A brilliant balancing act!I wasn’t sure what to expect when I picked this up to read, wondering if it would feel plastic and forced like too many novels featuring gay characters; or worse, if it would stray closer to erotica. I was delighted to find Robin Reardon, a masterful storyteller who needs no stereotypes or steamy scenes to keep the reader turning pages. It beautifully recreates early 1970s America, tired of war and struggling to navigate cultural changes while exploring the timeless question of what it means to be a man, not from the perspective of a marginalized character, but rather through the eyes of a straight young man grabbling with the knowledge that his older brother is gay.
Having no formal training as a creative writer, I welcomed the workshop format of this book. Le Quin offers sound advice, ample examples, and easy-to-follow, opening-ended exercises for any writer wanting to grow their skills. I did a quick read from start to finish to familiarize myself with Le Quin’s vision before beginning the exercises. After reading this book, it becomes abundantly clear that she is a reader first, forever immersing herself in the beauty of words. Her conspicuous love of language certainly fuels Le Quin’s ability to craft vibrant stories, like her Earthsea Trilogy. The most important thing I learned from Steering the Craft is to take the time to read, read, read!
A must-read for any fan of Sanderson’s evolving saga about Roshar, this novella bridges books two and three of the Stormlight Archive to offer a first look at what the legendary heralds have been up to since betraying their oath at the end of the last desolation. The size and scope of the Stormlight Archive serves up a dizzying array of characters and settings, and this small book gives the reader a rare chance to stick with one character from the front cover to the back. This fast-paced story of a girl trying to outwit a dangerous assassin while navigating the end of the world is rife with ludicrous hilarity, showing Sanderson at his most playful.
What have you been reading? Let me know in the comments.
When his vision returned, Crispus was sprawled on the ground, surrounded by his men. The signum lay beside him. Two soldiers helped him to his feet as someone asked if he felt unwell.
“Here, sir. The signum. You dropped it,” a soldier said.
Crispus shook his head, backing away. He turned to his second, the one ready to carry on if he fell.
“You carry it. The gods have given me a vision. There is something else I must do.”
Ignoring their questions, Crispus pushed through the ranks to find Valens. The battle had yet to start, but the barbarians hollered nearby, taunting the Romans. He could see the centurion hadn’t issued the command to attack, and Crispus wasted no time finding Valens.
“Why are you here?” Valens asked.
“We must flee!” Crispus whispered urgently.
“Where’s the signum? Who leads the charge?”
“Forget that! Did you hear me? We have to run!”
“What? Why? What are you saying?”
A few velites shifted uncomfortably, unsure how to respond to Valens arguing with an officer. Crispus hoped he had kept his voice low enough to prevent eavesdropping. If not, he knew it would only be a matter of time before someone tried to detain him.
“Venus, your patroness, Valens, has warned me not to fight.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Don’t you trust me?”
“Do you love me?”
“Crispus. Now’s not the time.”
“Now is always the time because it’s impossible to know when you’ll be out of time.”
“Are you testing me? You think I’m too scared to fight?”
Shaking his head, Crispus moved closer.
“I should have said this sooner, but pride prevented me. I love you, Valens.”
Valens smiled cautiously, happy to hear Crispus’s words but unsure of what to make of his lover’s behavior.
“I love you.”
“We have to go.”
“You’re not making sense.”
“I refuse to lose you again.”
“Yes. Now, let’s go.”
“Ok, but I think it best to take you to the healers first.”
Crispus surprised Valens with a passionate kiss.
“No healers. Follow my lead. No one should challenge my rank with the centurion occupied. I’ll explain everything when we’re alone.”
“But, the battle?”
Realizing Valens didn’t believe anything he had said, Crispus started to panic.
Venus, how can I convince him?
Crispus laughed, recognizing the irony in his question. But the revelation gave him an idea. He knelt down and bowed his head.
“What are you doing?” Valens asked.
“Come on, I really think you should see the healers.”
Crispus didn’t move, silently waiting. His response came quickly in the form of a dove bearing a sprig of myrtle in its beak. Valens gasped, seeing the bird alight on Crispus’s shoulder.
“Do you believe me, now?” Crispus asked.
“Yes…but why Venus favors you eludes me.”
“I needed to learn a lesson.”
“Desertion is a serious offense, Crispus.”
