This weekend I'd like to introduce many of you to Vox Day's "A Throne of Bones".
It's grand fantasy in the line of "Game of Thrones", except that I think it's better written than the latter. The blurb reads:
In Selenoth, the race of Man is on the ascendant. The ancient dragons sleep. The ghastly Witchkings are no more; their evil power destroyed by the courage of Men and the fearsome magic of the Elves. The Dwarves have retreated to the kingdoms of the Underdeep, the trolls hide in their mountains, and even the savage orc tribes have learned to dread the iron discipline of Amorr's mighty legions. But after four hundred years of mutual suspicion, the rivalry between two of the Houses Martial that rule the Amorran Senate threatens to turn violent, and unrest sparks rebellion throughout the imperial provinces. In the north, the barbarian reavers who have long plagued the coasts of the White Sea unexpectedly plead for the royal protection of the King of Savondir, as they flee a vicious race of wolf-demons who have invaded their islands. And in the distant east, the war drums echo throughout the mountains as orcs and goblins gather in vast numbers, summoned by their bestial gods.
It's a long and complex book, almost defying one to select just one excerpt for a blog article like this. I've chosen one that depicts family conflicts and rivalries that will grow into a major plot element in the book.
They had made excellent time, all things considered, thought Corvus as he and Saturnius approached the bridge over the river that separated the Republic of Amorr from the vast empire over which it ruled. They had left most of the twenty guards who had accompanied them the day before, freeing them to separate and visit their families, which were settled in Vallyrium. The two who lacked families, and the two whose families lived in the city, were following a few lengths behind where they could talk freely without concern for their officers overhearing. Saturnius had initially balked at abandoning most of their honor guard, but he’d withdrawn his objections when Corvus had pointed out that no brigand would attempt to interfere with six armed men wearing legionary cloaks within a day’s ride of Amorr.
He was more eager than ever to see Romilia but reluctantly concluded that it was Magnus to whom they must go first. Corvus didn’t relish delivering the bones that were presently stowed away on the back of one of their two pack horses. But over the course of their travels he had convinced himself that Magnus would be inclined to receive the news as a proper stoic should. Did he not pride himself on his equanimity? The guards at the bridge tower recognized their rank and saluted as he and Saturnius passed. One of them must have been acquainted with one of the legionaries, as a series of glad cries erupted behind them.
Corvus smiled at the sight of the hustle and bustle of the city life that was so familiar, and yet seemed so foreign after four months in the wilderness of Gorignia. The smells were nearly as strong as the stench of the battlefield from which they’d come, but far more varied and significantly less vile. And some of them were mouth-wateringly delicious.
“I have dreamed about those for months,” Saturnius said, eyeing a vendor who was selling garlic-fried songbirds on a stick.
“Go on then, buy as many as you like. Get me one, no two, as well.”
“As the consul commands,” Saturnius said with a grin. He didn’t even bother dickering with the vendor, but simply grabbed a handful, tossed the man a silver coin, and popped one in his mouth as he rejoined Corvus. “Mmmmph, now that is really good! Why can’t our cursed cooks manage to feed us decently if these fellows can create such delicacies out of the birds they catch on the street?”
Corvus wrinkled his nose after taking a bite of his bird. It was crunchy, and all he could taste was the potent garlic in which the little bird had apparently been stuffed, rubbed, and fried. “I think you could serve goblin this way and it would taste no different.”
“If goblin tasted like this, I’d eat it.” Saturnius vowed. “It would certainly simplify the logistical situation.”
“My son once told me he read the orcs do just that when they march. They use the goblins as shock troops and provisions alike. Probably just a story, though. They’re also said to grow from rocks. Or maybe that’s trolls, I don’t recall.”
“Not a bad idea, actually. Although I don’t see either the men or the Church smiling on it.” He looked at Corvus appraisingly. “And I can’t imagine you’d be good for anything but soup, being as lean and stringy as you are.”
