22 December 2011

Excerpt Thursday: The Soldier of Raetia by Heather Domin

This week on Excerpt Thursday, we're welcoming historical author and new contributor Heather Domin, whose novel THE SOLDIER OF RAETIA is set during the Roman period. It offers a unique perspective on the life of Roman soldiers on the barbarian frontier.  Join us Sunday, when Heather will be here to talk about the book and give away a digital copy. Here's the blurb:

The Soldier of Raetia is an historical novel set in Ancient Rome and the Germanian frontier, a coming-of-age military adventure combined with an unorthodox love story. Rome, 10BC – Manilus Dardanus, a new soldier from the provinces, applies for sponsorship with the respected general Cassius Valerian. Dardanus has a lot to learn about the life he has chosen, and at first Valerian seems the least willing candidate to teach him. But a bond forms between this unlikely pair that neither could have imagined; and as the legion moves out to the northern frontier, battles and betrayals will prove just how profoundly Dardanus and Valerian have changed each other's lives — and hearts — forever.

**An Excerpt from Heather Domin's THE SOLDIER OF RAETIA**

The garden of Villa Cassia stood open to the sun, a long rectangle of green edged by the main colonnade on one side and a line of hedge and trees on the others. The end closest to the house thrived with manicured fruit trees and plants in containers bordering the pool leading up to the general's office; but the other end sprawled open, an expanse of space broken only by walking paths and hedge. The rising sun striped the grass gold as it rose, a brilliant disc sending streaks of pink and white across the sky.
Dew clung to the grass beneath Dardanus' sandals as he placed his cloak on a stone bench. Above the seat, keeping silent guard, a red marble statue of Mars loomed over the square. Dardanus watched the sunlight glint off the god's opaque eyes. Make me strong, he thought, and picked up his sword.
The general was inspecting his own practice gladius; he scratched at an imperfection, squinting, then tested the wood's heft in his hand and whipped a few swings through the air.
"You've had sword training, yes? Hand to hand, from a proper swordsman?"
Dardanus thought of old Bergeron, the best fighter in southern Germania's armies until a barbarian blade had taken one of his eyes. He should have died from the wound, and it had seemed to Dardanus that an air of magic hung about the gnarled old warrior, as if he could pass on that charmed life to his pupil by hard instruction. How he had drilled young Dardanus, endless hours of bruises and sweat, constant shouts of "Faster, boy!" and "Stop daydreaming!" and whacks on the shoulders or backside to drive the point home. How proud he had been the day Dardanus bid him farewell. You'll do us all credit, boy, as long as you keep your head out of the clouds and don't get yourself killed.
"Yes, sir," Dardanus said. "The best I could have asked for."
The general sliced the air a few more times. "They'll tell you sword work is for show-offs, but a real soldier knows that ranks break and shields shatter, and a sword can wound in ways a spear can't. The enemy does not fight like a civilized Roman, and if you don't take that seriously, you won't last long on the frontier."
"Yes, sir."
"Shall we begin?" He took a few steps back into the open grass. Dardanus followed, his sandals slick with dew. He could hear Bergeron's gravelly voice in his head: He's a man, Dar, not a god. Fight him like you would fight me. He drew in a breath and released it slowly. His fingers tingled and flexed.
"Defend yourself," the general said, and lunged for him.
Dardanus sprang aside and deflected the blow, protecting his ribs from a rebound stroke, his sword held at the pit of his belly. The general came again from above, swinging down to Dardanus' shoulder and then, when deflected, jabbing forward toward his ribs. Dardanus batted the blade away and moved back, and twirled his sword once before returning to guard pose.
Dardanus tried to interpret that tone; when he did so, the general attacked. The blow was much harder and drove Dardanus backward; he spread his feet for balance and parried, then moved to push the sword away. The general took advantage of his imbalance and drove forward, swinging around and down to collide his sword into Dardanus' with terrific force. Dardanus grunted, the wind knocked from him, and leaped back to dislodge the blow. Retreat—he had lost ground. He tried to catch his breath.
"Someone has taught you a little," the general said.
"Thank you, sir."
"You're hesitating. Are you nervous?"
It would be better not to lie. "A little."
"I—I'm being tested by my master to see—"
"No!" The word was forceful, a harsh sound. "I am not your master. I am no free man's master."
"I'm sorry."
"Don't apologize." The general exhaled, frowning. He looked at Dardanus again for a moment, and the frown hardened into something more grim. Slowly, he raised his sword until its wooden point hovered over Dardanus' breast bone. Dardanus stood motionless. The point scratched his tunic with every breath.
"Are you afraid of me?"
"Then defend yourself."
He was spinning before he saw the stroke coming—he whirled and raised his sword with both hands. Their blades met with a whack of wood against wood, crossed in a shadow above Dardanus' face.
"Better." The general held their position, swords crossed and elbows locked, not pushing, not withdrawing. "A man can only fight in one direction at a time. Never fight your fear, boy—use it to drive you. Deny it, and you will fall."
"Yes, sir."
The general stepped back and lowered his sword. "Good." He turned away and walked over to the bench where their cloaks lay, wiping his sweaty neck.
"Your military training is your centurion's responsibility. Your duty to me is to excel in it—my duty to you is to see you get a full education. I'll work with you like this when I can."
He pulled his tunic over his head and dropped it on the bench, then untied his under-tunic and let it fall to his hips. Dardanus could see the crosshatch of tiny welts marring his armpits and shoulders. He thought again of Bergeron, with his mottled back and ruined eye—the marks of lives spent in duty and service. But the general, he knew, carried an even more important mark—and when he turned to wipe off his sword, Dardanus finally saw it. Across his back stretched the scrawl of long-healed scar; it crawled down his right shoulder, a thick line of tissue, pale against the tanned skin. That a man like Cassius Valerian should suffer the indignity of a wound in the back, all for the safety of his Princeps—Dardanus knew the story, but seeing it displayed in the flesh filled him with a strange kind of intimidation. On its heels came a sliver of fear; he could not imagine the force of the blow that could create such a wound.
The general turned to face him; Dardanus flinched and averted his eyes. It appeared his gawking had gone unnoticed. The general shrugged his shoulders, stretching his neck until it made little popping sounds. He sliced the warm air with his sword.
"Again," he said. "And this time fight me like a soldier, not a student. Can you do that?"
The risen sun had leached the pink dawn to a hot white morning. A bead of sweat rolled down Dardanus' spine; he forced his shoulders to relax and braced his feet apart on the grass. His sword loosened in his hand.
"Yes, sir," he said.
"Good." The general lifted his blade. Then defend yourself."