About the Author

Jack Whyte

Best known for his original series of Arthurian novels, A Dream of Eagles (called The Camulod Chronicles in the US), and his Knights Templar trilogy, Jack Whyte has written 10 international bestsellers. He left Scotland for Canada in 1967 to teach high-school English, but soon gravitated to life on the road as a professional singer, actor and entertainer. In the 1970s he gained a wide audience as he wrote and performed his one-man tribute to Robbie Burns across North America. Public recitals of his own narrative verse led to him being appointed the bard of the Calgary Highlanders regiment, an honour he maintains to this day. A stint as a CBC national television writer preceded a successful business career in communications, but it was his long-time interest in both the legend of King Arthur and the 5th-century Roman military occupation of Britain that dictated Jack’s destiny. Since becoming a successful author, with his books translated into many languages, Jack has made time to support upcoming authors and participate in many writer gatherings, including the Surrey International Writers’ Conference. He writes every day and resides near his favoured golf course in Kelowna, BC. He is married with five adult children.

Books by this Author
03 Knights Templar Order in Chaos

03 Knights Templar Order in Chaos

Knights Templar Trilogy 3
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Clothar The Frank

Clothar The Frank

A Dream of Eagles Book VI, The Golden Eagle Volume I
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Excerpt

Ban

1

I cannot recall much about my early childhood, but I have always been grateful, nevertheless, that I survived it, and that the memories of it that remain with me are happy ones, steeped in the eternal sunlight of long, bygone summer days and unaffected by the truths I learned later. The Lady Vivienne of Ganis, who occupied the center of my life then, since I grew up regarding her as my mother, was in fact my mother’s twin and therefore my aunt. Her husband, whom I also believed for years to be my father, was called Ban of Benwick, King of the Benwick Franks who settled the Ganis lands in southeastern Gaul before my birth.

I was seven years old when first I heard the story that my mother had abandoned me, and I remember the occasion well. I scoffed at first, pointing out to Frotto, the loudmouthed lout who was tormenting me, that my mother was Vivienne, whom people called the Lady of the Lake. Everyone knew that, I told him smugly, except him.

Not so, he yelled at me, in a jeering voice that contained an awful note of conviction. His mother had told him that the Lady Vivienne had taken me in as a homeless baby, after my true mother had abandoned both me and my father to run off with another man. Infuriated, and strangely frightened by his outrageous accusations, I charged at him. He sidestepped my rush easily, being two years older than me and almost twice my size, and kicked me hard on the shin. While I was hopping on one foot and clutching my injured leg, he punched me twice with large, meaty fists, bloodying my nose with one and then knocking me down and blackening both my eyes with the other.

Of course, I went running home, half blinded by tears and bruises and bleeding from my nose like a gravely wounded man, and Lady Vivienne was horrified when I burst into her rooms, dribbling blood and mucus all over her clean floor. She rushed to me and held me, uncaring about damage to her clothing, then hugged and comforted me and listened to my distraught tale while she tended to my wounds, holding my head back gently but firmly until the bleeding from my nostrils had dried up, then cleansing and dressing my cut leg. As soon as my face was free of blood and snot, she laid me on her own enormous bed and bathed my swollen eyes with a cool cloth, holding me to her bosom and crooning over me until I was pacified, while her women made sure that none of my siblings made their way in to gawk at me in my distress.

The major part of my comfort that day sprang from Lady Vivienne’s immediate denial of Frotto’s tale. She told me I must pay no heed to him or to his wicked lies, and I believed her. How could I not? She was my mother, the most beautiful being in my world, and it was inconceivable to me that she could lie, even to save me from pain. And so three more full years passed by before I learned the truth.

Once again, it was Frotto who precipitated things. By then he and I were implacable enemies, although he had learned to curb his tongue and keep away from me, most of the time at least. He was still larger than I was, and fatter, but I had grown too, gaining height more quickly than he and thickening steadily towards the strength and bulk that would sustain me as a warrior thereafter. I was larger than any of the other boys I knew of my own age, and that in itself might have been enough to keep Frotto away from me; he liked his victims to be much smaller than himself. And his father was a wheelwright, whereas mine was the King, so while he spent his time roaming at large with his cronies—and I was often jealous of his freedom—I spent most of mine, from the age of eight, in training to be a warrior. Chulderic, my father’s Master-at-Arms, was my official tutor in such things, and he kept me hard at work, learning to ride and fight with sword and spear, and I was an apt pupil.