They had no sooner turned into the quarter in which both Magnus and Corvus himself resided when Corvus spotted a pair of familiar faces among a group of young men dicing on a corner. One was Marcipor, his son’s longtime slave, and the other was a man from Magnus’s stables. Both of them looked up at the sound of the iron-shod hooves on the cobblestones, but their reactions were completely different. Marcipor smiled and rose to his feet, but Magnus’s stable slave’s eyes narrowed and after exchanging a word or two with the young man holding the stakes, he ran off in the direction of Magnus’s domus.
Corvus sighed. It wasn’t as if he intended to surprise Magnus, but something about the slave’s reaction suggested that there might be trouble ahead.
He glanced back. The four guards were only a few lengths behind them. But surely they wouldn’t be needed!
“My lord Corvus, welcome back to Amorr,” Marcipor said, following his words with a deep and theatrical bow. The slave was a tall, golden lion of a man but about as martial as a kitten. He was deeply attached to Corvus’s son, and Corvus found him quite likable in his own right. “Did my master accompany you?”
“I’m afraid not, Marce,” Corvus replied. “But thank you, it is good to see a friendly face. Speaking of which, that slave, Magnus’s man. He ran off to warn Magnus, I presume, and he did not appear pleased.”
It was as if a light switched off. Marcipor’s face abruptly grew serious and his voice dropped. “I fear your welcome will be rather chillier at Magnus’s manse, my lord. There are rumors abounding, some of which I can scarcely credit! It is said that Gaius Valerius is dead, and not by the hand of the enemy either.”
Corvus and Saturnius looked at each other. Had word of the execution gotten back ahead of them somehow? Was it even possible?
“Who says it?” he asked the slave. “Who told you?”
“Sextus,” Marcipor replied. Corvus shook his head. Magnus must already know then, for he recalled that the young slave was as close to Marcus’s cousin as he was to Marcus himself. Damn that Clodipor. He should have sent the man back at once, empty-handed, no matter how strange it would have seemed under the circumstances.
“Trouble?” Saturnius asked.
“There may be.” Corvus reached into one of his saddlebags and withdrew a scroll with a broken Valerian seal. “Marce, run to the Senate, as quickly as you can. Find the primus fascitor and tell him their new Consul Aquilae requires eight fascitors at Magnus’s domus at once. At once! Accept no delays, and tell them to run, don’t walk. The primus should comply once he learns you’re of my household, but give him this letter if he requires additional convincing.”
“Consul, Lord Valerius?” The young man stared at him in astonishment. “Congratulations, my lord!”
“Consul Suffectus, it would seem. At any rate, I am entitled to the fascitors, so if you will please fetch them for me now.”
“At once, my lord consul!” His son’s slave took the scroll, bowed more respectfully than Corvus could ever recall seeing him do before, and ran off toward the heart of the city.
“Fine-looking lad,” Saturnius commented. “One of yours?”
“My son’s birth-companion. They used to be all but inseparable, but he’s always been on close terms with Magnus’s son Sextus, as well. Marcus gave him to Sextus when he kissed the eagle. Whatever he’s heard, rest assured it has reached Magnus’s ears as well.”
Saturnius sighed. “Damn that Fortex!” The legate immediately regretted his outburst and made the sign of the tree. “No, no, requiscat in pace and let there be mercy upon his soul. But truly, Corvus, how hard is it to not engage in a bloody single combat? Were my orders unclear? Three hundred other knights didn’t seem to have any trouble comprehending them.”
“Don’t waste time thinking about it. Your orders were perfectly clear. The boy was always headstrong to a fault.”
“It can be hard to tell the difference. The lad fought like a demon, though, I’ll give him that. And I was surprised when he returned to the field that day. Once the Second broke their cavalry and chased them off, I was certain we’d seen the last of him until nightfall. So he had a modicum of discipline.”
“Well, we did see the last of him that night,” Corvus said grimly. “And therein lies the problem. Are you sure you want to involve yourself in this, old friend? Magnus will make for a bad enemy. I’m family and a senator besides. You don’t have the protection of either.”
