts ahead of them but not in the trees. They don’t know about this path.”

The rider grunted and signalled the advance. The scout on foot waited as they passed until the last horseman, leading a riderless horse, reached him. Seizing the reins he leapt with practised grace on the mount and followed after the group.

The path petered out into bush and shrubbery. Working their way through the greenery the riders emerged from the forest into open field. The scout reined his horse alongside the leading rider.

“That way.”

The rider nodded and, in a sweeping motion, pointed to his left and right. The group formed into a line on either side of him. Then, unslinging spears that had been hung on their backs, they advanced in regular order. After a few moments a faint clinking of metal could be heard in the distance. Changing his grip on the spear shaft, the commander of the mounted group swung it up to rest on his shoulder, followed by the rest of his company. Ahead of them figures became visible in the mist, men on foot marching away from the riders in what appeared to be a loose column: not formed up, not battle-ready.

The commander reined his mount to a halt. Then, raising his spearhead upwards, he lowered it again in front of him. It was the signal for the charge. The horses broke into a gallop, their riders still silent, keeping the line as each man sought out a target for his spear: an exposed portion of the neck or upper shoulders in which the spearhead would bury itself before being swivelled upwards and jerked out by the rider as he swept past.

For the first second or two of the charge the men on foot did not move, frozen by the shock of the unexpected attack. By the time they began to react the horsemen were upon them. Thuds, accompanied by short grunts, marked where the spears had driven home. Without stopping their gallop the horsemen pulled the spears free. One or two let go of their shafts, drew long, tapering swords and swung at the confused men on either side of them whilst their mounts trampled down those to their front.

The riders drove right through the scattered column and, reining in, turned back and charged into it again. Panic set in. A handful of men formed a small knot, back-to-back, but the majority broke and ran. The commander signalled quickly. Half of his group went in pursuit of the fleeing enemy, whilst the other half reformed and charged at the knot of men still prepared to fight. Just before the charge hit home something whipped through the mist-laiden air, hitting one of the riders, who gave a faint gasp and fell backwards from his horse. The remaining horsemen bowled into the small group, knocking men to the ground and slashing at those who tried to stand. In a few seconds it was over. The commander waved his men to follow the group pursuing the routers and then urged his horse over to the fallen rider. He dismounted and went down on his haunches next to him.

The blade of a strange, curved axe was buried in his right shoulder. The commander examined it and then gingerly grasped the handle. The injured man groaned.

“Galbus?”

“Sir. Don’t touch it.”

The commander probed gently with his fingers around the blade.

“It’s in the muscle. Hasn’t gone through your ribs. Soon as the men get back we’ll make a fire, pull it out and cauterize the wound.”

“Bloody mess.”

“You’ll live. Wait till I get back.” The commander stood up and remounted his horse. With a final glance at the injured rider he nudged his mount to a gallop and disappeared into the damp, grey air.

**********************

It was dusk. The dim light, descending from the thick wash of overcast sky, filtered through the black branches of the forest. The horsemen were gathered around a campfire, their horses tethered nearby. Beside the flickering flames the injured rider lay, his arms and legs held down by his companions as the commander grasped the handle of the axe buried in his shoulder.


“Ready?”

“Yes.”

With a swift, firm movement, he pulled the axe from the wound. Blood welled up. One of the men passed him a branch from the fire, its end sharpened to a point and glowing in the fading light. The commander sank the point in the wound, burning the bleeding flesh shut.

“God above,’ the wounded man uttered through clenched teeth.

Placing a folded wad of linen cloth on the wound, the commander motioned to his men to raise the patient, half-dazed with pain, to a sitting position. He then wound a long strip of linen around his chest and over his shoulder several times, binding the pad in place before finally tying the strip off. He was done.

“How does it look?” The words were a murmur. The wounded rider was fading from consciousness.

“It’ll do,” the commander answered. The rider managed a hint of a smile. His head dropped forward and he passed out. There were a few moments of silence.

“What do you think sir?” asked a rider.

The commander shrugged. “He won’t fight again. He’s got guts like I’ve seen in no other, but the francisca cut right through the muscle. He’ll hardly be able to use his arm. A shame. He was a good man.”

“He’ll still be fit for guard duty at the fortress.”

The commander paused, considering, then shook his head. “No. He’s been in the Martenses long enough. Twenty years with Syagrius and ten years in Brittany. It’s been on my mind to let him go.”

“What will he do?” the first rider asked again. “He doesn’t have any family here.”

The commander contemplated the unconscious man. “He has a son on a villa.... just beyond Tours.”

There was a murmur from the group.

“Frankish territory...”

The commander glanced up. “What does it matter? He takes a boat down the coast and up the Loire to Tours, and from there by road to the villa. I know where it is. He’s not a Breton. He can pass for a local Roman.”

He stood up. In his mind there was another reason for sending the crippled soldier into Frankish-occupied Gaul. That son of his: if he was anything like his father he might just make a suitable replacement.



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