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I generally don't start sharing something I'm working on when it's just an idea -- before the point when it becomes clear to me that the sketches are going to really and for certain turn into a book.  For the last few months I've been playing with a new project, a historical fantasy set in the Roman world called The Eagle and the Owl.  It's far enough along now that I'm pretty sure this is a real thing, so I wanted to share the very beginning with you, and I'd love to hear what you think!

This takes place in 8 AD, a generation after Hand of Isis.



The road was coming.  It spanned the valley in a long swoop, rising toward the still distant peaks already glittering with autumn’s first snow.  It was cold on the heights, though here in the sheltered southlands the grapes were fat on the vine, rich and dark and smelling of secrets.  The harvesters sang as they worked, and between terraced slopes the road rose inevitably toward the pass.
             
It spanned the little river on a bridge of two arches, the water churning gray and cold beneath them, and Arjen crossed over without getting his feet wet, the work of a moment rather than a dangerous obstacle for a man alone.  The perfectly level slabs of stone were no different from the road around it, a magic thing that cut time from distance, making the world smaller.  From the bridge the road followed the course of the river, just above the line of the spring floods, green pastures between.  There were cattle grazing there now instead of deer.  One of the First Men half a century ago had settled veterans here.  Now there were farms in the third generation, and Arjen raised his hand in greeting to two young women as they worked so that they would know he meant no harm, a solitary Raetian trader with his pack following the road north.

One of them lifted her hand in reply.  That was what she saw – a Raetian trader, light hair pulled back in a long tail though he was clean shaven as a Roman, a bow and quiver slung with his heavy pack.  She saw nothing strange, and how should she?  She could not know that he remembered well when there were no farms here, no men from distant lands who had served under the eagles.  Indeed, when he was born Rome had been a little city easily besieged by Gauls, nothing much in particular, four hundred years ago.

The road rose steadily toward the mountains, a mist of cloud settling on the fir trees of the upper valley though the day was bright.  The mountains were closer than they had been.  The road made them closer.

And here now was the road itself, the leading edge where it grew.  Work crews were fitting into place the top stones, curved like the back of a tortoise so that water would run off into the ditches beside, each stone fitting tight against the one beside it.  Just beyond them the men were raking the cement smooth, concrete and lime mixed together to make a paste that would dry as hard as stone, a firm surface beneath the paving stones.  A little further on they were filling in the gravel that lay beneath it, a wary superior keeping an eye on the level of the fill poured in harvest baskets from wagons drawn by mules.  Arjen went by on the grass on the far side.  The supervisor did not speak, and his eyes followed Arjen.  A former Decurion or the like then, Arjen thought, a man who assessed the Raetians as enemies, who did not dismiss a man with a bow all alone.  Arjen did not change his steady pace, and he did not speak.

He came even with the trench diggers at the next rise, digging a foundation for the road five feet deep in the hopes it would last for all eternity.  He skirted their work and passed them.  Beyond, there were only stakes set in the ground with bits of string where the agrimensores had decided the road would go.  Usually they had followed the dirt track, but sometimes they laid their stakes straight up the side of hills or across little streams that would run through a culvert or be bridged and tamed.  Beyond the stakes the mountains rose, snowcapped and watchful, and yet closer every day.  The road was coming.

The dirt track followed the curves of the hills, taking the easiest way.  It led through copses of old trees, their leaves turning already on the lower slopes, then came out of the forest much higher.  Arjen stopped, looking back.  Below the valley spread green and serene, the river and the road like a silver snake beside it, crawling towards the mountains’ knees.  He took a deep breath, then loosed his water skin and drank.  It was two days yet to the top of the pass, but he would not hurry.  To hurry would mean to come to the top at nightfall, and the days were not as long as they had been.  The equinox was just past.  Soon the nights would grow dark indeed, and the snows would come down the mountains further, until at last the pass would close, smothered beneath a blanket of white.  That would stop the roadbuilders until spring, but only until spring.  And nothing would stop the Romans much longer.


The rain caught him at the top of the pass, a lashing rain not quite on the edge of freezing, chilling him to the bone and sending him to seek shelter in the fir trees, their long branches offering some space beneath for animals driven to earth.  It was too wet for a fire.  It was a long night, and when the rain ended before dawn he was off again, watching the sky turn pearl and then pink as he looked northward across the ranged ranks of mountains.  From here he could not see the sweet green plains beyond, the rivers running north instead of south to seek the distant Northern Sea.  He would not go that far.  At the bottom of the pass he turned west instead, following along the contours of the land and then at last following the course of the Parnach up its valley into the heart of the mountains.