On the day I was to learn the truth about my parentage, I ran into Frotto and two of his friends while leading my injured horse, Rollo, to a lush pasture, a clearing in the woods I had discovered days earlier. Rollo and I had taken a fall that morning, and while I had been no more than slightly scratched and winded by the event, Rollo had gashed his pastern on a splintered branch that lay hidden in the thicket we had tried to gallop through. Now, a few hours later, his injured leg cleaned and firmly bandaged, I had thought to make reparation to him for my carelessness by taking him where he could eat his fill of succulent grass. I was walking slowly, allowing him to pick his way carefully as he hobbled beside me, favoring his sore ankle, and I was daydreaming, fretting about the damage I had caused to my beloved horse through my own enthusiasm and lack of thought. We Franks have always been proud of our prowess with horses, and we regard ourselves as natural horsemen, born to ride. But it had never really dawned on me until that day that the invincibility and invulnerability I felt, once mounted on my horse’s back, were foolish. My poor horse was anything but invulnerable. By sending him charging into that copse the way I had, into its hidden dangers, I might easily have killed him and myself.

Thinking that, I led him around a bush, and found myself face to face with Frotto.

He was as surprised to see me as I was to see him, and it was pleasant for neither one of us. His first reaction was to draw back guiltily, leaping away from what he had been doing and looking beyond me as his two friends scattered, too, to see who else might emerge from behind the bush. For my part, I immediately looked to see what he had been doing. A skinny eight-year-old child I recognized as the daughter of one of my father’s house servants lay on her back in the long grass, naked, her legs spread wide to expose everything that made her female. Her eyes were wide with fear, although whether she was frightened by what they had been doing to her or afraid of being caught doing it I could not tell. The truth is, I did not know myself what they were doing. I simply reacted to the guilt on Frotto’s face.

“What’s going on here? What are you up to, Frotto?”

My question broke his momentary panic. He had seen that there was no one with me, and so he charged at me, catching me with a shoulder to my chest and sending me flying to rediscover aches and bruises that I had sustained earlier in my fall from Rollo’s back. Winded for the second time that day, I sprawled in the grass, looking up at him towering above me, his fists clenched and his face contorted with anger.

“What’s it matter to you, shit spawn, what I’m up to?” He drew back his foot and swung a kick at me, and I rolled towards him, catching his flying foot between my arm and my chest and twisting to pull him off balance. He landed on top of me, and the sour stink of his stale sweat flooded my nostrils as I pushed him away and rolled again to regain my feet. Before I could rise, one of his friends kicked me behind the knee and I went down again, this time on all fours, just in time to take a third kick, full in the ribs, from the third boy. My vision hazed with red and I fought to keep from vomiting from the pain, but I could see Frotto scrambling away from me and I thought he was going to run.

I was wrong. He scrabbled on hands and knees until he reached the place where they had abandoned their fighting sticks, and he picked one up and rose slowly to his feet, hefting the short, thick club in his hand while measuring me with his eyes and grinning the grin that I had learned to detest. Seeing what was coming, I tried again to stand up, but again his friends prevented me, one of them sweeping my legs from under me with a wide, looping kick. And as I huddled there, face down, half lying and half kneeling, Frotto struck me across the shoulders with his cudgel.

Pain flashed across my back, but he had not hit me as hard as he could have; I knew that even as the blow landed, and a part of me wondered why. Chulderic, my trainer, had long since taught me that, once committed to a fight, it was sheer folly to hold back and be anything less than ruthless in disabling your enemy. Now, despite my pain, I was wondering what was going on in Frotto’s mind. Perhaps he was still afraid of my status as my father’s son. I fell forward onto my elbows, my face brushing the grass, and then I gathered myself and lunged, pushing upwards and forward, forcing myself to my feet in a shuffling run that caught all three of them by surprise.

