Here is the prologue for my soon to be released action adventure novel set in Britannia, 367AD
Township of Leptis Magna, Province of Africa, 361AD
The stars were brighter than usual tonight, Publius Albanus Tutor mused as he made his way down the colonnaded main street of Leptis. Funny how cold it could get after you’d spent the day baking under your armour. But he wasn’t complaining. Compared to other postings, this was a good one. He pitied the legions freezing their jerkins off in Britannia. He had a friend on the northern wall who wrote occasionally and the stories he came out with made Publius even more grateful for the exotic climate of Africa. Sometimes he was assigned sentry duty on the long harbour breakwater; those were Publius’ favourite nights, watching the moonlight sparkle on the dark sea, feeling the warm wind on your face; sharing a game of dice with your mates after your shift. Publius smiled to himself. Life was pretty good here, even if the local tribes were getting a bit restless. He’d been down south a couple of times to teach them who was boss and been surprised at the ferocity of their attacks. Like madmen, some of them, with their black robes and curved swords. But they’d received a good beating from Rome’s finest and there hadn’t been any trouble since. Not since last full moon. Publius glanced up and watched a wisp of cloud pass over the face of the shining orb. Besides, he mused, while the great walls of Leptis stood what hope did the tribesmen have? Wasting their time, Publius smiled to himself. Rome was Rome, and no one could touch it. Not even here.
Publius lengthened his stride down the wide thoroughfare, breathing in the exotic smells of nighttime Leptis. He stopped at a stall to buy a skewer of roast meat, flavoured with fish sauce and spices. The boy smiled at him as he plucked the skewer expertly from the flames and winked. Publius followed the boy’s pointing finger and caught sight of a group of young girls loitering by the pillars. They giggled and whispered amongst themselves as the soldier scrutinised them, but their excitement turned to jibes of disappointment as Publius shook his head and paid for his food with a grimy coin. No time for that tonight, business to get on with. And a bad business for someone, he ruminated, munching a piece of meat. Tonight he was on execution duty and they were expecting a large crowd to witness the burning of two of the Empire’s most hated figures: Paulus ‘Catena’, head of the agentes in rebus and one Apodemius, also involved in treason trials under Constantius and judged guilty himself under the Emperor Julian’s new regime. Publius was an experienced executioner, but there was something about burnings even a hardened veteran like himself found detestable. Still, orders were orders. He turned into the main square and found as predicted, a hundred or so citizens already gathered. The mood was expectant, an almost carnival atmosphere as peopled jostled for position or gossiped together in small groups whilst they waited for the main event. Street vendors and entertainers mingled with the crowd, weaving their way expertly in and out as they dispensed their tricks and consumables. Publius pushed his way to the middle of the square where the two stakes stood erect, surrounded by the cut logs and brushwood of his unit’s earlier preparations.
“Salve Publius. Bit late, aren’t you?” A lugubrious officer raised his hand in half-hearted greeting.
“Held up at the harbour. Everything ready?”
“Ready as it’ll ever be. Let’s get the torches lit.”
Placed at intervals around the pyre were a number of torches set upon tall poles. Each would be allocated to an attending soldier, who at a given signal would reach into the brushwood and ignite it.
“Orders the same?” the officer asked him.
“No change, Quintus,” Publius replied, “they’ve obviously upset Julian a lot.”
“I pity them. This is the worst way to die.” Quintus took the first pole and lit the torch from the brazier. He replaced the pole in its locating socket and moved to the next. Other members of the unit followed suit and soon the circle of fire was complete. The crowd watched the proceedings and when the final torch was lit a loud cheer went up, the echo slapping back from the stone walls of the buildings surrounding the square.
