My next novel is scheduled for release in June, and given that you folks have all been following my scribblings for some time now, I thought I’d give the community here an advance look. So here is an excerpt from Nova Roma I, Die Itinere in Occasum. Enjoy. I’ll be looking for some folks to send advance reader copies, as well.
Pompey Magnus had never felt so helpless in his life. He watched as his beloved Cornelia lay hopelessly sick as the ship heaved in the sea. He listened as the wind screamed outside, driving his fleet farther and farther west.
It was the third day of the storm.
Every day Pompey forced himself to struggle up the narrow ladder to the upper deck. Every day the raging sea looked the same, heaving, angry, monstrous. Every day Barca grew a little quieter and, to Pompey’s trained eye, a little more worried.
Pompey had looked in on Cato and Cicero earlier in the day. Both of them were miserably seasick. Conditions in the freighter’s tiny cabins were well past horrific; passengers laid in their own filth, and rats ran wild in panic through the vessel.
“Where are we?” Pompey’s older son, Gnaeus Pompey, managed to ask. The boy was almost twenty-five, a stout young man, an experienced soldier, but not a sailor; the younger Pompey had suffered like his step-mother from endless nausea in the storm.
“I don’t know,” Pompey answered. “Nobody knows. Is Claudia all right?”
Gnaeus looked at his young wife, who tossed miserably in a bunk. “As well as can be expected.”
“When will this storm end?” Cornelia demanded, her voice weak. Pompey did not answer her. No answer was possible.
Pompey rose to struggle to the upper deck again. The storm continued unabated, he knew the ship was being slashed by wind and rain, but the foul air in the cabin was more than he could take. He made his way above to find Bamil Barca once again – or perhaps still – lashed to the right-hand steering oar. The man had not, to Pompey’s knowledge, left that post since the storm began. Credit due for that, the Roman general supposed. He moved carefully to Barca’s side, his iron-hobnailed sandals reasonably sure on the wet wood of the deck.
“How are we doing?” he shouted over the wind.
Barca turned to him and grinned, revealing yellow, stained teeth. “Aside from the wind, the rain, the leaks, the sails ripped away, most of my crew vomiting over the side, and your legionaries below laying in puddles of puke? Aside from this damned storm that threatens to blow us off the edge of the world? We’re doing just wonderful, General; it’s a lovely day for a sail.”
Pompey found himself laughing unexpectedly. The man had sand; there was no denying it.
“I told you, General, I’ve never seen the like,” Barca shouted again to be heard over the storm. “We must be leagues and leagues past Hispania by now. No one has ever been this far.”
“I wonder where we’ll end up when the storm blows out.”
“Somewhere new,” Barca said. He shrugged. “Somewhere nobody has seen before.”
Suddenly worries of Julius Caesar were far from Pompey’s mind. “Yes, I suppose we will see a new place. I wonder if we’ll have to pay a ferryman to get there?”
Barca laughed again. “You already have, General. Your good Roman gold clinks in my pockets even now.”
Pompey slapped the Spaniard on the back.
“Food will be the problem,” the little captain said after a moment.
“If we don’t hit some land where we can re-provision, we’ll end up eating each other before we can get back to Hispania. Most of the goats will be gone, your men’s supplies of dried meat and fruit will be eaten. You brought horses, yes?”
Pompey nodded. “Not many. Maybe twenty mares, ten stallions, ten geldings,” he said, thinking. “Somewhere out there, on one of the other ships, assuming it hasn’t been lost already.”
“We may end up eating them,” Barca said. “We may end up eating the hay you brought to feed them.” He held up a hand in the driving rain. “At least water isn’t a trouble.”
“We should fill every available container while the rain holds,” Pompey said. “It may grow hot and dry heading back.”
“We’ve thought of that,” Barca said, a little sharply. “We’ve been in storms before, you know.”
Pompey nodded, suddenly aware he was being fussy. He gave the Spaniard an apologetic smile.
