Set in the late 3rd-early 4th century Roman empire, Sword and Serpent is a fictionalized telling of the story of St. George and the dragon. Below is the riveting first chapter.
You can also read our 8 question interview with him about his writing process, what he thinks of the state of fiction, and what his next book will be here.
Sword and Serpent is available on Amazon.
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Antiochia ad Orontes, A.D. 299
“Domine. The gods are silent.” The words came as a whisper, under the breath, as quiet as the end of times is ever proclaimed.
The haruspex bowed as he spoke, cringing between the stony stare of Jupiter Capitolinus, towering in carved marble over the altar behind him, and the deadlier, weightier stare of the divine Diocletian, Emperor of Rome. The priest kept his gaze on his bloodied hands, shaking from three days of ritual fast, and prayed to the silent gods that Diocletian would not command him to take the sacrificial victim’s place.
Several minutes slipped away before the haruspex finally lifted his eyes. The light of the ritual fires caught the smooth line of Diocletian’s clenched jaw and glimmered in the brilliant azure of his eyes. In the deep purple of his toga, he was as imposing and beautiful as a god himself.
And, the haruspex realized, just as silent.
Diocletian beckoned him closer. The priest stumbled toward him, hunched in a bow, fingers half-curled like lifeless talons.
“Faustus,” the emperor said, his voice quiet and terrible. “The portents.”
“None, domine. Apollo sends us none. The gods are silent.”
“How is that possible?”
“I don’t know! The victim was untainted. No vitium corrupted the sacrifice. But I read nothing in the lamb’s vital organs.” His voice pitched up, threaded with panic. “The gods are silent!”
Diocletian never moved. “Do it again,” he said. “I don’t care how long it takes. Repeat it!”
Faustus’ tongue flicked over his cracked lips. He could taste the birth of fear in the smoke-haze of the temple. The attendant stationed at the brass tripod was trembling with it, barely keeping the incense burning. It was in the pale faces of the few members of the imperial household, clustered near the great doors of the Temple. But it was in the heavy silence that Faustus could taste it, bitter as the tang of blood running over the altar stone.
Faustus staggered back toward the altar. Fear was never without his companion Rumor. If Faustus repeated the sacrifice, there would be no stopping either of them.
Not that it mattered now. It was all coming to an end.
As he neared the altar, one of the servants by the door moved. The haruspex watched sidelong as the man raised his hand and made a slow, curious gesture, brushing his right thumb over his forehead, down, then across.
Faustus stiffened. It was a subtle gesture; it might have been nothing. But he knew better. He’d seen that sign before. It wasn’t Roman. It certainly wasn’t Etruscan. It belonged to the strange new cult that had risen in this gods-forsaken region and now infected even Rome herself, and it had no place in the great Temple of Jupiter, Jupiter the All-Powerful, Jupiter the Victorious.
He moved to rebuke the man, but stopped when Diocletian shifted his weight. The gods might be silent, but the will of the emperor was clear.
He turned back to the bloodied altar, calling for a new victim. His attendant dragged a young sheep forward, and Diocletian stepped forward again with the ritual knife.
Four times they repeated the sacrifice.
Four times Faustus failed to divine the will of the gods.
It was no use. For thirty-nine years he had read the lines of livers and hearts, and counseled generals and emperors with the messages he found there. But not now. The gods were most definitely silent.
Rome was forsaken.
When the fifth victim failed, Faustus fell on his knees before the altar, soaking his toga in the blood that ran like water down the sanctuary steps. The mangled carcasses of the spoiled victims lay strewn around him, unfit to be burned, all wasted.
“Speak, Apollo,” he whispered to the smoke and the silence and the deepening shadows. “Declare your will…”
He tore at the veiling fold of his toga with bloody hands, staining the white wool crimson. As his frantic thoughts scattered in panic, his eyes fell on the servant who had made the strange sign. And in that moment, all his fear turned to rage.
“We are lost,” he hissed, standing to face the emperor. “The impious defile the sacrifices. Apollo will not speak while we tolerate their blasphemies.”
Diocletian’s face hardened. “What impious?”
“Rullus, there,” Faustus said, pointing at the servant. “He made an impious sign. He has desecrated this sacred place.”
The emperor kept his gaze fixed on the haruspex. “Rullus called on his own god, and you found yours silent? I don’t wonder at your panic. Perhaps you are sacrificing at the wrong altar.”
“Domine meus!” Faustus recoiled. “You can’t mean that.”
Diocletian did not answer. He glanced at his secretary, who came immediately with a profound bow.
“The gods are angry with us, Piso,” he said. Faustus watched the blood drain from Piso’s face, but Diocletian had his gaze fixed on the stained altar. “Send word to all the Legions calling for public sacrifice. We will unite the empire in blood, it seems.”
Piso bowed and withdrew, leaving Faustus alone with the emperor again.
“Jupiter has always guided me,” Diocletian said, touching his forehead before gesturing at the massive statue of the god in all his glory. “If our tolerance of some foreign deity has angered him, then Jupiter must be appeased. Let the upstart god be silenced.”