“Of that, I am well aware.”
“It’s not honorable.”
“What? Sacrificing yourself to save others? Keeping your promise?”
“No one will believe you.”
“Is honor dependent on fame and praise?”
“No. Such things can cheapen it. Replacing honor with hubris.”
“It’s now or never, Valens.”
“They could execute us.”
“Then we’ll die together.”
“Lead on. I’ll follow.”
Crispus pulled himself straight and barked a few orders causing Valens’s squad to snap to attention.
“I’ve had enough of your insolence, soldier!” Crispus shouted, pointing at Valens. “You think you’re special?”
“Ah…no, sir,” Valens said, genuinely caught off guard.
“Disgrace! You should be in chains for your cowardice! That’s it! You’re coming with me!”
Crispus ripped the wolf pelt off Valens’s head.
“Drop your shield, soldier.”
Valens didn’t need to act because Crispus’s demeanor truthfully spooked him. Valens’s squad watched in shock as he tossed his weapons to the ground before Crispus roughly seized him to escort him away.
“What are you looking at? Can’t you see a battle’s brewing?”
“Yes, sir!” the squad said in unison.
“Eyes forward, soldiers! You’re about to get a first crack at the enemy! Miss that signal, and you’ll have more to deal with than me!”
When the centurion finally signaled the velites to advance, Crispus and Valens ran the other way.
The Romans routed the barbarians, securing the bridge without Crispus, and his absence didn’t go unnoticed.
After receiving troubling reports, the centurion ordered a manhunt.
It didn’t take long to uncover discarded garments and gear bearing the signifer’s insignia and a ridiculous account of men transformed into doves.
Until now, Crispus had ignored the peculiar mists obscuring the river and fields beyond. Suddenly hearing his name again surprised him, drawing his attention to the bridge.
“Someone does still live,” Crispus said.
“Do you know who it is?” the god asked.
“How could I? I don’t recall these mists. Are they your creation?”
Crispus cupped his hands about his mouth and shouted.
“Ah, you do know who it is.”
“No, you’ve made me your puppet, and I’m tired of this game. Reveal the meaning of this word I utter; if not, just kill me. I don’t care anymore.”
Crispus paused to listen as the shouting grew louder.
“How do I know this isn’t another of your tricks?” Crispus asked.
“The man speaks your name, does he not? Surely, he knows you.” the god said.
“I’m the signifer, third in command. Every soldier in my century knows my name! My task is to lead the way. This man’s confused, seeking the signum for guidance. Your chains prevent that!”
“Then you recognize the voice?”
“A hundred men serve beneath me. How could I possibly know who it is?”
“I’ve heard mortals form strong bonds fighting together.”
“I’d know the centurion’s voice and recognize some veterans, but the others…probably not. Besides, all men sound the same on the battlefield.”
“Surely there must be someone precious to you?”
The response felt wrong to Crispus.
“Wait. Maybe…I can’t remember.”
This realization troubled Crispus more.
“I know who calls you,” the god said.
“Then why are you asking me for his name?”
“You fascinate me, mortal. Answer this question truthfully, and I’ll release you.”
“I am no coward, no panderer of lies. Honor demands the truth. Ask me what you will.”
“Name what your heart holds most dear.”
Crispus wished he knew the god’s name; it might be easier to find the correct answer.
“You promise to free me?”
“You have my word.”
Crispus suspected nothing kept a god from breaking an oath, but he felt compelled to play along.
“Then I shall tell you.”
“But, before you answer, be sure to leave no door unopened within your heart, for I see a truth you hide from even yourself.”
“I know myself,” Crispus grumbled.
“Rome. I live and breathe to safeguard her.”
The god shook his head.
“Honor then. A good death won with bravery.”
“I am my own man! Even the gods don’t see all! I speak the truth.”
“You do not.”
Crispus howled, yanking the chain, desperate to be free.
“My men! I’ve lost countless soldiers, many dear to me! I’ve since hardened my heart, hoping never to feel such a loss again.”
The god shook his head and began to fade away.
“Prepare yourself, Crispus, to behold the greatest power in the world.”
“Don’t leave me!”
