A Sword Among Ravens (The Coffee Pot Book Club Blog Tour).
In a grave, on the edge of a Roman battlefield, an ancient sword has been discovered. Legend claims it belonged to King David of Israel and carries a curse—those who wield it will tragically die—but not the chosen.
AD 455. Arria Felix and her husband, Garic the Frank, have safely delivered a sacred relic to Emperor Marcian in Constantinople. But now, Arria and Garic will accept a new mission. The emperor has asked them to carry the sword of King David of Israel to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem where Arria will dedicate it in her murdered father’s memory.
As Arria and Garic travel into the heart of the Holy Land, they face many challenges and dangers. Their young daughter is missing then found in the company of a strange and suspicious old monk. A brutal killer stalks their path. And a band of cold-blooded thieves is determined to steal the sword for their own gains. But when Arria confronts the question of where the sword should truly rest—old friendships, loyalties, and her duty are put to the test like never before. At every turn, Arria and Garic find themselves caught in a treacherous mission wrapped in mystery, murder, and A Sword Among Ravens.
Excerpt from Prologue: A Husband, a Sword, and a Curse
A Husband, a Sword, and a Curse
AD 447: Roman Province of Dacia Ripensis (Bulgaria)—Month of Julius
Waves of burnt grass fell away as Lucius Valerius Marcian stomped through the battlefield. Behind him, his surviving cavalry soldiers—the Roman VIII Augusta Equites—found their horses abandoned when the fighting went to foot. Marcian stopped and looked around.
Toward the west, bold yellow rays stretched from the late afternoon sun across gray clouds gathering overhead. They shined with an ominous brightness that rattled through him, making him uneasy—on guard. The battle against the Huns had been fierce. Both sides suffered heavy losses, but their Roman general had died on the field, a brutal blow for the Romans. Shouting victory, the Huns had moved east toward a nearby city, and greater plunders.
A mild breeze swept past him. He winced. A stench floated from the barbarian and Roman corpses around them. The smell of death wasn’t new to him. But even now, after many battles and bodies at his feet, the foul odor, the sight of bloated flesh, and gaping wounds were still difficult to ignore.
Marcian swallowed hard and turned from the wind. He searched the distance. On a small hill, he spied Apollo. The horse grazed beside a cluster of bushes that circled a large oak tree. Sweat dripped from Marcian’s curls and onto his brow while splatters of blood and skin stuck to his tunic, helmet, and leather armor. The summer heat had laughed at the slaughter, adding a cruel torment to the battle, but they had persevered, fought tight, outmaneuvered—and lived. He would see Arria again.
The other horses stood farther away, and the men fanned in that direction. Marcian grinned. It was just like Apollo to go in his own direction and very similar to his master, who often struggled with his own independent nature. Even the girl he chose to marry was not the average Roman woman. Arria had been raised unconventionally. Her father had provided her with a man’s education, not just the domestic arts taught to women. As a result, many in Rome respected her for her sharp wit, powers of deduction, and diplomacy. Marcian’s friends warned that she might be a difficult wife to control, but he had no desire to rule over her; he just wanted to live with and lay beside her. He loved her tenacity, her keen mind, and most important to him, they laughed together.
Marcian ran up the hill while Apollo continued to graze. Suddenly, he stumbled and went sprawling face down onto the ground. Something solid had tripped him. He rose to his knees and shook his head. Running his fingers over his forehead, he glanced behind him. A small black object jutted out from the grass at an angle.
Scrambling to his feet, he went and crouched over it. To the eye and touch, it looked and felt like an iron ring pushing through the earth, eroded by weather and time. Marcian drew his knife and scratched the exterior. Hardened dirt stuck to the surface, forcing him to chip it away. The more he scraped, the larger the object grew. After several more attempts, the ring appeared attached to a metal slab. Marcian looked around. The field was quiet. Most of his men had retrieved their horses and returned to the field camp. Roman bodies needed to be stripped and buried. Not far from him, he spotted his centurion riding in his direction. He waved, and the Roman soldier trotted his horse toward him. A barbarian by birth, the tall, husky blond Goth, Darius, wore only a tunic with a thick leather belt, boots, and no helmet. He lent a sharp contrast to Marcian’s shorter, rugged build and dark coloring.
“Darius, help me!” Marcian stood and shouted. “I’ve found something odd buried in the grass.”
The centurion rode up the hill and jumped from his horse. “What is it, sir?” he asked.
“An iron ring attached to a lid or door, but I want to know what’s inside. Tie up my horse. Then go to the camp and bring back two shovels.”
Marcian returned to his knees while Darius tethered Apollo and then rode away. Thunder pealed in the distance. He looked toward the sky. A few sun rays still pierced the clouds, but the moving layers looked darker, heavier. He raked his knife faster. With a strong hand, he brushed away the earth. Marcian sat back on his haunches, gazed at the ring, and waited. Soon, Darius arrived with the shovels. They dug along the perimeter in opposite directions. Within minutes, they uncovered two hinges on what was clearly a bronze frame. Whatever lay beneath the earth was larger than Marcian had imagined.