The largest of the three came close to catching me. As his fingers closed on my tunic, pulling me around, I seized his own tunic in both my hands, then head-butted him hard. His nose crunched and he fell away from me, howling and falling hard to the ground, his hands clamped over the blood spewing from his ravaged face. Before either of the others could recover from the shock of what had happened, I leaped over the distance remaining between me and the other two cudgels that still lay on the ground. I snatched them up, one in each hand, spun towards my tormentors and dropped into a fighting stance.

The fight should have been over at that point. I had cut their strength by one-third and now I held two clubs to their one. And they must have seen how angry I was, in the set of my face. They knew I had been training hard for more than two years with cudgels very like those I now held, except that my own were longer and even heavier. It was plain to me that neither of them wanted to be the one who would put my training to the test. But poor stupid Frotto couldn’t simply back away and accept the situation for what it was. Perhaps if he had, and had kept his mouth shut, I might have allowed him to walk away, even then, but that was not Frotto’s way. He had to try to convince his dullard friend that they had bested me and that I wasn’t worthy of their time or attention, and so he went into his customary diatribe about my parentage, and how my “real” mother had been a faithless slut.

I had heard the tirade many times by then, and I had almost grown immune to it, accustomed to letting it flow around my ears without heed. This time, however, I decided I had had enough, and I knew that Frotto’s additional height, weight and years were no longer significant to me. I raised my right hand high and lowered my left, advancing towards him slowly and daring him to swing at me. He did, and I parried his blow with the club in my left hand, then smashed him on the wrist with the other. He howled, his club went flying, and he spun away in agony, tucking his injured wrist beneath his armpit. I followed him, moving quickly, bringing one cudgel and then the other down as hard as I could on his bent back, driving him to his knees.

The lout with the broken nose had managed to struggle up, but there was no fight left in him. The third, uninjured one stood gaping at me, hovering between flight and fight. I lunged at him and he broke, running for his life. As he went I noticed that the little girl had vanished, probably having escaped as soon as our attention had been removed from her. Broken Nose rose to his feet, one blood-covered hand upraised palm outwards, mutely begging me not to hit him again. I jerked my head at him and he, too, ran off, leaving me with Frotto. My tormentor had regained his feet by that time and stood looking at me, still hugging his wrist under his arm, his face the color of bread dough.

My anger had all drained away, leaving me cold, but I was far from finished with Frotto. I jumped towards him and slashed the club in my right hand downwards, striking him brutally on the left knee, and his leg gave way, pitching him at my feet.

“Now listen to me, you fat pig,” I hissed. “If I ever hear you say another word about my mother, or about anything to do with my family, I’ll kill you. Do you hear me?”

He groveled, whining and blubbering, and the coldness I had been feeling suddenly welled up in me, blinding me to everything but the infuriating sight of him. I hit him again, this time on his upraised arm, wanting to break it, but as I raised my cudgel yet again I became aware of violent movement beside me. A powerful blow sent me spinning to fall flat on my face.

“Enough, I said!” The voice roaring above me snapped me back to my senses. “God’s teeth, don’t you know when a fight’s over? Are you trying to kill him? Pick that sack of guts up and get him out of here. See to him, and hold him with the others.”

I raised myself on one elbow and saw two of my father’s men-at-arms pulling the blubbering Frotto up between them. Beside me, Chulderic, the Master-at-Arms, was livid with rage. I looked away from him, shaking my head to clear it, and saw four more men holding my other two assailants by the arms. Both of them looked terrified.

I had caught the rough edge of Chulderic’s tongue and temper before, but I had never seen anything like the fury that drove him now. King’s son or not, he hauled me up by the back of my tunic and sent me sprawling again with his boot in my backside before recapturing me and dragging me, kicking and struggling, to his own horse. He picked me up and threw me face down across his saddle, yelling at me to stay there and not move if I valued my hide.

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Dream Of Eagles #1 The Skystone

Dream Of Eagles #1 The Skystone

Dream of Eagles #1
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Eagle

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Jack Whyte

Jack Whyte

Forty Years in Canada
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Jack Whyte: Forty Years in Canada

Jack Whyte: Forty Years in Canada

A Memoir
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Metamorphosis

Metamorphosis

A Dream of Eagles Book V, The Sorcerer Volume II
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Templar Trilogy 02 Standard of Honor
Excerpt

ONE

“We should never have left La Safouri. In Christ’s name, a blind man could see that.”

