It is impossible to ignore the strength
in Gawley's words as he creates a world entirely his own, rich and alive. –The Canon
Primus Seneca has lived most of his life in exile. Ten years ago his father led an army against the ruthless dictator Tiberius–and was crushed. Now the general plans his revenge from the snowy heart of the Boreal forest, and sixteen-year-old Primus is eager to join his father’s legion. But once he is sworn in, Primus begins to unravel family secrets that will shake his faith in the cause, his father, and the very nature of the gods.
“I could not put it down! I was up until 5 a.m. reading this book non-stop.” –Caitlyn Burleigh, Fictioholic
“…Spartacus meets Game of Thrones with a hefty dash of The 300…” –Beatriz Collazo, Amazon Reviewer
“It’s a compelling journey… and it does not end at all as I expected.” –William Vitka, Author of Infected
“A well crafted story with convincing, interesting characters…. an enjoyable, engrossing read.” Alice Leiper, Ally’s Desk
Lilith is the governor’s daughter. For years she has attended her father’s meetings, met with his clients, and advised him in his affairs. But violence is brewing on their borders and the province is suffering. When the barbarians are at the gates, Lilith’s father disappears, leaving her alone in the governor’s chair. With few allies and crumbling support, Lilith must find a way to rally her province against imminent destruction.
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Politically speaking, Marius Venator never lived up to his early promise. His heroism in battle and his eagerness to champion the cause of the people endeared him to the hearts of the lower classes and his faculty in playing upon their prejudice reaped early benefits. Marius became the embattled hero of the people, struggling against an entrenched and heartless nobility. Yet in painting himself the hero, he cast the senate, whose acceptance was his ultimate goal, in the role of villain.
The Life of Marius Venator
Primus scraped the razor along his jaw, shearing the modest stubble from his face. The razor had been his father’s, forgotten when he left the citadel to take charge of the mining camp. Likely it had been a spare, since Primus had found no brush or strop or soap in his father’s empty quarters. As he shaved, the men nearby mocked his diligence. Felix reminded him that ladies shaved their legs and not their faces. Lepus thought perhaps he’d mistaken a shadow on his lip for a beard. Primus ignored them, carefully feeling along his jaw-line for missed hairs because he owned no mirror.
Since he’d come of age, Primus had slept in the barracks. As the youngest soldier in his cohort, he was relegated to the lowest bunk at the far end of the hall. Before that he’d been in the children’s quarters, in a communal bedroom with the other boys whose parents were dead or absent. He was still proud–and a little frightened–to be living among the men. As Primus wrapped the blade in soft linen and put it back into his kit, he paused to touch the only other token that his father had left behind: it was a small stone painted with the portrait of a woman. She had high, arched eyebrows like Primus did, and a graceful nose that Primus thought he might share. She was his mother, he was sure. Why his father had left her behind, he could not say.
Marcus Seneca had left the citadel six years ago, when the camp at Silvermine was first built. He had not returned since. Primus had been only a boy when his father left, and the general had small time for him even then. So Primus had gotten to know the man in his absence, through his discarded treasures and the memories of others. He dropped the portrait stone back into the leather kit bag and yanked the drawstring tight.
When Primus emerged from the barracks, he found the world bathed in the grey light of pre-dawn, the clouds overhead not yet blushing. The barracks hall was a long narrow building of brick and mortar, one of fifty identical buildings laid out in a rough grid against the slope of a hill. At the crest of the hill stood the citadel; unlike the barracks, the citadel was built of tremendous granite slabs, and it was roofed by a wide and graceful dome.
Arcadians like Primus had built the barracks halls, but the citadel had stood for a thousand years. Whether it was originally meant as temple or fortress, Primus could not say. It was a broad, squat tower of unadorned granite, and if its walls had ever borne an inscription, the words were smoothed away by centuries of mist drifting downriver from the falls.
All the buildings on the hill were surrounded by a single high wall built of timber. Within this wall too was the martial field: a wide dirt yard that faced a kind of wooden stage, where the entire legion could muster with room to spare. The officers could observe from the stage as all six thousand soldiers passed in review, but today the stage was empty. The field held only a handful of men, dressed not in armor but in rough grey wool emblazoned with the Arcadian eagle. This was Primus’ destination as he emerged from his barracks.