“I’m already involved, General. The dice will fall as they will. Even if I make an enemy of Magnus, Amorr doesn’t have so many competent generals that he can justify interfering with my appointments. No one would take him seriously, and he wouldn’t risk that. But you don’t honestly believe you’ll need the fascitors, do you?”
“I’d rather have them and not need them than need them and not have them. You know as well as I do that Magnus is accustomed to having things his way.” Corvus took a deep breath as their horses trotted past the curve and the white gates of his elder brother’s domus came within view. They were open and unguarded. As they rode past them, Corvus could see Magnus was sitting on the top step of the mansion, leaning back against a marble column. He looked old and unwell, and he was uncharacteristically attired in a torn and wine-stained tunica.
But upon catching sight of Corvus and Saturnius, he rose unsteadily to his feet, and his unshaved face darkened. He was a big man, Magnus, and as he approached, Corvus realized he was glad he had the advantage of being mounted, especially when he saw the size of the empty wineskin that had been concealed behind Magnus before he rose.
“Hail, Nepoticus!” He greeted Corvus with an angry, contempt-filled sneer. “Hail, to the uncle of corpses! How proud you must be to have defeated those unpronounceable goblin tribes, at the cost of a mere tribune? Shall the Senate grant you a triumph? Shall we name you Tribunicus?”
Corvus remained on his horse. “Brother, I mourn with you, and I regret exceedingly what has happened. I rode here immediately to bring you the news myself. Marcus Saturnius came as well, out of respect for both you and Gaius Valerius.”
“Never speak his name!” Magnus raged, taking a step closer and jabbing his finger up toward him. “You damnable crow! You say you mourn, but where is my son? Where is my son!”
Corvus been prepared for anger, he had been prepared for outrage, he had even contemplated the possibility of violence, but he had not been ready to witness such raw and boundless grief. He had seen his elder brother bury two infant daughters, as well as their own father, without shedding so much as a single tear, and he knew Magnus had sent hundreds, no, thousands, of men to their deaths without a pang of conscience or even a later moment of regret. And yet, the erstwhile stoic had been as unmanned by his son’s death as a eunuch by a heated blade.
Filled with pity and grief, Corvus could not find it within himself to meet his brother’s anger with anger.
“He is there, brother,” he said hoarsely. “On the grey.”
Magnus staggered past him, as if unseeing, toward the white horse that bore his son’s remains. At a gesture from Saturnius, two of the guards slipped off their mounts and loosened the straps that held the heavy canvas bag tight against the horse’s back. Sobbing, he embraced the bag. One of the legionaries reached out to steady him when it looked as if his legs might buckle. He staggered backward with it in his arms, then fell to his knees and unfolded the top. He did not reach in, but merely looked inside, as if to confirm that the bones he could undoubtedly feel through the canvas were really there.
It was a dreadful thing to see. Corvus felt his eyes watering, and he tried to control them, but even though he blinked repeatedly, a single insistent tear burned its way slowly down his left cheek. He didn’t look at Saturnius, but he heard the legate clear his throat twice and knew that Saturnius too was having to keep his emotions in check. Neither of them had ever wished this on the late tribune or his father.
Magnus arose with some difficulty, still clutching the charred remains of Gaius Valerius to his breast. Tears streaked his face, but when he looked up at Corvus, what he saw on his brother’s face provoked him to fury again. “You would shed tears?” he demanded. “Better you shed blood! I sent you my son, I trusted you with my son, and you bring me back this…this bag of blackened bones? What did you do to him? How did he die?”
“You don’t know?” Corvus asked, confused.
“Of course I don’t know, you bloody fool! You wrote that he died after the battle in your letter. Clodipor didn’t see him or Marcus in the camp. Was he wounded? Did he take ill?”
Oh, dear God, cleanse and purify us now, Corvus thought. This was not good. His brother’s derangement was bad enough just knowing that his son was dead. Hearing the actual reason for his death could only make matters worse. Steeling himself as if for a blow, he forced himself to swallow and look his brother directly in his grief-reddened eyes.