“Is that so? Then why didn’t some blind man speak up and say so before we left? I’m sure de Ridefort would have listened and paid heed, especially to a blind man.”

“You can shove your sarcasm up your arse, de Belin, I mean what I say. What are we doing here?”

“We’re waiting to be told what to do. Waiting to die. That’s what soldiers do, is it not?”

Alexander Sinclair, knight of the Temple, listened to the quiet but intense argument behind him, but he took pains to appear oblivious to it, because even though a part of him agreed with what Sir Antoine de Lavisse was complaining about so bitterly, he could not afford to be seen to agree. That might be prejudicial to discipline. He pulled the scarf tighter around his face and stood up in his stirrups to scan the darkened encampment around them, hearing the muffled sounds of unseen movement everywhere and another, distant Arabic voice, part of the litany that had been going on all night, shouting “Allahu Akbar,” God is great. At his back, Lavisse was still muttering.

“Why would any sane man leave a strong, secure position, with stone walls and all the fresh water his army might ever need, to march into the desert in the height of summer? And against an enemy who lives in that desert, swarms like locusts, and is immune to heat? Tell me, please, de Belin. I need to know the answer to that question.”

“Don’t ask me, then.” De Belin’s voice was taut with disgust and frustration. “Go and ask de Ridefort, in God’s name. He’s the one who talked the idiot King into this and I’ve no doubt he’ll be glad to tell you why. And then he’ll likely bind you to your saddle, blindfold you and send you out alone, bare-arsed, as an amusement offering to the Saracens.”

Sinclair sucked his breath sharply. It was unjust to place the blame for their current predicament solely upon the shoulders of Gerard de Ridefort. The Grand Master of the Temple was too easy and too prominent a target. Besides, Guy de Lusignan, King of Jerusalem, needed to be goaded if he were ever to achieve anything. The man was a king in name only, crowned at the insistence of his doting wife, Sibylla, sister of the former king and now the legitimate Queen of Jerusalem. He was utterly feckless when it came to wielding power, congenitally weak and indecisive. The arguing men at Sinclair’s back, however, had no interest in being judicious. They were merely complaining for the sake of complaining.

“Sh! Watch out, here comes Moray.”

Sinclair frowned into the darkness and turned his head slightly to where he could see his friend, Sir Lachlan Moray, approaching, mounted and ready for whatever the dawn might bring, even though there must be a full hour of night remaining. Sinclair was unsurprised, for from what he had already seen, no one had been able to sleep in the course of that awful, nerve-racking night. The sound of coughing was everywhere, the harsh, raw-throated barking of men starved for fresh air and choking in smoke. The Saracens swarming around and above them on the hillsides under the cover of darkness had set the brush up there ablaze in the middle of the night, and the stink of smoldering resinous thorn bushes had been growing ever stronger by the minute. Sinclair felt a threatening tickle in his own throat and forced himself to breathe shallowly, reflecting that ten years earlier, when he had first set foot in the Holy Land, he had never heard of such a creature as a Saracen. Now it was the most common word in use out here, describing all the faithful, zealous warriors of the Prophet Muhammad—and more accurately of the Kurdish Sultan Saladin—irrespective of their race. Saladin’s empire was enormous, for he had combined the two great Muslim territories of Syria and Egypt, and his army was composed of all breeds of infidel, from the dark-faced Bedouins of Asia Minor to the mulattos and ebony Nubians of Egypt. But they all spoke Arabic and they were now all Saracens.

“Well, I see I’m not alone in having slept well and dreamlessly.” Moray had drawn alongside him and nudged his horse forward until he and Sinclair were sitting knee to knee, and now he stared upward into the darkness, following Sinclair’s gaze to where the closer of the twin peaks known as the Horns of Hattin loomed above them. “How long, think you, have we left to live?”

“Not long, I fear, Lachlan. We may all be dead by noon.”

“You, too? I needed you to tell me something different there, my friend.” Moray sighed. “I would never have believed that so many men could die as the result of one arrogant braggart’s folly … one petty tyrant’s folly and a king’s gutlessness.”