A sudden commotion pulled Crispus’s attention back to the bridge. The lost soldier remained shrouded in the mist, but Crispus could hear the man’s desperate plight. He didn’t know what danger the man faced but felt certain a fierce passion compelled the soldier to confront his terror, enabling him to hold his ground. Crispus’s heart skipped, realizing the stranger fought to rescue him. Shame and anger gripped him as he wracked his brain, desperate to identify the man. A bizarre thought came suddenly to him.
That word! Could it be this soldier’s name? What was it? Valens? Yes, Valens!
“Valens! Follow my voice. Your signifer calls!”
Crispus waited, watching the bridge intently until he saw a host of shadowy figures materialize in the mist.
“Valens! Bravery brought you this far! Mars surely favors you! Your foes are but shadows! Strike, and they will flee before you!”
With a shout, the soldier burst free from the mists, and Crispus hollered, fists in the air in triumph.
“Here! Here! To me!” Crispus cried.
The man ran toward Crispus, slowed, then stopped, clearly confused. Crispus remembered seeing the soldier in the past but nothing else.
“Friend! Here! I’m here! A mighty chain binds me! Here!”
As the soldier silently approached, Crispus felt confident he knew the man, but the memory remained out of reach.
“I don’t understand. I feel nothing. Everything is blank. I was sure if I could only cross the bridge…find…someone I love? I’ve forgotten everything.”
The soldier’s legs crumpled beneath him as he fell to the ground.
“What’s your name?” Crispus asked.
“I don’t remember anymore.”
“Is it Valens?”
“I don’t know.”
“Do you know me?”
The man looked up, and Crispus’s heart leaped as their eyes met.
“No. Maybe? No, I don’t think so. Crossing the bridge was supposed to fix things.”
“I think I remember you. We were friends…close friends.”
“What’s your name?”
The soldier repeated the name slowly, testing its familiarity before shaking his head.
“Are you Valens?”
The man absent-mindedly toyed with a medallion dangling from a chain about his neck as he pondered Crispus’s question.
“I don’t know.”
Crispus knelt, holding his palm out.
“Can I see that?”
“I’ve seen this before. Who is it?”
Something clicked in his mind, and Crispus began to remember.
You are Valens. You’re the answer to the god’s question.”
“A question? From which god?”
“Valens, it’s me, Crispus. Try to remember. You and me…we…you love me…and… I love you. It’s you I hold most dear. I’m sorry I couldn’t admit that. I had lost someone. I promised myself never again. Oh, it doesn’t matter. You just need to remember. Try to remember.”
A wind picked up, chasing the mists away, and Crispus sensed the presence of another behind him. He turned expecting to see Eros, but instead, the most beautiful woman he had ever seen approached.
Crispus bowed his head in reverence.
“Your chain is broken. You are free.” Venus said.
“My lady, forgive me. In my quest to honor Mars, I have insulted you.”
“Love is exceedingly powerful. Observe how Valens throws everything away to keep it. Even the gods fail to resist. Your scorn of love has put you in great peril, mortal. But your lover’s faith has saved you. Go before I have a change of heart.
“What of Valens?”
“A worthy devotee, Valens has proven to be. Immortality shall be his reward abiding with me.”
“No?” Venus laughed.
“Please. Restore him. I beg you. I love him.”
“Do not sully the word, love! You know nothing of love, warrior. You may be free of my chain, but your heart remains bound to another, and Mars does not take kindly to meddling.”
“Surely, you of all the gods know how to change his mind? Please. I will do anything. A mortal life devoid of love is meaningless. I see that now.”
“But, what of honor and glory? Would you malign your own name to be with Valens?”
“Your test has changed me. I swear an oath to put love first. I’ll endure any hardship, any humiliation if I can spend my days with Valens.”
“Renounce war with its violence and death. Vow never to strike another mortal ever again.”
“You will be called a coward.”
“I do not care. Return Valens to me. Please.”
Venus smiled as her laughter filled the air. Crispus’s vision clouded, and he felt himself falling.
Valens groaned and rolled over. His pounding head and the memory of a pleasant dream made him want to go back to sleep. Sitting up, he looked about to find himself in the grass, surrounded by thick mist. He wondered if a sudden change in weather had delayed their march.
Noting a soldier lying nearby, Valens sought to dispel his confusion.
“Hey, friend. What’s the hour?”
Valens spoke louder.
“What’s happened, friend? My head’s foggy.”
Valens shook the man gently.
Again, no reply came.