“I am sorry, but there is no easy way to tell you this, so I will be direct. He was executed, Magnus.”
His brother stared dully at him, so long that Corvus wondered if he needed to repeat himself.
“What?” Magnus finally shouted. “He was executed? My son was executed? At whose command?”
His brother’s eyes widened with utter astonishment and, for a moment, Corvus seriously thought Magnus was going to drop his son’s bones and attack him. “You executed him? You executed your own nephew? For what? You can’t expect me to believe he was a coward or that he ran from bloody goblins!”
“Fortex was no coward, Magnus,” Saturnius said. “He was brave, certainly. One might even say he was too brave. But his orders were clear. The legion was under special discipline, and before the battle I ordered the cavalry to accept no individual challenges. Fortex defied my order and engaged in single combat with the commander of the enemy cavalry. He killed him, and his men scattered the enemy afterward, but the entire legion witnessed his action. Sextus Valerius had no choice. He was honor-bound to issue the sentence.”
“Honor? Where is the honor in killing young officers, especially one as courageous and promising as Gaius? Young officers make mistakes, they make stupid decisions, and they give ludicrous orders, but you don’t kill them for it! How can they ever learn, if the penalty for every mistake is death? Good lord, Corvus, have you gone mad? You once killed an Avaran in single combat yourself!”
“I’m here to mourn with you, brother, not to argue with you.” If you weren’t half out of your mind with grief and anger and wine, you’d remember we weren’t under austeris at the time and I didn’t defy any orders either. And you would know it all perfectly well, since you were the one who told me to accept the bastard’s challenge. “Magnus, please, I beg you, forgive me. I had no choice in this, no choice at all.”
“Spare me your false tears! Of course you had a choice! You were the stragister militum! You could have subjected him to degradation or stripped him of his rank, you could have put him on rations. Or you could have done what you should have done and simply sent him home to me! If you didn’t want him on your staff, there are ten other legates who would have been delighted to have a Valerius as their tribune! Blood and bones, you didn’t have him stoned or beaten by common legionaries, did you?”
“He was beheaded, Magnus, by the primus pilus, Junius Honoratus. He died well.”
“With all the courage that befitted his name,” Saturnius added.
Their assurances were not helpful.
“Is that supposed to comfort me?” spat Magnus. “Post-mortem plaudits from the murderers of my son?”
Suddenly, Corvus found that he had had enough. “Brother, your grief maddens you. Gaius Valerius was not murdered! He was guilty, and he admitted his crime openly before the legion. His fate was the same as would have been meted out to any other man in the legion. I did not tell you how he died in order to comfort you or to ease my conscience, but to honor his last wishes. Those were his last words, his last and final request. ‘Tell my father I died well.’ And so he did.”
Their raised voices had attracted attention within the domus. Several of the household slaves had already gathered around the windows, and now the front doors opened slowly. Julia, Magnus’s wife, appeared. She had been well past her prime when Corvus had last seen her eighteen months ago, but she had still been an attractive woman, tall, with long black hair fading gracefully into grey. Now she looked like the grandmother she was, as if her son’s death had aged her a decade or more. She was painfully thin, and she leaned on Galerus, the majordomus of Magnus’s household in the city, for support.
“Corvus?” she asked, as if bewildered at his presence. “It is good of you to come. Do you bring word of our poor boy? And Magnus, why are you shouting at your brother?” She looked from one to the other, and both of them were reluctant to answer her.
Magnus turned toward her. “Corvus has brought us back our son, my love. He has brought us back his bones.”
Julia closed her eyes and clutched at her chest, but she did not otherwise react. Lost in the depths of mourning, she looked to have no more tears left in her. Corvus desperately hoped Magnus would not say anything about the execution, as there was already an ugliness in the air that a woman’s hysterics could easily set on fire. Fortunately, he merely stared at Corvus as if daring him to speak.
