Today I am delighted to host Laurence O’Bryan on the last stop of his blog tour for The Sign of the Blood.
Firstly, a little bit about Laurence …
My roots go back to a small estate deep in the Mountains of Mourne near the Silent Valley, in County Down, Northern Ireland.
I went to school in Dublin, drank way too much, studied English and history, then business, then IT at Oxford University.
My research has taken me all over the world, from San Francisco to deep in the Muslim world. There are secrets everywhere. I enjoy writing about them. I hope you enjoy reading about them.
You can connect with Laurence on Twitter
Laurence, you have an amazing series of books set in the Roman era. Please tell us a little about them.
I spent twenty years studying Roman history and reading every book about Constantine the Great I could find. I also visited numerous sites where my Roman series is set, including in London, where I lived for ten years, Jerusalem, Rome, Trier, York, Nicomedia and Istanbul.
The first novel in the series, The Sign of The Blood, is about the rise to power of Constantine the Great, the women who helped him, and the others who wanted him dead.
The Road to The Bridge, the second novel in the series, is about the lead up to the battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312 A.D. and how Constantine the Great lured Maxentius, his rival emperor, out of Rome.
The third novel in the series, The Cursed City, is about the dedication of New Rome, later to be called Constantinople, and how Constantine fell out with his wife, Fausta, and his son Crispus, and what he had to do to survive.
To join the mailing list and receive news of these books use this link: http://bit.ly/TSOTBseries
And now, a treat; an extract from The Sign of the Blood:
Gesoriacum, northern Gaul, 306 A.D
In the stone palace of the governor of Gesoriacum news of the arrival of Constantine, son of the Emperor of the west, spread as quickly as if a war horn had sounded from the town gatehouse. Excited whispering spread from the flag stoned palace kitchen to the wooden lookout towers. Even the rats, who outnumbered every other living thing, by far, knew something was happening.
The Emperor, Constantius Chlorus, Constantine’s father, was busy with matters of state, meeting his Legates and other senior officers. The meeting, in the basilica, the largest hall in the palace complex by the port, had begun to bore him. The arrival of his son at the south facing town gate, notified to him by an excited messenger, gave him the opportunity he’d been waiting for to end the meeting.
“We will finish,” he said. He waved dismissively at the officers around him. “We will come back to planning how to eradicate the Picts tomorrow.”
“Crocus, you wait behind.” Crocus was the commander of his Alemanni cavalry, auxiliaries who followed their own customs, but were sworn to fight for Rome.
The chandelier with fifty candles, hanging by a chain from the central wooden beam, swayed a little as the double height doors swung open and the salty wind from the sea swept in.
The Emperor, Chlorus, was in his mid fifties. His hair was gray, but still thick. His beard well-cropped. His iron-gray eyes were shadowed by heavy brows. For military briefings, such as the one he’d just been conducting, he still wore his old soot-black chain-mail shirt with the two large medallions from his most illustrious campaigns secured in position above his heart.
From Chlorus’ leather legionaries’ belt hung an ordinary legionaries’ dagger, the only weapon he ever wore these days. It signified his roots as an ordinary legionary. A purple cloak hung in drapes down his back. He was sturdy, fit for his years, and tall like his son, and he wore his prestige like a second invisible cloak. Almost everyone in the town knew that he had, against great odds, reunited the western Empire since his elevation to the rank of Caesar fourteen years before. And the officers he commanded, who were filing out of the room, knew exactly how he had achieved his success.
Crocus waited. Braziers around the oak map table they’d been standing around kept the chill from the cloak-penetrating sea breezes at bay. The gray spume flecked channel that separated Gaul from Britannia, from which the breezes came, could be seen from two small grilled windows at the end of the room. Crocus went to warm himself by one of the braziers. The Emperor joined him.
“You hadn’t much to say.”