The silence made his skin crawl.
“Get up! Are you dead?”
Valens knew the answer.
Wobbling to his feet, he rolled the body and retched. He had to pause and steel himself before investigating further. But in every direction, he found only death.
Gods! How? How?
Numb, Valens staggered aimlessly in the mist, probing every corpse he found for signs of life.
“Am I the only one left?” he shouted.
Disorientated, leery of the swirling mists, Valens knelt weeping and prayed.
Beauteous Lady, Jewel of the Gods, I beseech your aide. If another survives, surely it must be Crispus. Please guide me, Venus.
Valens’s heart sank as the silence persisted. He rocked gently, mumbling to himself.
“Crispus. Crispus. Crispus.”
Crispus’s voice rang out, piercing the gloom as if waiting for Valens to utter his name.
Valens leaped to his feet.
Silence hung in the air, making Valens fear he might be hallucinating. Despair swallowed him until he heard his name again.
“Crispus! Where are you?”
Not waiting for a reply, Valens charged blindly in the direction that felt sure right.
“Keep speaking! I’ll follow your voice!”
Hope restored, Valens ran, dodging or leaping bodies as needed.
“Damn this mist! It’s not natural. Crispus?”
Valens stopped, concerned he had somehow turned himself around. He recognized the distinct trickle of flowing water and remembered the river. Valens had last seen Crispus holding the signum high on the bridge. Guessing the direction, he hoped to follow the river to the bridge.
“At the river! Don’t know which way the bridge is! I need you to yell again!”
The cry sounded close. With a quick dash, Valens saw massive stones materialize before him. Peering across the bridge, he thrilled as the mists thinned, revealing a figure far off on the other side.
Rushing across the bridge, Valens experienced an attack of vertigo right before stepping onto the other side. Pulling him up abruptly, the sensation knocked him to the ground. Dazed, he tried to collect his wits.
“I’m… coming. I Must have run too fast. Whoo! Felt like I was falling. I’m coming.”
Crawling to his hands and knees, he looked to see how much further he had to go.
Valens remembered crossing the river, yet somehow, he hadn’t moved. Crispus’s figure still stood across the bridge on the other side. Bewildered, Valens turned slowly, surveying his surroundings, gasping again at the slaughter as if seeing it for the first time.
“Gods! The legion’s gone!”
His hands flew to the sides of his face, inadvertently brushing a gash on his temple. He winced.
“Wounded? I… don’t remember.”
“Crispus! Yes, he’ll know what to do. He’s on the other side waiting.”
Valens ran, nearly reaching the other side of the bridge until vertigo struck, and he found himself back where he had started. Something refused to let him cross; the thought frightened Valens.
The gods toy with me. Venus, help me.
Valens tried to cross repeatedly, only to end up at the beginning each time.
But he sensed something else happening. He increasingly had difficulty thinking clearly, and he struggled to remember things.
“Strange place. So cold! What was the name?”
Valens grip on sanity continued to deteriorate, and eventually, only the carnage and finding Crispus alive filled his mind.
“Dreadful. So many dead! They’ve sacked Rome, and their gods blight our lands with ice and snow. Crispus’s surely nearer death in this cold.”
The power of the bridge gnawed at his self-awareness.
“Why am I carrying this spear?”
Removing his cloak, Valens stared, trying to understand what he wore.
“A wolf pelt? Strange. Just cross the bridge. Crispus will explain.”
Valens suspected every attempt to reach the other side stripped another piece of him away, and suddenly it occurred to him the bridge could take his memory of Crispus too. The realization froze Valen in his tracks. Panicked, unsure if he should continue, he frantically deliberated about what to do. He stared longingly at the figure waiting on the other bank.
Why isn’t he coming to meet me?
Is he hurt? If so, how does he stand on his feet?
“Crispus?” he shouted.
Seemingly in response to his call, multiple shadowy figures coalesced in the mists at the other end of the bridge. Valens’s heart raced, and his bowels squirmed as the shadows solidified, barring his way.
Gods! Is this what destroyed the legion?
The shades crept closer, and Valens trembled, knowing he must face them. His spear felt heavy and dull in his hands.
I’m no warrior. Not yet, anyway. Venus beseech Mars to aid me.