Instead, Corvus dismounted from his horse.
“Help the ex-consul bring his son’s remains into the atrium,” he ordered the two soldiers already dismounted. But Magnus waved them off, instead beckoning his slaves to come and take his burden from him. Four of them came forward, and they handled Gaius Valerius’s remains with reverent care. From their stricken faces, it was easy to see the lad had been well-loved throughout the household.
Corvus approached Julia with care, and with half an eye on Magnus. He took her too-thin hands in his and squeezed them gently. “Sister, I am deeply sorry I could not bring your son back safely to you. Gaius Valerius was the bravest officer in the legion, and his men admired him exceedingly.”
She nodded hesitantly. “Thank you, Corvus. He was a man, and he took a man’s chances. Do not blame yourself.”
That was too much for Magnus to bear. “Galerus, take Julia inside,” he snapped with barely repressed rage. “My love, see that Gaius’s bones are washed and laid out on clean linen cloth. I must speak with my brother about the funeral. And Galerus, see that you find something to occupy these eavesdroppers. If you catch any of them sneaking back and trying to listen, have them flogged. To death.”
“Of course, my lord,” the majordomus said, his eyes wide with surprise.
“Yes, Magnus.” Julia took Galerus’s arm and bade farewell to Corvus with a sad half-smile, then followed the slaves bearing her son’s bones inside the house.
Magnus watched her go, and as soon as the doors were safely closed behind her, he turned back toward Corvus and fairly spat at him.
“To Hell with your pretense at pity! If I see you at the funeral, I will kill you. I don’t give a damn about your imperium, I will strangle you with my own hands. Do you understand me, Corvus?”
“Magnus,” Saturnius said, “with all respect for you and your son, you must know that if your brother hadn’t taken it upon himself to pronounce the sentence, I would have done so. With no hesitation. We conferred with the senior centurions, as well. It was agreed. To ignore such a blatant violation of discipline on the battlefield could not be done. You know as well as I do that the law of the legion is iron, and there is no mercy in them.”
Magnus scoffed. “Who are you, Marcus Saturnius, to speak of the law of the legion to the head of House Valerius? A Valerian has led Amorr’s legions since the city still had kings! I was leading three legions against the Avarii when you were but a tribune. Would that I had the foresight to take your damned head! Tell me, Marcus Saturnius Inglorious, who was your father? Who was your father’s father’s father? Has Amorr fallen so far already? Can this be the city I, my father, and generations of Valerians before him have fought to defend, a city where Amorr’s noblest patrician blood is shed by plebian scum?”
Saturnius appeared unruffled. “I have never sought fame or fortune, only victory for Amorr. And it is not noble blood that makes the general, Magnus—it is noble deeds. Amorr knows only one law. There is not one law for the patrician and another for the plebian.”
“Our House is Amorr,” Magnus shot back. “Surely you have heard that before. Neither you nor any pleb can ever truly understand what it means. Without House Valerius, without the other Houses Insurgus, there is no Amorr.”
“No, it is you who have never understood what that means, brother.” Corvus shook his head, half in pity, half in contempt. “You have it precisely backward. Other great houses are loyal to the family first, the city second. House Valerius stands apart because we do not distinguish between our interests and the nation’s interests. Honor demands, honor dictates, that we will be the last to exclude ourselves from the standards we demand of others. Even Gaius Valerius Fortex understood it at the end, and he died a true Valerian’s death.”
“Honor! You were always so damned concerned about your precious honor! That’s all this was, wasn’t it? You murdered my Gaius as a sacrifice to your filthy honor!” Magnus spat upon the ground. “That for your honor. It’s not even worth my piss, let alone my son!”
Corvus started to reply, but a rhythmic tromp-tromping of iron-studded sandals over the cobble-stoned street caught his attention. He looked back and saw the eight fascitori enter through the open gate in two lines of four. They were helmed and armored, and they bore the ceremonial axes indicative of their authority. They marched without hesitation past the horses, wheeled around, and stopped in front of Corvus’s horse.
