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The Burning Stone
Excerpt

Prologue
Dalmatia, A.D. 310

“Swine shit!”
Young Quintus Varrus would never forget his grandfather’s unexpected roar, for the oath was one the old man seldom used, saving it for special occasions.
Nor would he soon forget his father’s reaction to it, for Marcus Varrus froze in mid-word, shocked into silence by the outrage in the old man’s tone, and his eyes went wide in a way Quintus might have thought comical at any other time.
Listen to yourself, man,” his grandfather snarled. “You’re puling like a baby, whining and whimpering like one of your Christian priests caught out in the streets alone, without an army of guttersnipes to back him up. Straighten up and behave like the man you should be. You’re my son, by all the gods, a Roman legate, and I’ll ask you to remember that—respect my dignity, at least, even if you show no consideration for your own.”
Marcus Varrus drew his shoulders back, rigid with affront at his father’s scorn, and watching him, Quintus knew instinctively that he was fighting not to answer too quickly. Quintus knew how much his father despised his tendency to stammer slightly when he grew upset, believing others would perceive it as a sign of weakness, and now the boy held his breath as he watched from his hiding place, seeing his grandfather’s eyes narrow angrily in preparation for another outburst. Surprisingly, though, the old man waited, pointedly allowing his son the time to find the words he needed.
There were no servants in the dining room—his grandfather had banished them as soon as this latest argument began to show signs of boiling over—and none of the other three people sitting at the table even stirred. It seemed to Quintus that each of them was holding his or her breath too, eyes switching from one to the other of the two standing men.
Across from where his father and grandfather stood confronting each other as usual, his mother, Maris Antonina, appeared to be on the verge of tears, her nether lip quivering as she stared in wide-eyed supplication at her husband, willing him to keep quiet in the face of his father’s growing wrath. Quintus’s grandmother Alexia Seneca sat with her back to his hiding place, but he knew she would be wearing her usual ill-tempered glare of disapproval and he paid her no more attention, for among the multitude of the extensive Varrus family, she was the one he liked least. Quintus was far more interested in what his uncle Marius might be thinking of the current clash between the family’s two dominant bulls.
Quintus was looking almost directly at him where he sat slouched with one elbow propped on the arm of his chair, his cheekbone resting on his knuckles as he watched the familiar, developing confrontation between his father and his brother. Marius had long since learned to watch, listen, and hold his opinions close during such arguments. Quintus knew that he was right to do so, for any attempt to intervene would instantly cause the other two to unite against him. Marius was Quintus’s favourite among all his relatives, but to the rest of the family he was a disappointment and a black sheep.
Now his uncle stirred and turned slowly to look directly at Quintus’s hiding place, one eyebrow rising high in an expression that was only slightly derisive while the lid of his other eye drooped slowly in a long, droll wink. They had shared such moments before, these two, and were veterans at surviving the constant squabbling that consumed the house­hold by refusing to become involved. In fact it was his uncle who had shown him the hiding place behind a screen in the little-used side­board, having discovered it himself as a boy.
The two men had been arguing for some time, each as stubborn and unyielding as the other, their voices growing louder and more bel­ligerent, with neither man showing any sign of backing down, and now the moment had come when tempers would either boil over into fury or abate into sullen, simmering resentment. When Quintus’s father finally spoke, however, his words were far less incendiary than anyone there expected.
“I was not whining, Father.” Marcus spoke quietly, his voice almost calm, though his words emerged no less forcefully. “I merely said the way the negotiations between Constantine and the Christian leaders are developing would appear, according to the Christian pontifex, to be the will of god—”
“I heard what you said!” his father bellowed. “God’s will was what you said, by all the gods at once. Or is it the one god’s will, is that what you mean? The Christian god’s? And if that is your meaning, tell me this: since when have you or I or any of us paid lip service to the god of the Christians or to his will? Since when have we abandoned our Roman gods? Did I not fight for years for my belief in them, spilling Christian blood under Diocletian’s command in protection of our ancient deities? And since when has any man, priest or emperor, presumed to know the will of the gods? Is this Christian pontifex of yours more powerful than Rome’s own Pontifex Maximus—or even more learned than Constantine and his advisors—that he dares to make such claims?”
“The Christian leader calls himself a bishop, not a pontifex,” Marcus answered. “That error was mine. But yes, he believes he is all those things. He believes it because—”
“Hah! I know why he believes it. He believes it because he has no other choice, because his life and his livelihood depend upon it. He believes it because he has to. He believes it loudly and incessantly, day in and day out, because were he to stop proclaiming his belief from the rooftops, even for a day, he would be a dead man in very little time. He would starve, as men with nothing of value have always starved, or someone would kill him for lying to them for so long. He continues to live solely because most men are cowards and walk in fear of this god of his who might—just might—be able to strike them down from afar by some kind of sorcery or necromancy, though in truth he has no more physical substance than has Mars or Vulcan. What about you, Marcus Varrus? Do you believe this god of his has such power? What do you really know of this god, this Jesus that they worship? He’s Jewish, is he not? A Hebrew from Judea?”
“He was. At least the man who reared him as his son was.”
“Aha! The father of the god. Well, at least he’s not so omnipotent that he can exist without a father. So, then, a Jewish, therefore an anti- Roman, god. Do you believe this Jewish Christian god has power over all the earth and skies?” He held up a warning hand. “You yourself, I mean. Not his followers—I don’t care what they think. Do you believe he has such power?”