When he reached the martial field, Primus saw that someone from his own cohort had beaten him there: Lepidus Sinta was a lanky, black haired youth and everyone called him “Lepus”—the hare. Lepus was nearly of an age with Primus; they’d been through their initiation ceremony together. Primus frowned at the memory.
They had set up an altar on the first floor of the citadel, a wide room crowded with pillars of thick granite. Primus remembered the red shadows thrown by the flickering torches and the way the smoke had stung his eyes and nostrils. The hierophant led them in their pledge. His voice was deep and sonorous, his face hidden beneath the shadows of his hood. They had sacrificed a shaggy highland cow, cutting its throat while the beast bellowed and tried to rise from the altar. Then the new soldiers were allowed to eat their fill of meat—a rare privilege. In exchange, they pledged two years of service to General Marius and they pledged the lives of all their enemies to the god of war. The high priest said: “Let their enemies be warned! Let them bury their gold, hide their women, build high their walls. These men are legionarii, and they will trample all who stand in their path!” Lepus had cheered along with the others, but Primus had been silent. He wondered who his enemies would be, and whether they would flee in fear as the priest had promised, or stay and fight, as he was now bound to do.
Lepus scowled companionably when Primus joined him on the martial field. “Last man to arrive again,” he observed. “What’s the matter, you don’t like freezing your balls off in the haunted forest?” A few of the men nearby chuckled. Primus smiled back. A single shrill whistle came from the edge of the martial field, and they hefted axes to their shoulders and formed up in a double column. They were bound for woodcutting duty: a regular task, since every single building in the camp, except the citadel, was heated from below both day and night. It was a blessed luxury in the frozen north, especially as the mist of the waterfall turned to blowing ice. But it meant that the Arcadians chewed through wood faster than a colony of termites.
As the woodcutting party marched off the martial field headed for the gate, they had to pass by the kitchens. As they passed, Primus inhaled deeply, trying to guess whether the afternoon’s bread would be coarse or sweet. All grain was imported at the citadel, for the growing season was terribly short and wheat did not thrive in the acidic, rocky soil. Unfortunately, not all of the grain brought in from the coast was of equal quality. Sometimes the flour was fine, and the bakers made light sweet rolls whose texture was as airy as a cloud. Other days, they worked tough, chewy rolls out of coarse millet. Primus gazed at the stone walls of the kitchen, peering through the open door at the great clay ovens inside. It would be a coarse millet day, if his nose was any judge. He said as much to Lepus, who marched beside him.
“What’s this! A soldier, bored with hard bread and water? Don’t you know that Marius’ Dead Men love the taste of weevils in their biscuits? That’s where you get your sustenance. Or maybe I’ll just run down to the butcher and fetch us a cut of beef. How about you, Sextus? You want anything from the meat market?”
Sextus turned his head to look back at them as he marched. “Pork. I haven’t had good pork loin since we left Arcadia.”
“Forget pork,” Lepus returned. “I’d eat stewed boot-leather three meals a day, if I could only have a woman. You ever had a woman, Primus? No? Lucky you, then. You don’t know what you’re missing. For me and Sextus here, it’s torture every day.”
Sextus grunted his agreement. He was a bit older than Lepus, though not veteran enough to be excused from work detail. “First thing I’ll do when we go home, I’m going to fuck ten girls in a single day. Then I’ll sleep for a week.”
“Then pork?” Lepus asked.
Sextus chuckled. “Then pork. I’ll eat till I burst.”
“See, this is a real soldier.” Lepus nudged Primus with an elbow. “That’s how a real Arcadian does it, eh? First he fights, then he fucks, then he feasts. What do you know about any of that?”