“My lord consul, we are at your service.” The fascitori saluted as one, and Corvus nodded to acknowledge them. “I am Caius Vecellius.”
Magnus, however, only sneered at their arrival. “I see you feared to face me alone, little brother. Four legionaries, a squad of fascitors, and even a legate to hold your hand while you offer me sanctimonious justifications in defense of your murder.”
Corvus didn’t bother trying to argue with Magnus. What was the point? After all, it wasn’t entirely untrue, and he certainly felt safer now that the fascitors had arrived. But his brother wasn’t finished.
“Don’t make the mistake of thinking your imperium renders you immune from consequence, Corvus! I made you consul, and I can unmake you just as easily. And as for you, Marcus Saturnius, you had better leave for Cynothicus now if you know what’s good for you. I’ll find a way to see my son avenged. Just see if I don’t!”
“To think I once wondered where Gaius learned his lack of discipline!” Corvus spat back.
His brother struck Corvus across the face with an open hand. Magnus might be over fifty, but he was still a big man, and the force of the blow drove Corvus to one knee.
He tasted blood in his mouth; the unexpected slap had caused one of his canines to puncture his lip.
Slightly dazed, he rose to his feet again to see two of the fascitors had dropped their axes and seized Magnus.
Between them, they forced him to his knees, and Caius Vecellius stepped toward the kneeling man with a lethally impassive expression as he shifted his grip on his axe to hold it in both hands. The two legionaries had drawn their swords, as well.
The fascetor looked to Corvus.
“Do you want this man arrested, my lord consul? In striking you, he has struck the city.” Corvus, his cheek burning, stared into his kneeling brother’s eyes. They were still red and filled with madness, but the fury had faded enough for him to see grief and despair behind it. Corvus suspected that his brother half-wanted to be executed for treason, if only to escape his pain. Fascitors had been known to behead men for lesser crimes than the one Magnus had just committed. And for the crime of vituper-maiestas, arrest meant summary execution.
He realized he had to leave right now and get the fascitors out of Magnus’s presence before what was already an ugly situation spiraled completely out of control. It was bad enough that he had had his nephew beheaded. If he didn’t end this farce immediately, he’d find himself saddled with the reputation as a fratricide, as well.
Corvus wiped the blood away from his mouth. “The ex-consul has insulted neither me nor Amorr, Caius Vecellius. He has only just now learned of the manner of his son’s death, and he is understandably aggrieved. It would be unjust to hold him responsible for his actions. Release him, and we will leave him and his family to their mourning. Now, I must speak with my consular colleagues, so if you will lead us to the Forum?”
“At once, my lord consul!” Caius Vecellius bowed smartly and returned his axe to his shoulder.
Two of his fellows helped Magnus to his feet, then rejoined the others and began to follow Vecellius toward the gates.
Corvus didn’t say anything to Magnus, he remounted in silence and turned his horse around.
Saturnius did likewise, and the two knights also clambered into their saddles and followed them out to the safety of the street.
When he reached the gates, Corvus looked back and saw that Magnus was still standing motionless, watching him, and his eyes burned with an unfraternal hatred that chilled Corvus’s soul.
“Well, that went well,” Marcus Saturnius said.
“In what way?” Corvus spat, and a red gobbet splattered against the white wall outside the gate, leaving a faint crimson stain behind as it slowly trickled its way down the wall.
“I was listening to the lads earlier,” the legate indicated the knights riding behind them. “It was four to one that either you or your brother wouldn’t survive that meeting.”
“And yet you decided to ride along—out of morbid curiosity?”
Saturnius grinned up at him. “I always bet the chalk, General. But sometimes it helps to keep an eye on your investment.”
I'm currently re-reading the book for the third time. Its sequel, "A Sea of Skulls", was published some years ago, but is currently being expanded. Those who've bought the current version will receive the expanded edition free of charge when it becomes available. I'm looking forward to reading it, hopefully later this year.