The stench of death grew, and a sinister chill gripped Valens as he forced himself to confront the evil presence. He advanced with increasing difficulty. Monstrous features resolved more clearly with each step, sapping his courage.
The beasts have killed everyone except me. I’ve no chance.
Someone dear. A friend? No, one more than that.
That’s why I cross this bridge!
Caught between conflicting desires, Valens stood, feeling his resolve break.
“I’m sorry, whoever you are! Sorry, I can’t remember your name or even your face! I am weak! The terror is too great! Forgive me! I dare not cross!”
The shout engulfed him with a flood of harmonic noise. With his fears washed away, Valens felt his courage welling up in response to hearing his name. He stood a little taller and raised his spear with a firm grip.
“Love rushes to fortify me, impelling me forward whatever the cost! If reunion in this world eludes us, then know love will bring us together in death!”
Valens roared a battle cry, brandished his spear, and rushed headlong into the beasts blocking his way.
A shout caused Crispus to start, freeing him from troubled dreams. Instinct drew him into a defensive crouch as he reached for his sword. But his hand found the scabbard empty. Confused, he paused, straining to listen, but only an eerie silence greeted him. Glancing about, he noted the stonework of a bridge close by. A memory returned.
We fought to take the bridge.
Their numbers were sparse.
We flooded it with ease.
But something teased Crispus’s mind, and he wrestled with pinning down what he had forgotten.
We had carried the day.
Our victory, sure.
Lost in thought, his gaze drifted to the bridge. An inscription marked the distance to Rome. The words surprised Crispus. He appeared to be on the other side of the river, the side the enemy defended. He didn’t recall making it across the bridge.
This is all wrong. Something stopped us. Surprised us.
Crispus clamored to his feet, desperate to understand. A ghastly scene confronted him. Countless Roman and barbarian bodies lay twisted and torn everywhere he looked.
There were suddenly more of them. How? They came from nowhere.
Despair seized Crispus, fearing he alone survived until he remembered the shout that woke him. Someone else lives, he thought, straining again to listen.
Despite his anticipation, the volume of the cry surprised him. Whoever called had to be near. Crispus hesitated, unsure of which direction the sound came from. Guessing, he lurched forward until a sharp pain pulled his feet out from under him. He wrenched his eyes to find his ankles clasped in a heavy chain.
Crispus flailed on the ground, searching for the survivor in vain.
Crispus felt his mind slipping. The voice grew louder.
“Where are you? Show yourself!”
Only his ragged breath and pounding heart answered, taunting him.
“Perhaps, I am dead, and these are the shades of hell before me.”
Laughter, lively and bright, resounded from behind. Crispus turned to behold a beautiful man lounging atop a barbarian corpse. The man hadn’t been there before.
“Who are you?”
The stranger laughed again.
“Why laugh? Look at the horror about you!”
“What are mortals to one such as myself.” the man said.
“You are a god, then.”
“May I ask your name?”
“All you need to know, Crispus, is you are the cause of this slaughter.”
“You heard me, mortal. All this death is your fault.”
“That detail doesn’t concern you.”
“An appropriate question. The answer will come in good time. My task is nearly over. I merely linger to amuse myself.”
“So, it was you calling out?”
“Who then? Do you know where they are? I can’t find anyone alive.”
His question elicited more laughter, and Crispus grew angry.
“What is so funny?”
“You! And your desperate search for a voice, unable to recognize it as your own.”
“I do not understand.”
“Pay attention, mortal. I will show you.”
The god stretched an arm as if fetching something slung on his back. Crispus gawked, seeing a bow made of light materialize in the god’s hands. With a pluck of his hand, the god pierced him with a radiant arrow.
“VALENS!” Crispus screamed.
His hands flew to his chest, but he found no wound and felt no pain.
“What is this word I utter? Please, be merciful! What have I done to incur your wrath?”
“Would you be fortunate if it were I you had offended.”
“My mistress is a jealous god, and you have belittled that which is most dear to her. Behold the results.”
“We outnumbered the barbarians. How did their numbers multiply?”
“Rome is mighty but blinded by hubris. I easily supplied the savage beasts with the means to hide their numbers.”
“Why not slay only me?”
“You live to learn your error.”
“The barbarians litter the field too. Why?”
“Once engaged, it is difficult to contain the god of war’s lust for blood.”
“Faithfully, I served Mars.”