Primus didn’t try to keep up with their banter. He just smiled as he listened, and wondered what it would really be like when they finally marched home. Sometimes, when they were gathered for parade, General Marius gave speeches from the wooden stage. He told them about Tiberius’ crimes against the Republic. He made them feel like the lucky ones, to have escaped from Arcadia before the tyrant seized power. Things back home grew worse every day, he said, and soon the people would rise up against Tiberius on their own. The general asked if they would let the people die bravely, fighting against the dictator, or if they would march south to help their fellows shake off the chains of tyranny.
After one of those speeches, Primus always felt like a warrior. But whenever the others spoke of going home, they joked about spoils and rapine and they bragged of slaves they would take and riches they would seize. Year after year they rehearsed their plunder in their minds, until it seemed that embroidering their dreams of conquest was their only pastime. Listening to them, Primus felt less and less like a hero. He often tried to remember the exact words of the general’s speech, to recall what had made him feel so proud to be a soldier. He never could get the words right though, and he never got the feeling back.
To avoid all the talk of plunder, normally Primus gravitated toward the oldest of the veterans. A few of the men in his cohort had been old soldiers even before the civil war broke out. When they spoke of returning home, they never talked about it like a conquest. The younger ones kept a respectful voice around them too. Lepus and Sextus would never brag about fucking ten women a day in front of Black Titus, who had a wife still living in Arcadia. Once, Primus had worked up the courage to ask Titus if he ever got letters from his wife, or sent her any.
“Not in ten years,” the old man had said. Black Titus was normally close-mouthed toward the younger men, though he tolerated Primus’ company. So Primus had not pressed the issue any further; he just sat beside the old man in silence. Yet his simple question worked like the pebble that began an avalanche. Titus began to speak of his wife and his home, and Primus learned how he’d come to lose them both.
“We were only together for three months before I enlisted. I hardly got to see her after that. When a man enlists he thinks he’s signing up for two years. But it never happens that way.” The old man was sitting on his bunk in the barracks. Primus was on the floor beside him. A game of dice was going on in the alley between the beds and men were crowded into the aisle, jostling each other as they watched the dice land, whispering lest they alert their commander to the game. Primus and Titus had both lost their money early and were watching the others. Titus’ face was lined, especially around the mouth, and there were bags beneath his eyes. His short, bristly hair was gray now, though everyone still called him Titus the Black. “Did they tell you that, boy? That you’d only have to serve two years?”
“Did you believe it?”
Primus only shrugged.
“I guess you wouldn’t. You grew up out here. Where would you even go in two years? But I believed it. When I signed on, I was seventeen years old. Just married. Maria’s father wanted me to join his laundry business. I just didn’t want to smell like piss all day. From the ammonia, I mean. Laundry is big business in the city—did you know that? The ammonia comes from public toilets. The clothes get white but the launderers carry the smell with them to dinner. So. After three months I ran out of excuses and it was ‘empty the piss-pots or join the army.’”
Titus smiled slightly. The old man’s eyes were on the dice game but Primus didn’t think he was seeing it. “Marius was out to make a name for himself back then. He’d just been given command of the eastern legions. I heard he was paying his men wage-and-a-half, so I made my way out east. I made it out there just in time to join the invasion. The Roanish tribes. Hard fighters.”
Titus was silent for a time. Lepus won a toss at dice, and let out a whoop. The others shoved him and hissed at him to be quiet. Lepus was unrepentant, jangling the coins in his purse as he held it beside his ear. After a moment, when Titus continued silent, Primus asked: “What made you side with Marius? I mean later, when he fought Tiberius.”
Titus looked startled and Primus quickly regretted the question. Even though he’d spoken quietly, one or two of the gamblers were watching him from the corner of their eyes. He spoke quickly, loud enough for anyone to hear. “I mean, I know that Marius was—is—a hero to the common people. And I know that Tiberius wanted to be a tyrant. I just wondered, what was it that made up your mind? Was it politics, or just loyalty… or did the tyrant hurt someone close to you?”
Black Titus looked at him for a long moment. His thin lips were drawn into a frown and deep lines stood out on his forehead. “You ask too many questions, boy. Did no one ever tell you that?”
Primus lowered his gaze. “Yes, sir.”