Marcus looked steadily back at his father. “I don’t know, Father,” he said finally. “If he is a god, as they say he is, then perhaps he has. But I’m not a Christian, as you are well aware. I merely work with them, as Constantine’s envoy.”
“But your wife is one of them.” Grandfather Titanius turned his head to look at his daughter-in-law, Maris, for whom he had always shown great affection. “What think you, Daughter? Do you believe your Jesus god is all-powerful?”
Quintus’s mother tilted her head high. “I do, Father,” she said quietly.
The old man grunted. “I know you do, girl, and in a strange way I envy you your conviction, for I know it is real and deeply felt. But tell me this: do you believe this meek and humble Jesus god, whom your people call the Christus, would wantonly destroy a large group of men who offered him no offence? Could such a thing occur?”
Maris kept her chin held high, not haughty or defiant, but solemn and secure in her beliefs. Quintus saw that she was frowning slightly, however, as though troubled by her father-in-law’s question, and he sensed that his mother was unwilling to respond too quickly to a query that might have hidden barbs. He himself had detected a strangeness in the deliberate way the question had been phrased. His father, too, was reacting to some sudden tension in the air, frowning in concern at his wife, then shifting his eyes suspiciously towards his father.
“Why would you ask Maris that, Father? She has no—”
“Be quiet and listen. This is important. Maris? Could that happen?”
“Could it—? Let me understand you clearly, Father Titanius. Wantonly, you said. Are you then asking me if my God would wantonly destroy anyone or anything without provocation?”
“I am.”
She sat up straighter, turning the flap of her decorative stole back over her shoulder with one hand. “No, Father Titanius, my God would never do such a thing.”
“And he is the one, true God, you believe? The only one?”
“That is what we believe.”
“There are no others?”
Maris again shook her head. “Men speak of other gods, but they are all false. God is God. A single being, although with many names. The Creator of all life.”
“And he is triune, is he not? Threefold? Father, son, and spirit, all in one?”
“So we believe.”
“And what about the threefold deity of Egypt—Osiris, Horus, and Isis—that ruled before him? Does that not give you pause?”
“There was no God before Him, Father Titanius. God is God. It matters not what names men give to the Deity.”
Titanius Varrus gave his son a sidelong glance before swinging back to address his daughter-in-law again. “Was your God omnipotent when Diocletian ruled the empire?”
Maris smiled gently, nodding her head as though humouring a child. “He was omnipotent before Rome began, Father, before the empire came to be. He made this world and all things in it.”
“Of course. I merely wanted to be sure.” He turned again to face his son, whose eyes flicked between his wife and his father. “So,” the old man continued, “if this god will do no harm unprovoked and there is no other with his supernatural powers, how can we, or anyone, explain what happened to Petronius Provo’s two cohorts in Dacia?”
For a space of heartbeats there was no response, and safe in his hiding place Quintus tensed and leaned forward, one hand cupping his ear towards the men so as not to miss a single syllable of what was to come. When his father did speak, though, he sounded mystified.
“Petronius Provo,” his father said. “I know that name, or I used to . . . Is he not a friend of yours?”
His father grunted. “He’s a dead man now. Long since gone. But he and I were close once. We grew up together. He and Diocles and I.”
Marcus was frowning in concentration. “I remember that, too,” he said. “At least I think I do. A long time ago, and there was something that happened in Dacia. I don’t remember . . . What was it?”
The older man scowled, glowering from beneath his bushy eye­brows as he peered into nothingness. “No one was ever able to say what it was,” he growled.
Quintus squirmed a little as he saw his father assume his affronted look again, peering about him theatrically as though to emphasize his disbelief. Even at the age of ten Quintus knew it was an affectation, but he suspected that his father was unaware of the mannerism, or that he used it so obviously.
“What?” Marcus Varrus said. “Do you mean that this event, involving damage or detriment to two prime cohorts in the field, went unreported?”
Titanius Varrus straightened up slightly, his eyes narrowing further as he contemplated his firstborn son with increasingly withering contempt. “Oh, you love the thought of that, don’t you,” he said, his voice barely audible. “An error of omission in the highest ranks, in the field. A missing tactical report, depriving the Emperor’s busy little fact-finders of an opportunity to pry into places they should never be allowed to see. That sets your little martial heart to fluttering, does it not?” He grimaced, before squaring his shoulders and speaking again in his normal voice, the syllables emerging from his mouth crisply and in the tones of a military report. “If your question was intended to imply that someone present failed in his duty to record the magnitude of what took place that day, then my answer is that the sole failure of any person present at the events of that day was the failure to survive.”
Quintus had heard every word, but he had no idea what his grand­father had actually said.
“What—?” Marcus swallowed. “I must have misheard. Did you say, a failure to survive?”
Titanius Varrus nodded. “That is precisely what I said. Whatever happened in Dacia that afternoon, not a single person lived to tell of it.”
“But that’s . . . that is clearly impossible, Father. Some must have survived, no matter how great the damage. There must have been at least two thousand men there.”
“There would have been, normally,” Titanius said, eyeing his son levelly. “I would even say perhaps three thousand, were one to include the usual adherents—families, retainers, camp followers, and the like. In this instance, though, all of those were marching with me in the main body, because Provo and his men were on high alert, carrying their own rations and moving too urgently and too quickly to wait for a baggage train and extra bodies. Also, we had been out there for a few months and had twice taken heavy casualties, so all told there were probably little more than a thousand men in his group. Eleven hun­dred at most. But every single one of them died.”