The city of Tiberias, the destination that they could have reached the night before, and the freshwater lake on which it stood, lay less than six miles ahead of them, but the governor of that city was Count Raymond of Tripoli, and Gerard de Ridefort, Master of the Temple, had decided months earlier that he detested Raymond, calling the man a Muslim turncoat, treacherous and untrustworthy.

In defiance of all logic in the matter of reaching safety and protecting his army, de Ridefort had decided the previous afternoon that he had no wish to arrive at Tiberias too soon. It was not born of a reluctance to meet Raymond of Tripoli again, for Raymond was here in camp, with the army, and his citadel in Tiberias was being defended by his wife, the lady Eschiva, in his absence. But whatever his reasons, de Ridefort had made his decision, and no one had dared gainsay him, since the majority of the army’s knights were Templars. There was a well in the tiny village of Maskana, close to where they were at that moment, de Ridefort had pointed out to his fellow commanders, and so they would rest there overnight and push down towards Lake Tiberias in the morning.

Of course, Guy de Lusignan, as King of Jerusalem, could have vetoed de Ridefort’s suggestion as soon as it was made, but, true to his vacillating nature, he had acceded to de Ridefort’s demands, encouraged by Reynald de Chatillon, another formidable Templar and a sometime ally of the Master of the Temple. De Chatillon, a vicious and foresworn law unto himself and even more arrogant and autocratic than de Ridefort, was the castellan of the fortress of Kerak, known as the Crow’s Castle, the most formidable fortress in the world, and he held the distinction of being the man whom Saladin, Sultan of Egypt, Syria, and Mesopotamia, hated most in all the Frankish armies.

And so the signal had been passed and the army of Jerusalem, the greatest single army ever assembled by the eighty-year-old kingdom, had stopped and made camp, while the legions of Saladin’s vast army—its cavalry alone outnumbered the Franks by ten to one—almost completely encircled them. Hemmed in on all sides even before night fell, the Frankish army of twelve hundred knights, supported by ten thousand foot soldiers and some two thousand light cavalry, made an uncomfortable camp, dismayed and unnerved, alas too late, by the swift-breaking news that the well by which their leaders had chosen to stop was dry. No one had thought to check it in advance.

When a light breeze sprang up at nightfall they were grateful for the coolness it brought, but within the hour they were cursing it for blowing the smoke among them throughout the night.

Now the sky was growing pale with the first light of the approaching day, and Sinclair knew, deep in his gut, that the likelihood of him or any of his companions surviving the coming hours was slim at best. The odds against them were laughable.

The Temple Knights, whose motto was “First to attack; last to retreat,” loved to boast that a single Christian sword could rout a hundred enemies. That arrogant belief had led to an incredible slaughter of a large force of Templars and Hospitallers at Cresson, a month and some days earlier. Every man in the Christian force, except for the Master de Ridefort himself and four wounded, nameless knights, had gone down to death that day. But the army surrounding them this day would quickly put the lie to such vaunting nonsense, probably once and for all. Saladin’s army was composed almost entirely of versatile, resilient light cavalry. Mounted on superbly agile Yemeni horses and lightly armored for speed, these warriors were armed with weapons of damascened steel and light, lethal lances with shafts made from reeds. Thoroughly trained in the tactics of swift attack and withdrawal, they operated in small, fast, highly mobile squadrons and were well organized, well led and disciplined. There were countless thousands of them, and they all spoke the same language, Arabic, which gave them an enormous advantage over the Franks, many of whom could not speak the language of the Christians fighting next to them.

Sinclair had known for months that the army Saladin had gathered for this Holy War—the host that now surrounded the Frankish army—contained contingents from Asia Minor, Egypt, Syria, and Mesopotamia, and he knew, too, that leadership of the various divisions of the army had been entrusted to Saladin’s ferocious Kurdish allies, his elite troops. The mounted cavalry alone, according to rumor, numbered somewhere in the realm of fifteen thousand, and he had seen with his own eyes that the supporting host accompanying them was so vast it filled the horizon as it approached the Frankish camp, stretching as far as the eye could see. Sinclair had clearly heard the number of eighty thousand swords being passed from mouth to mouth among his own ranks. He believed the number to be closer to fifty thousand, but he gained no comfort from that.

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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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