“You know my opinion about those officers, Emperor. They make my blood run to ice. Did you not hear them? They think logic wins wars.” He rubbed at his beard. The matted hairs would not be cut until their Summer campaign had ended.
“And they all know what you think of them.”
Crocus made a noise like an animal growling.
“But you’re right, they are an innocent bunch, though even you must have been young once. Us two, we make the real decisions, you know that.”
Silence flooded the hall.
“It’s your son, isn’t it?” Crocus seemed very sure of himself.
The Emperor looked around, as if examining the legionary banners that hung from the walls for the first time. “Perhaps I will find him a post as a senior Tribune.”
He paused, turned to Crocus. “I hear his experience is with cavalry. Do you have room for another officer?”
Crocus’s expression didn’t change.
He knows the art of hiding his real feelings.
“Whatever you wish, my Lord. I am sure he’s won many laurels. You must be proud of him. The stories in the taverns about him get more incredible every night.” Crocus passed a hand over the warm coals as if testing how hot they were.
“If half what they say is true, he’s the type who’ll be looking for a good post.” Crocus sniffed. “But I’m not sure if our cavalry unit is big enough for his aspirations. He’s the right age to lead a whole Legion, isn’t he? The younger the better, I always say.” He looked at the Emperor, a slightly quizzical expression on his face.
He knows how I resent getting old.
“He’s the right age, all right,” Chlorus answered. He put a hand over the coals to test their warmth as well. “But he’s been away a long time. I once thought we might never see him again. And do you know, I have no idea why Galerius released him. That toad never acts unless there’s something in it for him.”
“I have no idea what he wants, Emperor.”
“Neither do I. That’s the problem.”.
He looked around, checking to ensure no one else had remained in the hall without them noticing. There was no one to be seen. The heavy studded doors had been closed from the outside by his Imperial guards, and the long hall was quiet except for a faint crackling from the braziers. Thin lines of smoke curled up from them to disappear high among the blackened rafters.
“May I speak openly, Emperor?”
“Yes, speak your mind.”
Both Crocus’s hands were testing the heat of the brazier now.
“Five years we’ve fought together, my Lord. We’ve cut off Frankish raiding parties and we threw back two hungry tribes who wished to take the best Roman estates at the edge of our territories. I won my place at your right hand through my skill in battle, and in leading my men to victory, but I hold my place now through my wit in understanding the men around me. Is that not so?” He waited for the Emperor to reply.
“Well, I must tell you this. Every spring my daughter asks why I must go away and fight for you Romans again, and every year I tell her we are accumulating booty and fighting to secure the peace of a great Empire and our place in it.” He stood up even straighter and pushed his chest out.
“But every year the booty gets smaller, and as for peace, it’s as far away as ever. These Picts,” he spat the word out, “What gold will they have? A few torcs and bracelets that when melted down won’t even pay my men for a month’s fighting. We need rich cities to plunder, Emperor. How else can we get ready for when our axe hands grow weak and our daughters look for dowries?”
The Emperor’s eyebrow rose slightly. “Tell your daughter we have plans for another ten years of campaigns. After Caledonia we will take Hibernia and then . . .” He waited, weighing the effect his words were having. “The forests of the Franks. There’ll be little gold I know in all of this, but there’ll be land we can farm, and tribespeople for our slave trade. We will allocate these new lands to all who fight with us when the task is done, and I promise you, your tribe will be granted enough to easily pay the dowries of a hundred daughters.”
Crocus shrugged indifferently.
“There are many risks to every plan, Emperor. You know this. The greatest threats arise around our own camp fires, even from our own hearths.” His hands went out, palm up, in a gesture of finality.
“You cannot think Constantine is a threat already!” The Emperor laughed. He’d thought about it, but he wouldn’t give Crocus the satisfaction of knowing any of his fears.