“Well. I’ll answer you, because someone ought to. I don’t suppose any of these others will ever talk about it. It wasn’t politics or loyalty, boy. And Tiberius never hurt anyone close to me. Tiberius doesn’t even know my name. I fought for Marius because I thought he would win.”
Primus looked around. A few men were listening openly now. Another veteran, a man named Gaticus, watched Primus over the heads of the few gamblers who still huddled over their dice. Unlike the others, Gaticus wore his hair long and pulled it back into a thick grey braid that hung past his shoulders. That and his height and coloring marked him for one of the Woade. As he listened to them, Gaticus reclined on his bunk using his pack for a pillow. His right arm rested across his knee. His left arm ended at the elbow.
“I was with the legion at Hands when the old man took us north,” Titus went on. “We caught up with Tiberius in Levis, north of the city where the country runs smooth for about a hundred miles. There wasn’t much talk of politics. I guess if I had thought about it I would’ve agreed with Marius. At the time it was just a question of following orders. And the old man had never lost a fight. That’s something you stick to, no matter what your politics are. The man who keeps you alive.”
Titus paused for a long time. “That was an ugly time for us,” he eventually said. “Fighting the Roanishmen had been bad. This was much worse. The legions don’t break easy. They—we—grind each other down. The phalanx is like a machine for cutting men apart. You’ve been told how it works. You’ve drilled it. But you’ve never had to face it.”
Primus looked at Gaticus. The stump of his arm lay useless against the old man’s side. He thought of the gladius—the short, broad-bladed sword carried by the legionnaires. You can cripple your enemy or you can kill him, his combat instructor had said, either one will do. And cripples are easier to make than corpses. They said that the gladius could lop a man’s arm off as easy as chopping wood. Gaticus’ black gaze was fixed on him. Primus turned away. The dice game had stopped.
“After the war… I couldn’t return to the city for Maria,” Titus said. “I couldn’t do anything but run. Those of us that made it to the forest left everyone behind. As for letters… I guess Marius and your father have ways to get letters back and forth to home. They’ve got to keep up with what’s happening. Plan things out, get things organized. But for me, there’s no way I could send a message to my wife. Too late now in any case, probably. For her, I died ten years ago.”
Primus could remember their flight into the northern wilds. He had been a small child then, living in his father’s villa northwest of the city. Marcus Seneca arrived with what seemed like a huge army to Primus’ young eyes. He could remember the smell of sweat, from men and horses. He remembered his father kneeling in front of him, in all his armor, blood still smeared across his face. Son, you’re going to be a soldier.
Black Titus lay back on his bunk, hands folded behind his head. For a moment the barracks was still. Then men began to drift back to their beds. There were quiet words as the gamblers sorted out their winnings. Primus stood up from the floor by Titus’ bunk and walked down the long aisle to his own bed. Gaticus watched him go, a solemn look on his narrow, weathered face.
They were marching along the river road now, and Lepus’ banter had fallen silent. The grey cliff rose steep on their left and the river rushed past on the right. The road was built like a shelf against the cliff, high enough above the river that spring flooding would not drown it. After nearly an hour’s walk, the cliff gradually fell away until by mid-morning the troop was out of the valley entirely and the road turned sharply from south to east.
Outside the valley the Boreal forest dominated the landscape. The great trees rose like pillars of the earth, so tall that fog gathered in the forest canopy. Each pale red trunk was so wide, ten men linking hands could not encircle it. Their canopy cast the forest floor in perpetual shadow; no underbrush sprung up in the wide spaces between the trees. Even now, with autumn just beginning, snow could be seen. There was something terribly unwelcoming about the forest. To stare too long made the small hairs rise on the back of Primus’ neck.
Here the road turned away from the river and ran eastward all the way to the coast, three hundred miles away. But Primus and his comrades left the road and doubled back north along the edge of the river canyon. Along the edge of the river valley the greatwoods gave way to pine and spruce, trees of a more human scale. In the early years of their exile, the Arcadians had felled many of these. Now a field of stumps extended from the edge of the cliff for perhaps two hundred yards. The stumps ended where the greatwood forest began; to bring down one of these giants was far more difficult that the simple harvesting of a pine tree. But after ten years in the Boreal forest, there were no pine trees left.