“Go back below, General,” Barca said once again. “Try to get some sleep. We can do nothing but ride this out, then worry about what to do next.”
Pompey nodded slowly, and then once again headed back to the narrow, smelly passageway below decks.
The storm had blown now for over a week. The scattered Roman ships were barely able to stay in contact by visual signals; the fleet was scattered over leagues of heaving, tossing ocean.
Triremes and quadriremes kept their oars in, their rowers idle, knowing it was no use to do anything but run before the relentless wind. Several ships had gone down to the endless deeps, sunk by sprung planking, hulls shattered by the raging sea, or simply the collapse of their wooden frames. Most hove on, sails tied tightly to the masts, decks soaked, with only essential personnel above decks. Steersmen fought to keep their ships faced into the waves.
Below decks was a hell. Passengers and crew lay miserably seasick. Vomit and human waste fouled the decks. Fever took away some of the weaker Romans, while others huddled miserably, suffering hot and cold flashes, sweats, and aching bones.
Food was running short, even with most of the people sick. The last goats and sheep were slaughtered on the ninth day. Dried meat there was, but the lack of exercise and nausea made it impossible for many to eat, and the endless drenching in salt water quickly turned preserved food inedible.
One large cargo ship carried the expedition’s horses. One fine stallion stumbled in his stall as the ship rolled into a trough and broke a leg; a centurion assigned to oversee the care of the animal used a dagger to cut its throat, crying tears of rage as he did so. The horse was cut up for stewing.
The storm blew on and on.
Nights were the worst. There were no stars to guide by, no glimpse of the moon to give an indication of direction. The ship’s captains all thought they were still headed west, but nobody knew for sure; days dawned gloomy and dark, with only low, dark clouds obscuring any sight of the sun. No land was in view anywhere, nor were any other ships. The expedition of Roman ships, originally bound for Hispania, was lost in a vast, raging wilderness of water.
On the fourteenth day, the wind began to die down. The fifteenth morning dawned ugly, but the wind was down to a manageable level, and the sun broke weakly through the clouds, dead astern. The surviving ships began to slowly gather together, to form a center. Sails were unrolled, and oars finally extended and put into use.
At the center of the loose formation was the freighter carrying Pompey Magnus.
Pompey Magnus was hungry, but not yet starving. His years of soldiering had accustomed him to short rations. With the weather moderating at last, Bamil Barca had finally relinquished the right-side steering oar; Pompey did not think the man had slept ten hours in ten days. He stood now, wavering slightly, next to Pompey on the deck near the bow of the ship. The sea was still tossing, but the wind had moderated. Things were, for the moment, at least tolerable.
“I make it thirty-four ships,” Pompey said. Barca nodded agreement. “Six lost.” Pompey had known one moment of unbelievable relief when the ship holding the Treasury gold had appeared out of a lingering fog bank. A miracle, really, to have lost only six.
“Look there,” the little ship captain pointed. “Those birds, flying out of the west.”
Pompey followed Bamil’s pointing finger to where a line of five large birds, brown and white with absurdly long bills, flew just above the water.
“Those birds came from land,” Barca said, “ahead of us somewhere.” He turned to his first mate. “Send below to the oarsmen, set the second-slowest cadence. We make for the west. The others will follow us.”
He turned to Pompey Magnus and yawned hugely. “There is land in that direction,” he insisted. He tottered, half-dead with fatigue. “I’ll bet my life on it. I may be betting my life on it.”
“Should we turn east for Hispania?”
“Not unless you want to starve,” Barca replied. “How long to tack back to Europe in this mess? How long will the oarsmen last on no rations? We’re out of food here, General, and I’ve no doubt the other ships are as well. If we want to live, we have to have food, and there is land in that direction.” He pointed.
“You should be asleep,” Pompey told him. “Go to your cabin before you fall down. I am sure your mate can handle the ship for a while.”