“Not a threat, Emperor.” Crocus replied. “But you must know if we give him a senior position in the cavalry he’ll quickly earn the loyalty of his men. You know that. Even if he’s half as good as they say, he’ll get respect for who he is, for being your son. And then he’ll want more. And he’ll have some of our best as his blood brothers then. Who knows what he’ll aspire to. Do you?”
“So how do you suggest I deal with him Crocus, and remember he’s not Hannibal arriving at our gates with his elephants.”
How far did Crocus think he should go?
“When a son comes of age for position in our tribe, Emperor, he either fights his father, submits to his father’s every wish, or he is banished.” His tone dropped. “And do you know which what is the most difficult way for a father? Winning.” He pointed a finger at the Emperor. “Being the victor if the fighting path is chosen. Sacrificing a son is not easy but the price of power was always high.”
The Emperor didn’t reply. His silence hung in the room.
“All I say is that you must consider what even the dogs know, the cubs of the strongest want themselves to be the strongest. It is only natural. Your son will pick his path, if you do not pick it for him.” Crocus braced himself on the flag stoned floor, his feet shifting wider. “If you need services from me, Emperor, any service at all, I am your loyal servant.” He bowed his head slightly.
The Emperor knew at once what he was referring to. Crocus had arranged for two disaffected officers to disappear in the past twelve months and he dealt with local disaffection quickly. All that made him useful.
“I know what the dogs know, but I am no Agamemnon. No sacrifice has been demanded of me. If there’s no room for him in your cavalry, I’ll not force him on you. Go now, fetch him here. Fetch Constantine, I will greet him publicly.”
Crocus saluted, turned and strode away.
The Emperor stared into the glowing embers of the brazier. Was Crocus right? Would Constantine be a danger, not a support? No, he had to give his son a chance.
Bloody Alemanni succession rituals. They are not the Roman way. Constantine had survived the east. He deserved a place with his father. He remembered the tall adoring youth he’d sent away, against every familial feeling, to Diocletian’s palace many years before. Now he should make amends.
No. That would only make his son soft. He remembered his long ago promises. You have nothing to fear. That was all lies. So, did he still feel guilty? Was that why he was so wound up by his son’s arrival? Does he bring back too many memories of his mother. The dismal Helena.
He’d have to make provision for her now.
She could move back to Treveris, now that he’d vacated the city. He would notify her. But would she want to come and visit Constantine? That would be interesting, especially if Theodora got to hear about it all.
Old wives and new rarely get on well in Imperial circles.
As he walked down the flag-stoned corridor lined with small busts of the great Emperors the aching pain in his stomach returned. Cursing the sickness that had reduced his nights to sleeplessness and dull pain, he held the palm of his hand firm against the pit of his stomach.
Prepare for everything.
That was what Diocletian always used to say, whenever he’d been asked for advice.
And he’d almost decided what to do about Constantine. He just needed answers to a few questions. Why had Galerius released Constantine at this time?
The ache in his stomach felt worse as he considered it all.
For years, he’d imagined helping his son when he returned, and now that time had arrived, the idea suddenly seemed unwise. Why was that? He’d striven hard not to spoil the boy? Had he gone too far?
He stopped, leaned a hand against the red brick wall, sniffed. He could smell salt. Salt and damp. Decay taints every crevice in this place. It’s even in the plaster. It never survives too long on this coast. He rubbed the wall. A small crimson coated piece crumbled into his hand. He examined it, looked at its perfect shiny skin and then its fragile powdery underside.
Why was everything so flimsy, so fleeting, every shiny victory so soon forgotten, every pleasure gone so soon after the moment it was felt, while all around the wolves stalked, waiting for their opportunity?
He’d fought his way up only to find his greatest task now was to thwart others who tried to follow his example. Powdery ash trickled through his fingers, drifting to the foot polished floor.
Everything would be different now that his son had arrived. He’d known that, felt it instinctively, since he’d first heard Constantine was coming. But did that mean Constantine would be the wolf? How would he know?
The last piece of the plaster crumbled though his fingers and fell to the floor.