“No mortal meets his needs for long. But rest assured, plenty of fools are hungering for the glory found in battle. Death is always the price for such honor.”
“And now I am abandoned to live in dishonor.”
“Does life mean nothing to you, mortal?”
“Please, give me the means, and I’ll do it myself. A signifer dies with his men. It is cruel to let me live.”
“Honor is more important to you?
“It’s all mortals have. Without it, life is meaningless.”
The god picked up a sword from one of the dead and tossed the blade at the soldier’s feet. Crispus snatched the sword up.
“You have shown me kindness beyond measure. Thank you.” Crispus said.
The soldier didn’t know what reply he had expected, but the god’s smirk surprised him. It unnerved Crispus as if knowing a trap lay ready but unable to determine where and when.
“Your mistress…she wants me to learn something. I do not pretend to understand the ways of the gods, but surely you risk garnering her displeasure.”
The god grinned, shaking his head.
“I will do this. Honor must be restored.”
“Oh, I know you will.”
With a curt nod, Crispus angled the blade toward his heart, closed his eyes, and fell.
He felt no pain. Opening his eyes, Crispus watched the tip of the sword rise and fall as it rested gently against his chest. He had caught himself, stopping the fall. He tried again but failed even to prick his skin.
Crispus searched himself, satisfied to reaffirm he didn’t fear death. A part of him longed for it. But, he sensed something more substantial preventing him from ending his life. The feeling confused him. He couldn’t explain why, but Crispus knew something or someone laid a stronger claim to his heart than his fear of dishonor.
“Who is your mistress? What have you done to me? Release me!”
The god hummed merrily, drawing his bow to smite Crispus with another magical arrow.
“VALENS!” Crispus screamed.
Dropping to his knees, bewildered and defeated, he searched his mind to uncover the meaning of the word he felt compelled to speak.
Valens waited in the wings for the signal to dash headlong into danger. Last night’s bravado had faded, allowing his fears to mount. Expecting a more significant barbarian force, he thanked the gods, seeing his side outnumbered the other for his first battle.
“Remember, lads. Speed’s the velites best defense. Dash in and out, nipping at the fringe. Don’t stop. Throw. Keep running.” A veteran said.
His youth and inexperience had landed Valens in the velites unit. He wore no armor, only a wolf-pelt cloak for a uniform, and carried a small shield and several javelins. Tasked with harrying the enemy like a pack of wolves, Valens’s squad aimed to dispossess as many front-line barbarians of their shields as possible.
Searching the ranks, Valens spotted Rome’s golden eagle glinting in the sunlight atop the signum. Crispus, garbed in gold and scarlet with a lion pelt on his head, bore the Roman banner as a weapon. He knew the officer relied on Mars for success in battle, but Valens felt better praying to Venus to protect the one he loved.
“There’s our cue to advance! The battle begins! Fly, brothers! Fly like Mercury himself, and I’ll meet you on the other side!” the veteran shouted.
Valens sprang into action, sprinting across the meadows toward the waiting barbarians. Numerous clumps of thorny brush dotted the fields, forcing the velites to weave between the razor-like briars. The effort slowed Valens’s pace, making him feel vulnerable.
Nearing the uneven enemy lines, Valens targeted a foe and, using his momentum, threw his first javelin. His eyes lingered, watching the weapon arc through the air until striking his target’s shield. A triumphant whoop leaped from his mouth until he felt sharp thorns goring his legs. Valens halted, frantically kicking and pulling, scolding himself for forgetting the briars. The tangle fell to the ground revealing its dry, exposed roots. Surprised, Valens looked back to see a large hole where the briars had been.
Briars, back home, take two men to rip out. Merely running through these pulled the whole thing up. He thought.
Reconsidering the landscape, the unnatural pattern appeared obvious now. Realizing the enemy had transplanted the briar, Valens saw his foe in a new light. The Romans had foolishly assumed the barbarians were an unsophisticated lot incapable of devising such defenses.
An arrow pierced the ground at his feet, wrenching Valens out of his reverie.
Fool! How long have I been standing here?
Vowing to learn from his mistakes, he leaped back into action, seeking targets for his remaining javelins. Valens focused on aiming and sidestepping briars; thus, he had no idea if he had disabled more barbarian shields. Throwing his last weapon with satisfaction, he hurried back to the relative safety behind the Roman legion.