“I believe I will, General.”
The ships gathered in, moving into a tighter formation as they slowly rowed west. Pompey realized that they were utterly lost; whatever land lay ahead of them was liable to be their new home, for better or for worse. Six ships were missing, but Pompey saw the ship carrying the horses also present in the formation, maybe a mile behind.
“We have no idea where we are, do we?”
Pompey turned to see Cato and Cicero, both of them in the open air for the first time since the storm began. Cicero still looked a trifle green, but both men had managed to wash and change into fresh clothing.
Pompey turned away, facing west again. “No. We have no idea where we are, except that no one has come this way before us. Europe should be to the east, but how far have we come? How many days have we been lost, driven before a storm the likes of which no man ever saw? Folly, pure folly to try to re-trace our steps now, not with land close at hand.”
Cato startled Pompey by laughing. “Suddenly,” the Stoic said, “concerns of Julius Caesar and a second civil war seem somewhat unimportant, neh?”
Pompey once more startled himself by grinning at Cato. “My friend,” he said, “You have a talent for stating the obvious. But you’re right; whatever may happen in Rome, will happen now without us.”
He knew a moment of exquisite pain, suddenly realizing the meaning of the morning’s revelation. Never more would they see Rome. Never again to walk its streets, its markets, never again to sit in the Senate, breathe its air in the Forum…
“All this talk be damned,” Cicero barked. Cato and Pompey stared at him. “For whatever it’s worth, in this time and place, we are Rome. We three, the other Senators, and the legions we have with us. We may be lost, but Romans we are and Romans we will remain.” He pointed west. “So there is land out there? We will build a new Rome. A new Republic. And this time, we will protect it against men who seek a crown.” He looked at the others, his eyes blazing. “Am I right?”
“You are,” Pompey said softly. “We are Rome.” Cato only nodded. It was a theme that would become very familiar to all of them in the months to come.
It was Legionary Titus Caninus who sighted the thin green line of land the morning of the sixteenth day. “Land!” he roared, bringing everybody but the oarsmen onto the deck in an instant. The cry was echoed from ship to ship, carrying across the formation.
The captain of the trireme Caninus served on slapped the big man on the back. “I’d offer to award you a talent of silver for being the first to sight land, Caninus,” he laughed, “but silver may be no more than excess weight to us now.”
“I’d not turn it down regardless, sir,” Caninus said. He put one foot on the rail and peered intently ahead. Around them, oarsmen on all ships were picking up the pace.
By late afternoon they were within sight of the beach. A narrow strip of sand bordered the water, with large trees growing down close to the shore. Just to the north, a large river emptied into the ocean. The sea was calm now, with evening growing close, and the sun cast its light from low in the west, making the land look a brilliant green. The Romans looked at the forest and saw building materials, new houses, game for eating, wood to cook with, land to be cleared for farms.
Pompey’s ship was the first to touch the beach. Gnaeus Pompey Magnus, Consul of Rome, was the first to drop over the side of the ship, to wade up onto the beach of the new land. “Nova Terra,” he breathed to himself. “Nova Roma.” He knelt, picked up a handful of sand and kissed it.
For the occasion he had donned full uniform, with bronze breastplate and helmet; his polished, ivory-handled gladius hung at his side. The air was still and hot, even in the evening, and the humidity was oppressive, but Pompey wasn’t about to worry about that. Events of great import were underway, and he had to pay the gods their due; a certain amount of decorum was necessary.
He looked up at the skinny brown face of Bamil Barca, who looked down at him from the freighter’s rail.
“Begin landing,” Pompey said. “Bring our people ashore.”
He looked into the trees. “It seems we are home,” he said to himself. He stood and took a step forward; his sandal caught on a piece of waterlogged driftwood almost buried in the sand, and the Consul of Rome was sent sprawling.
He sat up, looked at the row of faces watching him from the ship, and laughed.