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Arrow’s Fall
Excerpt

“As you have curtailed our evening's entertainment perhaps you would care to engage Mr. Summers in a little demonstration for the guests,” he went on unfazed. “I am sure he is quite keen. I understand he was under a slight disadvantage last time you met. Something about a dog bite if I remember correctly.”

Summers remained in front of me, his face impassive, his eyes burning.

Laura's nails dug into my hand.

“I don't think so,” I said.

My head was spinning from the drink and the smoke, and the girl had released demons into the room. I needed clean air, and space to breathe.

Summer's lips drew back in a mocking grin and he leaned towards me.

“Perhaps we could compete for the tart,” he murmured in a voice only the three of us could hear. “I see you're fucking her now. Not that she was all that great, mind you. Except for the last time of course. That was outstanding.”

I looked at the sneering face and the world shrank and there were only the two of us, and I was lying by the dugout dazed and bleeding and then the stifling smell of hay in the barn and the oppressive dust filled heat and the stillness of the other prisoners around us in a circle as the rage built and consumed me like a prairie fire.

“This time I'll kill you outright, Wakosky,” I murmured, and his face grew puzzled and a hand was pulling at my shoulder and I pushed away and there was a crash and Danny yelled and then I was up and had Summers by the throat and hurled him across the table and he slid across in a crashing of dishes and fell.

