Rome The Eagle of the Twelfth: Excerpt and Author Commentary
Last week I reviewed Rome The Eagle of the Twelfth by M.C. Scott, it was rather fantastic. Afterward I was pleasantly surprised when Bantam Press got in touch and offered an excerpt from the novel that I could share with readers of the site. As an added bonus, there is also some additional insight direct from the author herself. Please enjoy!
The heights were hemmed about by winter trees, blowing ragged in the coming breeze, shading the grey hillside with copper. The scent was of dying fires, and oiled leather, and iron; the scent of any army in the morning; the scent of awaited death; a scent so peaceful, I could have lain down with that as my shroud, and slept.
And that was when the sun scraped through a finger’s width of mist and Helios cast a single ray, spear-straight at our Eagle, washing it with living light, the breath of the gods.
Horgias took hold of the haft and raised it up so that it flew above us, our guardian and our care, ours to protect until death.
We cheered, how could we not? And so revealed how very few we were.
There was a moment’s raggedness, as the wind caught the last hurrahs and tore them to shreds. Then I caught a glint of sun on iron somewhere on the hill high to my left,, and another along the valley, and another on the shoulder of the mountain to my right, and another, if I craned my head to look behind, along the pathway that led out of the valley, and another and another, as our enemies rose from the places in which they had been hidden, and revealed themselves to us. How many they were, how very many. And we so few.
They began to group together, moving easily through the scrub and debris of the pass as if they knew each bush and rock. The first we saw were not the Roman-clad men we had faced before, but lean warriors in rough tunics belted in plain leather, bareheaded and barefoot, carrying long-spears, small shields and side swords. Each one carried slings, and a pouch of lead shot over their shoulders.
They took stances above us on left and right, before and behind and one among them put his fingers to his mouth and whistled, as a boy does to his goats.
What came then was not goats, but, down the wide, meandering path that led from the east, men on horseback and on foot, men in mail and helmets, bearing shields and spears, men mounted on…
One man mounted on a Berber mare, milk white in her coat, with her mane down to her knees, flowing black as a Parthian heart and she was beautiful as any living thing might be, with a long, loose-limbed walk that made my heart turn over and my eyes sting, so that I had to dash away tears with the back of my hand and even then I could not tear my eyes from her to see whom she bore.
‘There’s gold on his helmet,’ someone said, nearby; Horgias, I think. ‘That’s the king.’
‘Demalion, is there any chance…?’ Lupus was still close by. His voice snapped me back into myself. The bow lay at my feet, but even as I eyed the distance, I knew there was no point in picking it up. ‘Too far,’ I said. ‘I’d only waste an arrow. But if he comes closer, I’ll take him’
I loved writing the whole of this book. I realise authors always say that, but it’s not always true. By the end of a book, you have to love it a little, the way a parent loves a recalcitrant child, but most books have had their harder moments and some have been viewed as a lethal adversary to be bludgeoned into submission before we submit them to our editors.
But this book, truthfully, I loved from the moment I started it. Partly this is because I worshipped Rosemary Sutcliff from my early youth and the chance to write a book that might stand in the shadow of the Eagle of the Ninth is more than worth a year of my life, but more… there’s a raw, visceral feel to writing this, to immersing in the guts of the Twelfth legion, to following its fortunes up and down that is unlike anything I have written before.
This particular passage is the one I had in my mind from the start. History tells us that 400 men volunteered to remain behind with the Eagle at the entrance to the Beth Horon pass, and to keep the fires burning overnight while the sorry remnants of their army; three legions and attendant cavalry squadrons – escaped from the enemy. Come dawn, the subterfuge was revealed and the four hundred stood around their Eagle standard, ready to die in its defense. In the beginning, I had no real idea how I was going to get here, or even who the characters were, and certainly no idea at all of what would happen next: but from first reading of Josephus, and with The Coming of the King behind me, I knew the taste, the flavour, the texture of this scene. It changed a little, as all things do, as I came closer and it drew into focus, but the essence of it remained true; that moment of revelation when the supposed Roman army is revealed as four hundred men, waiting to die.