As a sample of my artistic expression, I have excerpted the opening paragraphs from the first three novels in my seven-kings series.
THE ARMS OF QUIRINUS
Seven Kings of Rome Novels
The Arms of Quirinus spins the tale of young Romulus, Rome’s first king, who took the rulership and built Mars’ own city, calling his people Romans after his own name and fostering the nation that wore the toga. This fresh retelling of a classic story, brings to life immortal Rome’s pastoral beginnings as a craggy, wooded hilltop beside an ancient river crossing and weaves a tale that might have been told by the very people who lived the incredible adventure that fostered the nation destined to extend its rule over the earth.
PART 1 - Diana’s Mirror (The Vestal’s Tale):
The lakeside quay lay deserted, but distant sounds of party drums and revelry still spilled from the town. I tugged off my wreath of sweet laurel and scrambled up to perch on a low wall, savoring the fecund smells of timeworn stone and garden loam mingling with the pungent aroma of wood fires.
My father sat out on the garden terrace with his new wife and my uncle, relaxing before supper and watching the water ripple pink in the late-afternoon breeze. With the cool of evening, the chattering of a myriad of birds swelled from the birch and pine trees. It was that time of day when the colors of flowers fade, when the light is such that one cannot distinguish between wolf and dog.
All that day, we had thrilled over the foot and horse races and reveled in merry dancing and wild leaping about gigantic bonfires. We had marveled at the wondrous musicians putting to good use their flutes and lyres, rattles and drums, while young lovers drifted in flower wreathed boats singing and quaffing fine honeyed wine. After our joyful sacrifices at noonday, my foolhardy brother hied off to the woods, and I, still an unripe girl of nine summers, begrudged him his wild exploits and freedom.
As I tucked my new wool tunic beneath my thighs for padding against the unfinished rock, I was startled and thrilled by the eerie howl of a hunting wolf in the distance. Or could it
have been the festival games around the fires, lovers or comrades calling, hooting to one another in nearby woods?
My father and his companions seemed not to have heard, but I kissed my holiday charm and made a sign of obeisance to Feronia, the old Sabine wolf goddess. Deep Lake Albano sparkled with reflected torches and the late sun. I kicked off my tight new sandals and gazed out over the jeweled lake across the dark-green treetops towards the somber presence of Mount Albano.
My cousins, decked in wilting lavender wreaths and party garlands, burst through the garden gate. They squealed and giggled, brandishing their toy swords and riding their stick horses. I sucked in my breath as Metius circled my stepmother’s chair and lunged with his wooden short-sword to attack my brother’s prize puppy. The pup yelped in distress, then turned to cavort after the children’s heels.
When a nursemaid came to call the young ones to supper and bed, my heart began to pound. The wind whispered, and the hair of my flesh stood up. I broke off a fragrant sprig of pine and tried to hum that lusty ditty we children had giggled over before our mothers and aunts whisked us away from the revels.
The children were gathering up their little wheeled carts and toy animals, protesting an end to play. As I jumped down from the rock wall, my heart cried out, Take heed.
The ground moaned underfoot, and the ridges seemed to stir. As I reached for my sandals, a nimble-footed spirit passed before my face. I halted to listen, trembling in my father’s own garden and staring at the same old two-story redoubt in which I’d been born. Yet the house seemed unfamiliar to me. Strangely distressed, I hurried to catch up with my father, but at terrace edge something compelled me to turn and gaze once more at Jove’s sacred mountain.
I have since learned to recognize the stirrings of the Goddess in my heart, but just as the roe buck leaves the wolf gasping in the winter wind, that fateful day I was left unable to seize the meaning of the Mother’s warning.
THE SCENT OF HYACINTH
Seven Kings of Rome Novels
The Scent of Hyacinth weaves a romantic adventure around the legend of Numa Pompilius, Rome’s second king, and a water nymph named Egeria. Tradition ran that Egeria was the mistress of wise King Numa, that he consorted with her in the secrecy of a sacred grove, and that the laws which he gave the Romans were inspired by communion with her divinity.
PART 1 - Children of the Oak (The Woodcutter’s Tale):
They returned past supper time, puffed up, bragging and drunk. My mother laid her mending down on the hearth stool and stirred up the dying fire to reheat her stew. When Caius stomped his dusty feet and dropped his hunting net and weapons in the middle of the floor, my mother bent to gather up the heavy gear. I started to help her carry the spears and hunting packs out to the storeroom, when Caius kicked the rucksack out of my grasp and forced a huge belch.
I hesitated, and he laughed meanly. “You don’t want to see what’s in that poke, boy.”
I picked up the shepherd’s sling and glared at my stepbrother. “Dead critters, no doubt.”