Among the stumps, green saplings poked up from the rotten bed of leaves and needles. A cold wind whipped down from the north to tug Primus’ cloak out behind him. Beyond the river to the west the land rose steeply, and the snowy peaks of the Yeti’s Teeth marked the western edge of the world. Today the sky was thick and grey, and the mountains were shrouded in fog. As they walked along the cliff, the sound of the waterfall grew louder and soon the wind brought a stinging mist against their faces. If Primus walked to the edge of the cliff he would be able to see the citadel in the valley below. But the party kept marching, until they passed the point where the river plunged over the falls. Then they were marching beside the river and gradually the roar of the waterfall faded behind them.
Their destination was roughly half a mile north of the falls: one of the giant greatwoods was surrounded by a wooden scaffold. Chips of wood lay thick on the ground. A rope of twisted hemp ran through a block which was attached to the trunk near the top of the tree. The rope stretched all the way across the river, where it was anchored to the opposite shore. On the trunk, at the level of the scaffold, a wedge had been chopped from the base of the greatwood. Even from a distance, the scale of the thing impressed Primus. The wedge they’d chopped out of the tree was tall enough to stand in, yet it looked like the work of woodpeckers from a distance—or perhaps termites.
It was a new idea, to fell a greatwood tree. If all went as intended they would pull the trunk down across the water, where the current would bring it downstream and over the falls. From there another crew would catch it in their nets and guide it ashore near the citadel. One tree would supply six thousand men with firewood and lumber for a year.
Today they would deepen their cut while the pulling team waited across the river, ropes in hand. If they worked swiftly it might be possible to bring the tree down before sunset. Primus and Lepus were partnered up, as were Sextus and an older man called Felix. They scrambled up the scaffold first, while the other half-dozen men gathered up the chips scattered by the previous day’s work, now dry of sap and ready to burn.
Primus and Lepus worked together smoothly inside the tree, one wielding the axe while the other tossed the loose chunks of wood onto the ground below. The trunk was so thick that both teams could work inside the wedge at the same time, and they did not get in each other’s way. As they worked, sap oozed slowly down from the trunk above Primus’ head. It collected in the rough edges left by the axe and formed tiny stalactites that caught painfully in his hair. When he took his turn collecting wood chips for Lepus the sap got onto his hands, and when he took back the axe in order to take his turn chopping the sticky resin pulled against the axe handle, raising blisters on his palms. They hacked away for the rest of the morning while the foreman walked around the scaffold, examining their progress.
By mid-afternoon Primus’ shoulders were burning and his eyes stung from the sweat. He stepped back to rest his axe and pushed his drenched hair back from his forehead. Lepus stepped in as Primus took his break, collecting the latest crop of wood chips, and Primus stepped aside to let him pass. He leaned on his axe handle as he caught his breath. The smells of sweat and sap filled his nostrils.
Then the wind picked up and the tree began to groan.
For a moment Primus stood very still, listening to the sound of the creaking wood. Lepus froze where he was crouched, one hand touching a chunk of greatwood, the other arm cradling a stack of chips. The wind grew stronger and the tree groaned louder, a sound that seemed to come from all around them. Primus felt the trunk vibrate beneath his feet.
Lepus whispered “Look!” His eyes were fixed on the pale green wood a few inches from his face. A long, thin crack was forming there, growing before their eyes.
“GET OUT!” the foreman shouted. But Lepus squatted, frozen in place, staring wide-eyed at the growing fissure. Primus dropped the axe. He grabbed Lepus by the shoulders, intending to haul him to his feet. The world shrank as the greatwood bent over in the sudden gale. The wedge began to close above their heads. The other axe team had already scrambled out. Primus could hear them shouting from the scaffold. He tugged hard on Lepus’ shoulders.
Lepus finally awakened from his reverie and clutched at Primus’ arm. “Go!” he shouted, and they crawled together toward the edge of the trunk for it was already impossible to stand. Too late, thought Primus. A terrible, slow CRAAACK filled their ears, and the old man of the forest shuddered, and then came crashing down.