There were no men here.  Friendly tribes hunted lower down the river’s banks, but they did not come above the ford.  That land belonged to the mountain spirits, to snow monsters and old gods, as he should know.  Arjun lifted his eyes to the mountains and felt his heart lift as well.  Almost home, and he would be before the snow came down from the crest where it already lay thick and white, glittering silver in the sun, bright as his hair which gave him his name.

Past the ford the valley narrowed, the shadows of the mountains long even in early afternoon.  He was barely beyond the waters when he knew he was being watched.  Arjen stopped, lifting his face to the light, letting himself be recognized.  In a moment he heard the tell-tale voice of an owl, the call of the sentries, and they appeared between the trees.

“Well met, Arjen,” one of them said.  “We were not told to expect you.”

“I made good time from Pons Verona,” he said.  “And greetings to you both.  Is Orien here?”

One of the sentries nodded.  “He is.  Your brother took hunters out before dawn, and they returned a little while ago with a young stag.”

“Excellent,” Arjen said.

“That will mean feasting tonight,” the other sentry said.  “To celebrate your safe return.”  He was quite young, and his face was bright with anticipation.

“I hope so,” Arjen said, and clapped the young man on the shoulder as he passed.  He did not add, except in thought, we will see if my uncle feels like celebrating when he’s heard what I have to say.

The river wound through steep walls, their shadows darkening it to twilight between, and no less than twice more he was hailed before he reached the overhang where the waters boiled out of the caverns.  A path wide enough for one person alone rose beside the waters, leading into the dark.  Arjen climbed it carefully, the spray cold on his face, dampening his hair.  Two twists, and then there was a wooden bridge passing three spears’ length above the river, lit only by torches on the opposite side, the Hidden Kingdom’s last defense.  In extremity the bridge could be cast down and foes would either have to cross the tumult or find a way in from the other side.

Beyond the first turning on the other side the passages branched, and Arjen took a low one that led close along the river, the ceiling vaulting far over his head, bridges lit with torches crossing the span five times and more the height of a man above him, voices floating down from above, and from somewhere the sound of a flute intertwined with the roar of the water.

He had some idea of finding Orien first, but before he reached the winding stair there was a young girl coming running, her woolen gown kirted up above her doeskin half boots.  “Begging your pardon, Arjen, but our lord Caesiu wishes to speak with you at once.”

Arjen sighed inwardly.  “Of course,” he said.  “Go on ahead, Minda.  I’ll be right behind.”

“He’s in the oculus room,” Minda said, scampering ahead.

“And where is Orien?”

“In the kitchen, where else would he be with a stag to dress?”  Minda looked back over her shoulder, her dark hair falling from its plaits.  “He wants to be sure he gets the antlers.”

“And Nila?”

“Somewhere or other with the Exile lady.”  Minda hurried along the curved passage, then around the side rail that looked down on the water from far above.  There were no torches here, only crystal lamps that gave forth a faintly greenish glow.

“The Exile lady?”  Caesiu had been quite firm about not letting the Exiles into the Hidden Kingdom.  In fact, not twenty years ago he’d told the Exile’s oldest son to remove himself from their lands with no further discussion, even though Modron was reckoned a formidable warrior.

“Sunna.  She’s the Exile’s wife’s niece which makes her our lord’s second cousin twice removed,” Minda recited as though she’d been asked over and over.  “Besides, Nila likes her.”

“That would be the real reason,” Arjen said, and a reason far more important than some tenuous claim of blood that must go back two thousand years.

“And how much trouble can a woman be?” Minda asked in tones that sounded exactly like Orien, clearly another repetition.

“A woman can be a lot of trouble,” Arjen said.  “Empires have risen and fallen because of women’s deeds.  Just a few years ago Rome nearly split in half because….”

Minda ran ahead.  “That was Rome,” she said.  “Not something important.”  Her voice disappeared up the curved stair.

And that encapsulated the problem neatly, Arjen thought, following after more slowly.  Minda said what her elders thought.

The oculus room was on the top level, a cave three times as tall as it was wide where the gorge above opened to the sky.  On bright days the light streamed in when the sun stood above the mountain, and when it snowed the flakes fell through the round window, sometimes accumulating for a while on the stones below before they melted.  Only in the coldest weather did they stay.  The caves were cool year round, but never cold, except where they opened to the sky, or when the river turned to ice.