Caius reached into the bag, pulled out two bloody wolf ears and tossed them at my narrow chest. I couldn’t help flinching. My recoil made my stepfather howl with derision. The old man grabbed my tunic and growled his fetid breath in my face, calling my mother to see what a puling milksop she’d raised. Caius’ attempt to make merry had caught the full attention of his father, a development that I knew would only encourage my stepbrother’s efforts to make game of me. Indeed, my stepbrother snatched at the tail of his stained hunting net and tried to toss it over my head.
I kicked and screamed for him to get the bloody thing off me.
My stepfather gave me a shake and hissed. “Where’s your sport, boy?”
My mother’s face looked taut and strained. “Caius, have you nothing better to do than pester your little brother?” When Caius simply laughed at her, she appealed to Ambrosius. “If you’d deal with your son, we might enjoy peace in this house for one night.”
The old man got to his feet and swayed. “Look to the little brother for your troubles, woman.” He let go my tunic and shoved me towards her. “Your precious Marcus is a crybaby. Your poor dead husband, may he feast with the gods, would weep bitterly at the sight of him.”
Mama trembled at my shame and for once could not contain herself. “Lucius was always proud of his son. The only thing he’d weep at is the sight of me in the bed of a drunk and his beloved vineyard in your lazy hands.”
Ambrosius’ big fist shot out to punish, but my mother dodged the blow, grabbed me and rushed us out to the stable yard. Curses and shouts sounded from the house, upsetting the animals. Then we heard a loud crash, and my mother moaned, wondering what valued possession of hers he had smashed.
The shouting and ranting continued as we slipped away into the beech forest behind the house. The cool breezes soughed through the treetops, and the long grasses felt damp underfoot. Mama paused with a trembling hand on my shoulder.
She knelt by my side and whispered, “Listen to me, my son. Your father would have been very, very proud of you, and don’t ever let anyone tell you different.” She kissed my forehead, and I felt damp tears on her cheek. She said, “You must stay brave, young Marcus Virbius Robur, and know that your father loved you with all his heart.”
One of my earliest memories of the man Ambrosius Nigidius Milo had been at my father’s funeral. It seemed no decent interval before he and his oafish son were moving in and taking over our vineyard and animals. I had cried when Mama told me she would marry Ambrosius, that awful man with coarse hair, big bones, great devouring square jaw and sullen features.
From that day forward, Ambrosius’ whelp took to ordering me about, a thing I took in bad part. Though neighbors called me Robur after the mighty oak, Caius found my very name a reason for derision. Bent on remaining the only son who shined in his father’s eyes, Caius always belittled me to his father. When Caius was cruel, my mother would comfort me in secret, assuring me that, though I was still small and maybe not so strong, I was a sight handsomer and more clever than my older stepbrother.
I had the looks of my father, with straight, nut-brown hair and umber eyes, sharp features and slim limbs. To haul the wood, I needed donkey and cart. To lift water bucket from the well, I needed help. Knocked about too easily feeding the pigs in their crib, I bore the bitter knowledge that my mother was forced to remarry because my callow attempts to take over my father’s work had fallen short.
Even Ambrosius had judged me unmanly that day when he and his son went out with the men of Aricia hunting wolves. It was an annual springtime custom of the locals to search out the wolf dens and kill all the newborn cubs in their dugouts, but I had cringed at home with Mother, pitying the forest creatures.
We heard the door to the house slam back against the bench, surely loosening the hinge. Ambrosius stumbled out to the porch. He paused to piss, then bellowed, “Orbiana, where are you? Wife!”
Mama pushed me along the path and whispered, “Go! Run to Carmenta’s and ask her if you can sleep in her crib with the goat. Stay there all night; then come back and help me with the vines in the morning.”
I stared at her, wondering if she were going to return home to my stepfather.
“Go! Now! Obey me, Marcus. Quickly.”
I ran up through the dark woods and along a moonlit ridge, then slid down the brush-filled draw to the old wise-woman’s hut. As I pushed through the hedgerow and stumbled into her yard, Carmenta’s she-goat started up a panicked bleating that brought the household awake.
THE WARRIOR'S DANCE
Seven Kings of Rome Novels
The Warrior’s Dance weaves the tale of Rome's third king, Tullus Hostilius, who is celebrated in history as the warlike fighter who destroyed the ancient city of Alba Longa. In this rich compelling look back at a time when history and myth intermingle, King Tullus is portrayed as a young demigod, impetuous, insolent, unhampered by scruples, and exposed to the temptations of tyranny. Trouble begins during the waning days of elderly King Numa, when Tullus and his restless young partisans go about decrying a Rome grown weak. In the springtime of their lives, they ridicule the piety and peace forced upon them by a doddering ruler and yearn to pursue the warrior’s way. A new generation longs for action and glory, while fathers quake at the seditious talk of their sons.
