I’m a little bit obsessed by Roman history so it gives me great pleasure to be sharing an extract from The Mask of Command by Ian Ross with you today. The Mask of Command is the fourth in the Twilight of Empire series. Published in e-book and hardback on 12th January 2017 by Head of Zeus, The Mask of Command is available for purchase from all good booksellers and by following the publisher links here.
The Mask of Command
When a treacherous act of murder throws the western provinces into turmoil, Aurelius Castus is ordered to take command of the military forces on the Rhine. But he soon discovers that the frontier is a place where the boundaries between civilisation and barbarism, freedom and slavery, honour and treason have little meaning.
At the very heart of the conflict are two vulnerable boys. One is Emperor Constantine’s young heir, Crispus. The other is Castus’s own beloved son, Sabinus. Only Castus stands between them and men who would kill them.
With all that he loves in danger, Castus and a handful of loyal men must fight to defend the Roman Empire. But in the heat of battle, can he distinguish friend from enemy?
An Extract from The Mask of Command
Campus Ardiensis, Thracia, January ad 317
The plain was covered with the wrack of war.
Many times the opposing armies had clashed, drawn back, and then clashed again, arrows and javelins flickering beneath winter clouds that boiled like dark smoke. Now the coarse and frost-stiffened grass and the ice-rimed pools bristled with spent missiles and shattered shields. The bodies of men and horses clogged the bloodied turf. Iron gleamed dull in the fading light, and the wind made the battle cries and the trumpet calls indistinguishable from the wails of the dying.
On a low ridge to the north of the plain, a group of men crouched below a stand of twisted black hawthorns, gazing out over the battlefield. The banners and shield blazons were lost in the gathering murk, and for a few long moments it was impossible for the observers to say which army fought for Constantine and which for Licinius. Impossible to say who was winning, and what had been lost. But already the first snow was whirling in from the south, and the men on the ridge knew that few of the wounded left between the battle lines would survive the night.
The youngest of the group, a supernumerary centurion with a wind-reddened face, threw out an arm suddenly and pointed.
‘I see it!’ he cried. ‘Just to the right of the centre – the imperial standard! Constantine must be there…’ He turned to the big man beside him, who knelt, impassive, wrapped in his cloak.
‘Dominus,’ the centurion said. ‘Should we give the order to advance? The track will take us straight down onto the plain – we can reinforce the battle line at the centre…’
The senior officer unlaced his gilded helmet and lifted it from his head. He squinted, and his coarse heavy features bunched as he seemed to sniff the breeze.
‘No,’ he said. The word steamed in the frigid air.
‘But, dominus… why delay any longer? Surely the emperor needs us…?’ The centurion was young, untested in war and eager to prove himself. Behind them, on the track, five thousand soldiers waited in column with their baggage and equipment. Two days’ forced march had brought them here – surely now they could turn the tide of the battle?
‘I said no.’
The big man rubbed a palm along his jaw, through the rasp of stubble and the ugly scar that knotted his cheek. He studied the battlefield before him, and the young centurion saw the calculation in his eyes. He put his helmet back on.
‘The army’s strong enough at the centre,’ he said. ‘There’s another track to our left, running along the rear of this ridge. It should take us down onto the plain to the east. We swing around that way and we can hit the enemy on their flank.’
The centurion blinked, and then stared at the land ahead of him. Snowflakes whirled in the wind, almost hypnotic.
‘Well, what are you waiting for?’ the commander said curtly.
‘Get down there, find the emperor and report our position! Tell him that I intend to outflank the enemy lines on the left. Go!’
‘Dominus!’ the centurion said, saluting as he leaped to his feet. He turned and ran down the slope to where the horses were tethered. The commander watched the young man vault into the saddle, then spur his horse into a gallop down the trail towards the distant standards at the centre of the battle line. He exhaled, breathing a curse as he recalled the old adage. War is sweet to the untried. An experienced man fears it with all his heart.
About Ian Ross
Ian Ross was born in England, and studied painting before turning to writing fiction.
He has travelled widely, and after a year in Italy teaching English and exploring the ruins of empire reawakened his early love for ancient history, he returned to the UK with growing fascination for the period known as late antiquity.
He has been researching and writing about the later Roman world and its army for over a decade, and his interests combine an obsessive regard for accuracy and detail with a devotion to the craft of storytelling.
Ian Ross now lives in Bath.
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