His part finished, Valens accepted a proffered spear from one of the older soldiers and readied himself to provide cover for a fighting retreat if the prime soldiers failed.
“Will it be difficult to secure the bridge?” Valens asked.
“Shouldn’t be. We’ve superior numbers.” an older soldier said.
“My run wasn’t a complete failure. At least one javelin flew true.” Valens said.
“One hit could alter a soldier’s fate for the better.”
“Always the hardest. But, you’ve proved yourself now, lad.”
Valens watched a comrade limp back, shieldless, using his wolf pelt to staunch a spreading splotch of blood. He realized more than half of the velites had yet to return. Valens burned with shame for complaining about his scratched legs. Remembering Rome had the advantage here, he wondered how many wolves typically survived a run with worse odds.
Why did I make it? I should be dead.
Valens thrust the thought from his mind, returning his focus to the battle. The barbarians had managed to break through a section of the shield wall manned by less experienced soldiers. Valens watched Crispus rush forward, with the signum high, alerting everyone more support was needed. Soldiers shifted, forming a spearhead of veterans to push the barbarians back onto the bridge.
“The enemy retreats! Is it already over?” Valens asked.
“Wouldn’t be surprised if …”
A gurgle cut the old man’s reply short.
Valens turned to find the veteran soldier wide-eyed, clutching at an arrow in his throat. Stunned, he watched the man collapse, dead before hitting the ground. Valens struggled to grasp what had happened.
We’re out of range.
Valens stood frozen, listening to a chorus of sickening sounds as others dropped about him. He became aware of a growing rumble from behind. Valens turned to investigate, but someone slammed into him, knocking him to the ground and causing him to thwack his head on a rock. Dazed, gasping for air, he struggled to get up.
What’s that noise?
A warm, stickiness oozed down Valen’s face stinging his eyes. Swiping his brow only brought pain and blurred his vision. Squinting to focus, he saw blood on his hand and panicked.
Gods! I’m wounded! Venus, help me!
Valens felt the ground begin to vibrate. Peering back, he beheld a horde of barbarians fast approaching from behind the Roman lines.
Where in gods did they come from?
Valens discovered the answer to that question as a brute of a man materialized before his eyes. Another trapdoor to his left flung open, showering Valens with dirt and debris.
The ground! They were hiding beneath us!
Everything made sense now. The briars were too readily unearthed because they hadn’t grown there. The thorny plants had probably just been moved to conceal hundreds of pits. The real barbarian army had lain in the ground waiting for an opportune time to ambush the Romans from behind.
Valens tried to call for Crispus, but his voice failed him as he passed out.
I’ve decided to write a short story for each monthly prompt from a blog I’m following called Writer’s Unite. I missed the submission deadline this month and last. But, there’s always next month to get my act together.
Please visit Writer’s Unite and support all the authors who worked hard to craft a tale capturing the essence of this month’s photo. The site organizers aim to help writers gain more exposure.
Once you read the story, you’ll understand my eagerness to post at least part of it by the end of February. After all, it’s supposed to be the month of LOVE!
“You Pray to Your Gods and I’ll Pray to Mine”
The new recruit shivered, tightened his cloak, and leaned closer to the fire.
“Why Rome desires such lands baffles me,” he said.
“A little snow won’t kill you. Besides, the countryside’s rich with timber and furs,” another said.
“The forests of Lebanon provide plenty without the cold,” he replied.
“We’re not here for spoils, lads.” an older soldier said.
“Then why have we come? No Roman would want to live here.”
The old soldier nodded thoughtfully before smiling.
“Name’s Titus. And you are, lad?”
“Not wealth we’re after, Valens. Our legions march into this wilderness for one reason only.”
“To hunt and kill every barbarian we find lest their numbers swell enough to breach even the walls of Rome,” Titus said.
Cheers erupted from the rest of the company about the fire pit.
“But, Titus, must it be so cold? My breath turns to smoke, and my stones shrivel, threatening to fall off.” Valens said.
His comrades laughed, gulping more wine.
“This far north, best to find someone to warm your bed sooner rather than later,” Titus said.
Valens glanced longingly at the ornate command tent.
“I’ve already done so,” Valens said.
“Careful, lad. Only experience and skill in battle gives a man his place of honor here.”