He rolled and came up smiling, much quicker than I remembered and he kicked me twice before I spun and took the leg and jack-knifed him down but he rose again as if on springs, so light for a heavy man, the dust from the hay clouding the air around him, but Wakosky was much thicker and I pondered this and he hit me again and I fell heavily and he danced away, changing shape and I rose and crouched and caught him in the throat as he came in, and he buckled and fell and I grabbed a fallen knife and leaned down and stared at his face and his eyes changed into the blue of my Grandfather's and I screamed in rage and terror and brought the knife towards him but Danny was there holding me and Summers rolled away.

“The demonstration is over,” Danny said.

Waverly looked at us and I saw him calculating, but there were guests, important people, and he was no fool, and he smiled and the tension left his body.

“Perhaps we can do this again another time,” he said. “I hate to leave things unfinished and I am sure Captain Summers feels the same.”

We turned and walked away, Padraic, Molly and Laura in a tight group, her father's arm around her, and Danny and I bringing up the rear. We went outside and there were two uniformed men waiting in the launch and they took us back to Arrow without a word from anybody. Molly left and the others went down below and then Danny came back out with a bottle and glasses and we sat in the cockpit drinking in silence.

“Do you want to talk about it?” he asked me once.

“No.”

He nodded and poured another drink and we sat there for the longest time.

I put the evening away and pulled the covers over it and buried it back down deep and held it there until the alcohol and the tiredness dulled it down and then I closed my eyes and slept. I woke once and Danny was still there, talking to someone in a low voice, and it was just breaking dawn. I squinted my eyes and it was Elinor, dripping wet in the cockpit, and this struck me as strange but I fell asleep again before I could make any sense out of it.

When I woke again I was alone and hoped I had dreamed it all.

~

“I thought you were going to sleep forever.”

I took the cup of coffee and grunted my thanks. I noted a slight bruising on Laura's left cheek. I felt like shit.

“Sorry about last night,” I muttered.

“My fault. I should have stayed out of the way. I suppose you were sort of defending my honor.”

I fumbled around the cockpit for my sunglasses. The cloud cover was thin, and it was exceedingly bright.

“Or don't you remember?”

“I remember.”

“Do you always drink so much?”

Jesus Christ. “Look, I said I was sorry.”

“Do you want some rum in your coffee?”

“No.”

“How about a Caesar then?”

“Look, I'm not an alcoholic. I just like to enjoy myself once in a while. Summers last night, that had nothing to do with drink. We don't like each other very much.”

“What did you call him?”

“Summers.”

“No. Last night. Something else.”

“I don't know. Asshole maybe. What does it matter? He was out of line and I lost my cool. Forget it.”

She stared at me, her face thoughtful.

“What time is it?”

“Ten o'clock. Everybody else has been up for ages.”

“I think I'll go for a shower.”

I stood up and looked out over the harbor. The Golden Dragon was gone.

“They left an hour ago. Dropped all their guests ashore before they pulled out,” Laura said.

“Good riddance.”

I'd drop over to Port Control, see if I could find out where they had cleared out to.

I went down below to grab some clean clothes and a towel and halted in surprise. Danny and Elinor were sitting at the table drinking coffee.

“What's she doing here?”

“She swam over early this morning. You said Hi to her.”

“I thought I was dreaming. But what's she doing here?”

“Hi again,” Elinor said. “I decided I didn't want to stay aboard that boat any longer. I don't know why I didn't leave when my friend Susan did a month ago. I don't particularly like any of them and Waverly gives me the creeps. And that girl he keeps. Ugh.” She shivered. “After you all left last night he told his guests there'd been a change of plans, they would have to leave.”

“And that included you?”

“No. I was crew. But he was angry with me about last night, as if some of it was my fault because I was with your lot. I don't trust him.”

“I'm not sure I trust you,” I said.

“C'mon Jared. Relax. She's all right.” Danny glared at me.

“Waverly selected you to be our hostess?”

“Yes.”

“Why was that?”

“I don't know. The others were taken, I guess.”

“Taken?”

“You know. They were with the other guests.”

“And you weren't with anybody.”

“That's right. Not right then. But I have been some other times. I don't have to make excuses to anybody,” she said, standing up. “I just needed to get away from the Dragon, and I didn't have anywhere else to go right away. I’m leaving now.”