Publius approached the pyre to make his final checks. He mentally ticked off each check as he completed it. Stakes secure, wood dry. No sign of tampering. Air channel unblocked. No rope. He felt an uncharacteristic stab of compassion for the victims. The addition of a neck rope would be a mercy, enabling the condemned men to be strangled before the flames took them. But their orders had contained no such lenience; the victims would burn alive. Publius shook his head ruefully and stepped back to review his handiwork. Now all they had to do was await the execution squad and keep the crowd under control. Publius accepted a cup of wine and walked slowly around the pyre in his usual thorough manner. Any technical problems would rest fairly and squarely on his shoulders and the last thing Publius wanted was to put his repution in jeopardy. He’d done a good job here in Africa and the end of his assignment was only a few moons away, after which retirement beckoned. A quiet life in the foothills somewhere south of Rome. A vineyard, maybe some livestock, one or two young slaves. All he had to do was keep his nose clean. Publius knew how swiftly a fall from grace could occur. Case in point tonight. Paulus, favourite of the Emperor Constantius. Couldn’t put a foot wrong at first, then got too ahead of himself. Started to take the law into his own hands. Even had a go at Britannia’s vicarius. It was no good being in with the Emperor if everyone else hated you, Publius reckoned. Emperors came and went, but people had long memories. And tonight’s other victim, Apodemius, he knew less about. But the same principle applied: overstep the mark and watch your fortunes crumble.
He swore under his breath and bent to adjust a clump of brushwood that had become detached from the rest. There’d be political heavyweights here this evening. Everything had to be right or he’d feel the wrath of his commanding officer, a man not known for his tolerance. Publius wiped a bead of perspiration from his forehead and stamped the wood back into place with a hob-nailed sandal. That was better. He rejoined his comrades and refilled his cup. There was a strange smell about tonight. He sniffed the air and frowned. Had someone planted something in the pyre? Sabotage attempts were not unknown, particularly for high profile executions such as this. Who knew how many followers these men had? Publius repeated his careful inspection and drew a blank. He shrugged his shoulders and gave the thumbs up to his colleagues
The crowd had quietened in the pre-emptive lull before the appearance of the prisoners, then a louder cheer went up as the execution party appeared and advanced with measured stride across the square. Necks craned as the prisoners drew near to the centre. Publius stood back to watch. His job was done. He wondered how these men would die. Some died bravely. With scarcely a word. Others – well, others fought and screamed to the last. The escort fell back to reveal two men, manacled together. The first, unremarkable. Slightly overweight, reddish hair matted with sweat. Trembling. The other: he was different. Tall, still, almost confident. That must be Paulus. He was bald, with a long, almost pointed skull. His lips wore a faint smile and he surveyed the crowd with such studied casualness it was as if he imagined himself to be attending a banquet in his honour or a day at the races rather than his last moments on earth. The men were quickly bound to the stakes and Publius wrinkled his nose as he saw a gush of liquid spray from the first prisoner’s breeches and trickle down his leg. He took a swig of wine. Couldn’t blame the man. Next to crucifixion this sort of death was the worst imaginable.
“Squad. Torches!” the commander barked. The poles were retrieved and hoisted skywards. The commander paused momentarily, then announced: “The charges are treason for both.” He turned to the crowd. “Are you ready to see Roman justice?”
They knew the responses and bayed back at him: “Justice! Justice! Roman Justice!”
Publius winced as the torches were applied and the first orange flames licked the feet of the victims. He stood back a few paces. Gods, what was that smell? Not the usual smell, which never failed to turn Publius’ stomach however many burnings he attended. Something else. Sickly. He stepped back to give his nostrils some relief. Greyish black smoke was beginning to rise and they heard the first screams begin. Apodemius, begging for mercy. Nothing yet from the other figure in the flames. And then he looked again. Something was stirring. He could see the slumped figure of Apodemius whose hopeless cries had tailed off. But Paulus? Publius shielded his eyes with one hand and took a step forward. There was movement, a snake-like writhing. And then he saw, piercing the smoke like beacons, two slits of green malevolence staring out of the fire. The noise of the crowd receded and his only focus became the eyes. They were all that was important. He no longer felt the heat of the fire and felt no pain at all when he stepped forward again and raised his arm. Of course he would come, he replied to the simple question posed by the eyes. There was nothing to stop him. He was vaguely aware of other voices calling him, and at one point felt an arm on his shoulder. He smiled as he heard it withdrawn with a cry of pain. Publius knew they couldn’t stop him. He was still smiling as he fell forward into the flames and embraced the stake. It felt good to be here. And then he realised that the eyes no longer held him. He turned his head slightly to look for them. Surely they wouldn’t leave him? And then the pain seared through his body, welding him to the stake in a contortion of agony. His last conscious thought was that he was alone; whoever had invited him to share the flames had lied.
‘The Serpent and the Slave’ will be published on Kindle in September 2011