“Are we to ignore the arrows of desire?” Valens asked.
“No, lad, as long as it doesn’t lead to trouble,” Titus said.
“I seek no favor.”
“I can see that. Otherwise, suspect you wouldn’t be sitting in the cold with us.”
The old man chortled, slapping Valen’s shoulder.
“Ignore me, lad. I’ve grown old and leery of Cupid’s games.”
With eyes wide, a soldier spat out his drink to whistle sharply. Everyone stood for the signifer, an officer, third-in-command of the entire century. Valens struggled to keep a straight face watching the man approach.
“At ease, men. I’m on no errand of business.”
“How can we be of service, sir?” Titus asked.
The officer inspected each man until resting his gaze on Valens.
“I confess there’s one among you who’s drawn my interest. May I sit? Not as an officer, but as a fellow soldier.”
“A soldier’s always welcome about our fire,” Titus said. “Make room for a comrade-in-arms!”
The men shuffled, making space, and the officer pulled Valens into a warm embrace as he sat.
“Suppose Valens has been complaining about the cold?” the officer asked.
“You’d wither beneath the desert suns of my homeland,” Valens said.
“A soldier does his duty wherever he has to.” The officer said.
“As does this soldier.”
“Yes, but not quietly.”
“Pardon me, sir, but perhaps young Valens here has the voice of a future signifer,” Titus said.
“Ha! Well said, my friend. Timon, is it? No, Titus! Please, call me Crispus. It is I who share your fire and drink.”
“What think you of Titus’s suggestion, Crispus?” Valens asked.
“A signifer must embody Mars’s lust for war on the field. You’re bold, brash, and outspoken. Your skill in arms grows. Let’s see how you fare in your first battle tomorrow.”
“Are you ever afraid, bearing the signum on the frontlines? Or does Mars relieve you of such emotion?” Valens asked.
“No. Fear enables one to find courage. Fear motivates.”
“A good soldier fears dishonor, not death. Honor is everything.” Crispus said.
“And love?” Valens asked.
“Surely love is what compels us to attempt the impossible.”
“Bah, love is weak. Love hampers a soldier, clouding his mind. Love causes men to lay aside arms hoping in vain to spare the weak.”
“And yet love leads nations to war. Love destroyed Troy.”
“Forget you, the tale of Achilles, Valens? Agamemnon angered Achilles with the theft of Briseis. Honor demanded he deny the Greeks their best warrior. And yet his love for Patroclus drew Achilles back to fight. The gods warned against it, to no avail. Love’s compulsion destroyed Achilles.”
“One mustn’t speak so! Venus is a jealous god. She suffers not the scorn of mortals.”
“Are you a priest of the goddess of love?”
“The blessed lady has always been my family’s patron. We honor love above all.”
Valens removed a delicate chain from about his neck to present a medal to Crispus.
“What god do you serve first?” Valens asked
“Mars, of course.”
“Our patrons are lovers. Explains our ready bond.”
“Treacherous Cupid’s arrows lead Mars to Venus’s bed. Truly, Mars is wedded only to war and the honor it brings.” Crispus said.
“Have anything other than disdain for the goddess of love?”
“Let’s not quarrel. I admit life would be dull without the blessings Venus bestows. But, I mistrust her ways.”
Crispus tried to kiss Valens.
“Then I shall endeavor to teach you not to dismiss the power of love so idly.”
Valens stood to leave the fire.
“I thought you were cold,” Crispus said.
“Love will keep me warm.”
Crispus followed, smirking.
“Signifer! Any news? What awaits us tomorrow?” one of the soldiers called.
“A river lies ahead with multiple crossings. The general has chosen us as a vanguard. Our task is to secure safe passage for the rest of the army.
“Do you expect much resistance, Signifer?” another soldier asked.
“Throw your javelins true, soldier. Soften them up, and I’ll take care of the rest.”
Being an Aquarius with a squirrel-like attention span, I find myself jumping from project to project across multiple genres. I recently finished a piece of writing which is for all intends and purposes a love story.
I didn’t feel it fit well on this site, so I created a profile on Vocal and posted it on that site.
If you enjoy eating out at fine restaurants and you’re a sucker for cheesy, light-hearted, stories then click the link below to enjoy my newest short story, “Taking Dessert to a Whole New Level”.