The Warrior’s Dance is told in the words of those who lived the stunning adventure of King Tullus’ ascent to power. Their fates perforce are caught up in their hero’s triumphs and snared by his ruinous descent into superstition and brutality. When the balance tips too far, the gods will demand their due.
PART 1 - The Troy Game (Young Tullus’ Tale):
The stifling humid air sank down into the marsh valley. Sweltering, closely pressed Romans dripped with sweat, competed for shade, and tried to fan away the unmoving dead air filled with their rank smells. I knelt on Timius’ pallet and held him up to rest against my chest to watch King Numa’s appeal to the gods. My friend struggled to sit up and slurped gratefully from the small cup of water his sister held to his cracked lips. His eyes glowed with fever or maybe happiness. Sweat dampened his dark hair against his forehead and ran in rivulets down his temples.
Roma’s burnished golden sunshine glowed off the slope above the regia and lit up the bright oranges and yellows in the short capes worn by the four Tyrrhenian dancers. These strange priests, shod in ankle-high boots with up-curled toes, sported colorful mantels over their rich tunics and put on a mimetic show, accompanied by the trill of a large flute played passionately by another stranger who stood in front of old King Numa’s regia. The musician wore a mouth band tied around his head to hold his flute of two pipes, one fingered in either hand. His eyes were closed, and his plaintive music floated up, calling to the gods and stirring our hearts and wrenching our souls. As the music swelled, he was joined by assistants shaking shimmering tambourines and rhythmically thumping small drums.
The holy dancers’ exaggerated movements were made beautiful by their elegant hand gestures. These men placed great emphasis on their hands, cocked their elbows, and bent their fingers far back, gesturing with graceful agility. Their painted faces seemed like masks representing the strange gods of Etruria. Soon they were leaping high, knees bent, both feet off the ground, in a dance of joy. Their steps were rhythmical and vigorously alive, but with a strange soulful restraint that is truly Etruscan.
That summer, the swamp fever was raging so virulently through Roma that our doddering King Numa had decided to appeal to Etruria for help. He and his holy advisors had paid the Etruscan priesthood a goodly number of grain-loaded wagons to make loan of their augurs and priestly mime dancers to aid us in our entreaty with the gods. Many of us considered it a dreadful waste of Roma’s emergency stores. When these Etrusci arrived in Roma, the old king sent criers through the town blowing large ox horns and pounding a huge drum to summon citizens down to the comitium to witness the performance for the foreign gods.
Our neighbor, Titus Horatius, was immediately keen on dragging his son Timius down for the king’s blessing. When the marsh fever first hit his family, killing two slaves and spreading to his son, he had pitifully bemoaned the waning luck of the Horatii and thus of all Roma. The oppressive heat and dust made for a miserable outing, and we longed for cool shadows of house and garden. The celebrants would not allow wagons into the comitium that day, so Timius’ father had lifted Timius down and carried him through the suffocating press of people. The boy’s grandmother and sister had followed with a camp pallet and water bag and stood behind their charge to give him shade from the hot sun and humid air.
At last, when I thought we could stand it no longer, good King Numa, dim-witted and shaky with age, shambled out of his regia on the arm of an Etruscan celebrant who wore a high conical hat and a fringed mantle fastened by a gold fibula. The king’s little grandson walked behind them carrying a camp stool and the king’s lituus, a curved augur’s stick similar to the one carried by the Etruscan priest. They paused close by, deep in conversation, gesticulating up and down the valley. I could not understand all of their words, for Roma’s king spoke in Etruscan.
My older half brother, Linius Hostilius, crowded up beside us with his curly-haired daughter Mulvia, who, being about my own age of 16, seemed more like a sister to me than a niece. Mulvia was a happy, smiley child, seemingly wise beyond her years. Her intelligent, thoughtful manner made her the precious darling in her father’s eyes, while I, Tullus Hostilius, was often in trouble, scorned and punished by elders and instructors alike.
Timius’ father welcomed Linius with an irreverent expressions. “How good is your Etruscan, man?”
My niece knelt down beside Timius’ sister Horatia and poked Timius affectionately. Timius asked what in the world the king was saying.
I told him, “They’re just jawing some hocus-pocus gibberish the old man ferreted out of some dusty foreign scroll or more likely got from the latest popular Tyrrhenian trickster who blew through town.”
Timius gaped at me in surprise. Horatia and my niece Mulvia gave me stern looks. In my youth I loved to shock. Thank the gods, later maturity would teach me that flippant remarks made one’s words less credible.