Caesiu wore gray robes trimmed with wolf fur, and his long hair on his shoulders mingled with the shade of the fur exactly.  He was taller than Arjen and his bearing was proud, a weight of wisdom in his eyes gained in his more than twelve hundred years.  Arjen went to one knee, his hand over his heart, proper and dignified homage to his uncle and king.

“Welcome back, Arjen,” his uncle said, touching his shoulder and drawing him to his feet to embrace him.  “I didn’t expect you for another tenday.”

Best to get it out quickly.  “I would not have returned so quickly except that the Romans are building a road,” he said.  “They are building toward the pass every day, and I think it will not be long before they are properly into our lands.  They mean to bridge the mountains as they have opened every other place.”

Caesiu held him back at arms’ length, his eyes roving over Arjen’s face.  “The mountains are unbridgeable.  They have stood since the world began, and they are fierce.  The Alps are not little hills, nephew.”

“I know that, uncle,” Arjen said.  “But they have gifts we do not know, and they have many men to build these things.  In a season they tame a river and make a bridge of enduring stone.”

Caesiu shrugged and released him, walking away to stand beneath the oculus.  “We build bridges.”

“We build bridges of wood, and none longer than the greatest timbers we cut.”

“How could we build a bridge longer than the timber?”  Caesiu looked at him indulgently, as though he had said something ridiculous.

“I do not know how it is done, but they do it.  They build in stone, with mighty arches, and the bridges do not fall even when many carts cross them at once.  They have arts we do not understand.”

“And we have arts that they do not.”  Caesiu reached up as unerringly through the oculus a great white owl stooped, coming to rest on his furred sleeve, looking at his face as though he wished to preen.  Caesiu stroked the owl’s feathers with his free hand.  “Nephew, you sound as though you are frightened of these Romans.”

Arjen chose his words carefully.  “I am not frightened,” he said.  “I am concerned.”

“We are daeva,” Caesiu said.  “We are stronger than men and we live centuries to their decades.  We had fields and crops and fountains and iron when they wore nothing but skins and killed with their teeth.  There is nothing to be concerned about.”  He came closer, reaching out with his free hand and putting it on Arjen’s shoulder.  “The Romans are a powerful tribe, it is true.  But powerful tribes come and go.  In a century they will be gone and trouble us no more, even as much as they trouble us now.”

“The Suebi are worried.”

“The Great Raven is worried, as I would be if I were their king.  But that is not our affair.”

Arjen gritted his teeth.  “We have many friends among the Suebi.  I have lived among them, as has Orien, and we have bonds of guest-friendship.  Have you forgotten that Segimer of the Marcomanni saved my life?    I owe him and his kindred respect.”

“It is not disrespect to say that the Marcomanni and the Suebi have reason to fear Rome, but we do not.”  Caesiu gestured about the chamber.  “Do you see our walls?  Do you think that your friends have a fortress like this?  No, nephew.  They have palisades of wood, houses of wood and thatch.  Our walls are the mountains themselves.  The waters and the stones defend us.  The very Alps themselves are our palisade.  The Romans cannot beat the mountains down.  They are not giants.”

“The Romans have defeated many kingdoms….”

“Kingdoms of men.  We are not men.  We are daeva.”  Caesiu launched the owl, and it flew thrice around the chamber before it vanished out the oculus, spiraling into the graying sky.  He turned to Arjen with a smile.  “Come, nephew.  Put aside these concerns.”  He said it as though he meant fears, but would not offend, as though he coddled the child Arjen had been when he had come to his uncle’s house, orphaned and alone except for his brother.  “You are happily returned, and we will celebrate tonight.  The equinox is past and the winter comes.  The harvest is in, and we shall rest within our hollow hills until we go forth with the snow.  Bathe, rest, and tonight we will feast.”

“As you say, uncle,” Arjen said.

I would love to hear what you think!

Comments

( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
selki
Jan. 25th, 2017 04:52 am (UTC)
I want to read more!

I would say, I want to know what happens next, but I fear Arjen is right and his uncle is wrong. But I am not the teller of this tale. :-)

I love the descriptions and language, starting with the first sentence.
jo_graham
Jan. 26th, 2017 04:52 pm (UTC)
I'm glad it's appealing! Yes, Arjen is right and his uncle is wrong. The Romans aren't like other people they've encountered, and the Romans are coming to stay.
squishydish
Jan. 31st, 2017 04:32 am (UTC)
Doom! Doom! Doom!
But I'd read it.

Edited at 2017-01-31 04:32 am (UTC)
( 3 comments — Leave a comment )