“No. I apologize. If Danny wants you to stay, you stay. It's his call,” I said

“What would you like to do?” Danny asked her.

“I'd like to stay aboard Arrow and help you beat that arrogant manipulative bastard,” she said.

With her makeup washed off and her hair pulled back in a ponytail, she bore little resemblance to the sophisticated woman of the previous night.

“Beat him at what?” Laura asked.

“Recovering the treasure. I heard them talking about it.”

“Welcome aboard, Elinor,” I said, “now please tell us everything you know.”

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Afrikaner, The
Excerpt

"Oom, what are you doing here?""I went to visit some friends living on a farm over there," he says pointing to the west with his arm stretched out, the back of his hand facing up.A flood of memories rushes in. She was still a graduate student when the Bushmen soldiers who had fought in the frontier wars in Namibia had been relocated with their families to Schmitsdrift, a military base in the Karoo. Those 4,000 souls, stranded in a heavily fenced wasteland away from the public eye, had become the largest Khoisan community left in Africa. Zoe had spent a summer among them, studying their customs and way of life; that's how she had met Koma, the Medicine man of the !Kung tribe and one of the best trackers in the South African Army."Still at the camp, Koma?""Ja, I'm too old to work on a plaas."How old is he? Fifty, sixty? Even he couldn't tell."You might be too old to work on a farm, Oom, but you don't seem too old to go on foot across the Karoo. When did you leave?""Three days ago. It will take me another four days to be back home," he tells her as if it were the most natural thing in the world."I can give you a ride.""Nee. Walking is good. It has taken me back to the lost days, when I was a young hunter."As he talks, Koma lets his eyes roam across the landscape, scouting, intercepting even the slightest movement in the far distance. For a while, they share the stillness of the Karoo, drawn by the same sense of wonder, the same urge of wandering. Eventually, with his gaze still fixed into the horizon, the old shaman says,"Your heart is aching."She's taken aback. Startled by the oddness of their encounter, Zoe had momentarily forgotten the cause of her flight. But Koma can tune in on people's deepest feelings, and she should know it. "Those who live in the city no longer care to read people's hearts," he once told her at the camp. "They're too busy running about, grabbing, stealing each other's souls." She keeps quiet, looking down at the dust on her boots, forced back into reality. "The arrows of sorrow hit me hard this time," she says. Another long spell of silence. Then, imposing a stern, resolute tone onto her voice she adds, "I'll stay strong, though."The old shaman takes his time before speaking again."At times, we need to be like the weed, which bends in the wind."Zoe turns toward him, only to meet the cutout of his profile in the naked light of the veld. She cannot figure out Koma's words nor how they might apply to her plight. But there's no point in asking him to elaborate. The old shaman, she knows, would keep silent, looking away, pretending not to have heard her plea for clarity. Besides, she doesn't want to. For a little longer, until she is in this moon-like scape, in front of its raw sobriety, she can hush her mind.She sits down on her rock and, following the old man's gaze, watches the sun as it heads toward its daily death. After a while, drawing out from her daze, she stands up and walks to the car. She pulls from her backpack three packages of biltong she bought for the trip and takes the bottle of water lying on the passenger seat. Then she goes back to Koma and hands him the dried meat and the water."They will come in handy.""Goed."As the old man slips the offerings in his knapsack, she asks: "Oom, how come our paths have crossed here, in the middle of a desert?" "The magic is in every landscape and moment of life, Mejuffrou. I thought you had already taken note of this in that little book of yours you used to carry everywhere."Koma clasps her hands, then goes on his way without turning around."Totsiens, Oom," she finally says, still feeling the bushman's dry and nervous strength around her wrists. She watches him walk away, a small dark figure against a scarlet backdrop, his pace slow and measured. He's still wearing his old uniform, all patched and worn-out, and a pair of sandals made from truck tires. He and his fellow tribesmen no longer tie around their waist the traditional thong of antelope skin. That daily garment has become a hidden costume to be worn only at night when entering the trance circle. For the times are a' changing for them too, the desert people. She moves towards the car. The light is fast draining from the sky now: If she sits tight, she will be in Bloemfontein before dark settles in.

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