Timius waved his skinny arm to attract the attention of his two brothers, Publius and Sergius, who were on the far side of the comitium threading their way through the crowd, flirting with Roma’s unwed daughters. When the speeches were done and the sacred play resumed, his eyes left the dance only to watch Publius and Sergius across the way. The unruly rambunctious boys were copying the stylized histrionics of the mimes. With the two outer fingers of each hand folded down, held by their thumbs, and their first two fingers poised aloft like horns of a goat, they threw their heads back in ecstasy and reached their arms to the sky, prancing and dancing to the holy music of the Etruscans.
Timius cracked a smile, but soon sank wearily back into my lap and closed his eyes for awhile. Timius grew quiet and distant. His face looked so deathly pale next to my tanned thighs, I felt a pang of sorrow that we could easily lose this good little fellow. His sister Horatia looked me in the eye and bit her lip.
When the holy dance ended, the priests bestowed blessings upon the gathered people and upon our beleaguered town, gesturing and crying out to eight directions of the horizon, each of which was supposedly inhabited by one of their Etruscan gods. Filled with religious zeal, one of the celebrants approached our side of the compound and fervently cried out three times the name of Tinia, the head Etruscan god.
I laughed when my friend Timius roused up in answer, thinking he’d heard his own name being called. Timius looked about wildly, his face contorted with anxiety, or perhaps piety, his voice oddly loud. “Who calls me?”
The startled priest faltered in his steps and stared at Timius with a look of utter surprise. His chant fell silent, and he did not move on. The illustrious fellow stretched one upturned hand out to Timius and placed the other back over the top of his own head as if to protect himself. The priest’s face was painted comically with black whorls that exaggerated his wide-eyed visage, and he reeked of rich unguents. I suppressed my urge to giggle and glared back at the stranger, challenging him to sway the gods on behalf of my ailing friend and all Romans who suffered the marsh fever.
But some arcane concern had seized the man’s mind. King Numa and the other Etruscans were advancing on us as well, having noted the holy man’s look of dilemma. At sight of all the high-ranking, prominent men accosting him, Timius stiffened in my arms and suffered an awful bout of rigors, which frightened me no end.
I left Timius to Horatia and Mulvia and leaped up to push everyone away from his pallet. The priest raised his lituus as though to strike me, and I jerked it from his cursed hand and shoved him back. Unfortunately, the man stumbled and landed on his rear. Although I had sought only to stop the Etruscans from scaring Timius further, King Numa let out a roar of anger, and his own guards dashed in to drag me aside. I suppose at that point I let fly a few scornful and sarcastic remarks.
Earlier the king had noted Publius and Sergius making fun of the sacred play, and he now suspected me and Timius of contributing to the brothers’ banter. Furious at the rudeness of Roma’s youth towards older and wiser men, not to mention guests of our city, the old man accused us of ruining his commune with the gods. King Numa Pompilius had always been overly strict on what he deemed sacrilege, and that day he harangued his cavalry centurion, my faultless half brother and guardian, in front of all Roma. Then he castigated Titus Horatius, Timius’ father, that today’s youth were not being taught proper piety.
I have no understanding of what really happened on that miraculous day. I only know that that wacky, trouble-causing event somehow marked a halt in Timius’ decline, as though the god Tinia indeed had entered Timius’ frail and mortal body to suffuse it with divine strength. In days to follow, Timius felt well enough some mornings to sit in his father’s garden and to join his brothers in the afternoon bath.
Timius’ grandmother had a quaint custom of marking each day as good or bad by dropping a white or black stone in an urn. Each night the elegant matron lingered at her household shrine to select a pebble of the right hue, white being the symbol of happiness and black that of misfortune or trouble. At the turning of the seasons or on family anniversaries, Grandma Fannia could dump out her cache of burnished pebbles and reflect back upon her life.
Thinking to confirm that the balance had tipped in young Timius’ prospects for survival, I tiptoed across my neighbor’s deserted hall and stole a peek inside that red, white and black goddess urn. Its innards gleamed ominously dark. The scent of fragrant wood and resins hovered about the shrine. Startled by a soft noise, I clanked down the lid and spun around to find Timius’ sister Horatia leaning against the door post and regarding me with a wry grin.
I had intended to slip in for a word with Timius before joining his brothers on the cavalry grounds, not come calling on the house. Now here I was, a wellborn lad, spotted wearing some sweat stained, faded brown tunic that reeked of the stables, along with dusty worn boots and a strip of ragged wool tied around my patrician head.
Flustered and annoyed at the girl’s catching me peeking in someone’s private jar, I decided to tweak her a little. “What say you we switch around your old gran’s rocks and make her think she’s had a good time this month?”