An Extract from The Mask of Command by Ian Ross


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.

You can visit Ian’s website and follow him on Twitter. You’ll also find him on Facebook.

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