Here's a quick look at The Standard-Bearer, complete with a short excerpt from the prologue and first chapter:
The hero of The Tribune, the hot-tempered and honorable Roman soldier Lucius Aurelius Valens is back—now leading the horsemen of his Third Gallic Cavalry Regiment on what he thinks is a routine patrol east of the Jordan River. But nothing is what it first seems, and Valens and his men soon find themselves locked in battle against a murderous messianic conspiracy.
Ordered by the procurator of Judea to hunt down and destroy those who are planning rebellion against Roman rule, Valens follows the trail to Jerusalem, a city already dancing on the edge of chaos, torn by a hidden war waged between the honest servants of cynical high priests and fanatical assassins. Somehow, the young Roman knows, he must pierce veil after veil of secrecy and suspicion to uncover the truth…and he must do it without provoking the very revolt he has been ordered to prevent.
And, as he plunges deeper into the deadly web of deceit guarding the conspirators, Valens must also confront the dangers lurking in his own heart—in his love for a beautiful woman forbidden to him by Roman law, by her family, and by the dictates of her own faith.
I, Lucius Aurelius Valens, a soldier in the service of Rome and Tiberius Caesar, write these lines in haste, eager to render an accurate account of some of the strange and terrible events I have witnessed and in which I have played a part. The world around me seems filled on every side with signs and wonders, with omens and portents. And I know now that a great change is coming. The order of all things—of powers and principalities, of gods and of men— is no longer fixed, eternal, and enduring. An age is passing away, but what will come next to fill the void in men’s minds and souls remains hidden from the wise and the foolish alike.
That is a bold prophecy. And some may argue that my words are proof of madness or folly, or worse yet, only the idle creation of an untamed imagination.
But I tell you that my mother’s father, also a soldier, gave me his ring when I came to manhood, and with it, the commandment to live out the motto inscribed within that golden circle: Honor and Truth.
It is in this spirit that I write.
It was late May, in the sixth year since Tiberius Caesar took power. The veteran cavalrymen under my command had been on the move since first light, riding slowly through a labyrinth of rugged brown hills and deep ravines. Although it was still morning, a dry searing heat already lay across this scorched country far to the east of the Jordan River. We were well beyond the official border of Roman-governed Judea.
A wit once said that service on the empire’s far-flung frontiers was an endless procession of dull and dreary routine broken by occasional moments of stark terror. In theory, Caesar’s decrees, masked by a polite fiction as those of the Senate and the People of Rome, preserved law and order and peace and prosperity within the provinces and along the frontiers. Or so my boyhood tutors claimed. In practice, our Roman peace was kept by small bands of overworked and often exhausted soldiers expected to keep the local barbarians, bandits, and nomads in check. Soldiers like me.
Storm, my big gray war horse, plodded along the barren trail we were following. His head was down and his large brown eyes were half-slits, narrowed against the glare. I shifted uncomfortably in the saddle, feeling rivulets of sweat rolling down my ribs and back. The armor I wore might turn an arrow or a spear thrust in a fight, but it was like sitting inside my own private oven. My sun-cracked lips twitched slightly at the thought. The regimental bathhouse at Caesarea was several days’ hard ride behind us and I smelled nothing like a fresh-baked loaf of bread.
“It’s time we were afoot again, Lucius,” Aedan murmured. “Unless, that is, you’d rather end up as an accidental tribune of infantry, instead of a noble prefect of cavalry.”
With a quick grin, I glanced at the tall, wiry decurion riding on my left. A Celtic tribesman by birth and a veteran cavalry officer by training, instinct, and inclination, Aedan was my second-in-command for this patrol. He was also my friend and trusted comrade-in-arms. Hard fighting and shared hardships over the past year had smoothed over any doubts he might once have had about obeying a Roman ten years his junior.
Squinting up at the fierce blaze of the sun, already high overhead in a cloudless sky, I saw what he meant. The day was only growing hotter and our horses needed a breather. Horses are more fragile than are men. And cavalrymen who expect their mounts to carry the weight of their armor and equipment from sunup to sundown without rest are cavalrymen who come stumbling back on foot, leaving dead horses behind them. This task was likely to be arduous and unrewarding enough. There was no sense in making it more difficult and costly for no purpose.
I turned in my saddle and looked back along the column. Forty troopers followed close behind, riding in pairs. More men and beasts followed, servants leading pack mules burdened by supplies, tents, and other gear. The troopers of my unit, the Third Gallic Cavalry Regiment, fought for Rome and for the pay Rome provided, but they were still high-born Celtic warriors who expected to spend their time fighting, training to fight, or hunting. Their servants, mostly poor free men from their own tribes, were paid to tend their horses, cook their food, and clean their gear. And there, at the very tail end of the column, a stocky, bearded man ambled along on his own mule, fanning himself with a battered, broad-rimmed hat.
I bit back an exasperated sigh. Aristides was my personal physician and the regiment’s chief medical officer. Like Aedan, the Greek doctor was also my friend and trusted companion. But unlike the decurion, Aristides was a born civilian, blind and deaf to military discipline and protocol. He was also getting older, with more and more gray streaking his black hair. And though he insisted he was still fitter than most men, I worried about his endurance on so long and hot and difficult a trek. Unfortunately, Aristides was also as stubborn as that mule he rode—which explained his presence on this gods-forsaken patrol to the back of the beyond. All of my carefully phrased suggestions that he should stay behind in the comforts of Caesarea had bounced off him like pebbles pattering unnoticed off a granite cliff.
“Lucius?” Aedan asked again.
Looking back, I nodded. “Very well. But we rest the horses, not the men. The more ground we cover today, the sooner we finish this farce.”
. . . .
We tramped on in a clatter of boots and horseshoes on rock and gravel and sun-baked dirt. Dust rose in faint streamers behind us, curling skyward on a soft, searing breeze. The trail we were on ran parallel to a boulder-strewn ravine choked by high, brown grass, thick clumps of brambles and thorn bushes, and gnarled scrub oaks. In the winter, the rains would turn it into a raging torrent plunging westward toward the Jordan. For now, though, the gully looked bone-dry and dead.
Aedan trudged along in silence at my side for some time. At last he spoke up, keeping his voice low so that only I could hear him. Our troopers were still in good spirits, so why depress them with the knowledge that their officers were unhappy with their orders? “A farce you called this jaunt of ours and a farce it truly is. The only question then, Lucius, is how long we’re expected to let this mad, sad comedy play out.”
“Long enough to satisfy the procurator that his orders have been obeyed,” I told him. “Or rather, long enough to convince the merchants who are pressuring him that we’ve done all that can reasonably be done.”
“Merchants,” Aedan said flatly, almost spitting the word out. “We’re killing horses and wearing our men to the bone to keep fat-bellied, coin-counting traders sweet. It’s no fit occupation for a warrior.”
. . . .
He smiled sourly. “We’re chasing ghosts. And to no good end.”
I nodded, knowing the Celt was right. It would take extraordinary luck to make any contact with one of the guilty tribes, let alone catch one in the act of attacking a caravan.
What I had forgotten is that the Fates —or the gods, perhaps —sometimes cast lots with men’s lives.
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