In unison, they fought feverishly to unearth the mysterious object and beat the threatening rain. With the last layer of dirt gone, both men stopped to rest. Embedded in the hill’s grassy slope, a three by six-foot rusted iron door shone dark brown in the light. Darius sat on a nearby rock. Marcian took a breath, removed his helmet, and dropped it on the ground.
“How strange,” Marcian commented, pulling a short scarf from around his neck. He wiped his brow and then tied it around his forehead.
Darius nodded, then pursed his lips and scratched his jaw. “Looks heavy, I wonder if it can be opened?” With a quick laugh, he added. “I brought some mead to strengthen us.”
Darius retrieved a pouch hanging on his saddle and tossed it to Marcian, who took a swig and handed the pouch back to the centurion. Darius took a long drink.
Marcian looked at the sky. “The sun is hidden now. Let’s open this door—to the devil knows what—and be done before the rain falls.” He grabbed the handle, and Darius used the shovel to pry open the door from its frame.
The first attempt proved futile. Their breath labored, they heaved and groaned as thunder rolled over them.
“Balls! This is stubborn,” Darius hissed between clenched teeth.
Marcian tugged at the handle. Darius wedged the shovel’s blade between the door and the frame. The door hinges creaked, giving them hope. Their muscles straining, they braced their legs, bent forward, and yanked. The door screeched like a warning owl. “Harder,” Marcian gasped. Darius bellowed a curse.
The door suddenly gave way, almost knocking Marcian backward. He steadied himself, took a step, and looked down. A dark hole leading into a tunnel gaped back at him.
“Shit! What’s that?” Darius spat.
“How the hell do I know,” Marcian replied gruffly, but I’m going to find out.”
Darius nodded, swiped the pouch from the ground, and took another drink. “Will you go first, Tribune?”
Marcian laughed. “Centurion, I won’t let my rank trump your lack of courage.” With a last look into the pit, he jumped in. The edge of the earth came to his waist, and he knelt to crawl in deeper. A few feet ahead of him, he saw bone fragments, a partial jaw with several teeth, and a bundle of deteriorated leather. A shield rested nearby.
Marcian’s heart beat faster. He looked closer. A metal box poked through the bones and animal skin. A sudden rush of dread washed over him. Sweat trickled from beneath the scarf covering his brow. He paused but spied a metal grip. Marcian quickly yanked the box and scurried backward, dragging the case to the opening. Darius gave him a hand, and Marcian jumped out. Together, they reached into the hole and lifted the box onto the ground.
They stood beside it and stared. The box looked about three feet long, a foot wide and half as deep. Marcian tore away the decomposed leather clinging to the outside. On closer inspection, the case proved to be silver, heavily tarnished. A lock secured the lid. Marcian snatched a remnant of the aged leather and rubbed the top of the metal. A short row of engraved and unrecognizable letters or symbols, dulled by time, appeared. He frowned. The case seemed quite old, perhaps ancient.
“Shall we open it?” Darius asked, his eyes shining.
“Better to open it here than in camp with many around us. Use the shovel.”
Darius nodded and swung the blade down against the lock. Yielding to the force of the clanging iron tool, the lock snapped open. Marcian planted his feet firmly behind the box, at the base, and clamped his fingers on the lid’s edge. Darius pressed one foot on the front side and used his knife to pry at it while Marcian pulled from behind. The rusted lid budged a little but groaned its refusal.
“Lift!” Marcian barked, and his jaw tightened. The lid creaked one more time—then gave in and opened.
A whoosh escaped the box trailed by a faint odor of eucalyptus. Both men flinched with the sensation and glanced at one another. Inside, an object wrapped in grayed linen cloth fit snugly into the container.
“This gets more mysterious by the moment,” Marcian said softly.
Darius scratched his head. “What is it?”
“Let’s find out; the day is dying, and a raindrop just brushed my cheek.” Marcian kneeled and lifted the bundle from its case. With a pivot and his arms extended, he gently placed it on the ground. As Marcian unwrapped the object, pieces of the linen crumbled. A soft flash of light burst through the fabric and struck his eyes; he blinked. When he looked again, a sword, simple in form but strangely beautiful lay nestled in the cloth.
Cynthia Ripley Miller
Cynthia Ripley Miller is a first generation Italian-American writer with a love for history, languages, and books. She has lived in Europe and traveled world-wide, holds two degrees, and taught history and English. Her short fiction has appeared in the anthology Summer Tapestry, at Orchard Press Mysteries.com, and The Scriptor. She is a Chanticleer International Chatelaine Award finalist with awards from Circle of Books-Rings of Honor and The Coffee Pot Book Club. She has reviewed for UNRV Roman History, and blogs at Historical Happenings and Oddities: A Distant Focus and on her website, www.cynthiaripleymiller.com
Cynthia is the author of On the Edge of Sunrise, The Quest for the Crown of Thorns, and A Sword Among Ravens, books 1-3 in her Long-Hair Saga series set in Late Ancient Rome, France, and Jerusalem. Cynthia lives outside of Chicago with her family, along with a cute but bossy cat.
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