Book I: The horse with a demon’s name

ECLIPSED BY SHADOW | 'The Legend of the Great Horse' trilogy book cover (90x135px)

This excerpt is from Eclipsed by Shadow, Book #1 of The Legend of the Great Horse trilogy, an adventure through history―on horseback.

The scene is set in ancient Rome (100 AD): Meagan meets the Emperor’s infamous chariot horse, Cerberus …

“Now that no one buys our votes, the public has cast off its cares; the people that once bestowed commands, consulships, legions, and all else, now meddles no more and longs eagerly for just two things
—bread and circuses.”

—Juvenal (c. 60-140) Roman satirist

THE CHARIOT DRIVER stood and offered his hand. “Would you like to see Cerberus? I will give you the honor.” His handsome smile was warmth in the cold air. “My name is Braedin.”

The Emperor's chariot team (100 AD) ... from Eclipsed by Shadow, Book #1 of THE LEGEND OF THE GREAT HORSE trilogy: (c) Micron Press. Illustration by Marti Adrian.She took his hand casually, but the heat of his grasp went through her. “Braedin! I like that. My name is Meagan. They rhyme, sort of … Meagan, Braedin.” She bit her tongue to stop talking.

Together they walked out of the compound, past the curved hindquarters of the marble horses protecting the gates. Beyond them, the outline of buildings topped the surrounding hills, a moonlit cityscape framed by stone. Hard-packed road passed between a circle of pens and an adjoining work-shop. Inside could be seen a shadowy row of neatly stowed chariots.

They passed the workshop area and approached the paddocks. Out of the darkness a stallion’s scream pierced the night air. A horse charged the fence. The driver smiled as dirt flew around him and announced, “The warrior Cerberus!”

Meagan watched in disapproval. “Horses do not have to be like this, Braedin. You would be amazed what some carrots and a nice bridle can do.”

The driver watched the angry stallion with admiration. Hooves smacked against the wood fence in front of him. “The greatest son of Pegasus, the Thundering Horse of Jove! If I had three more like Cerberus our team would win without challenge!”

“Actually Braedin, I think you would have four dead horses.”

“You are wrong. Were the others as strong as mighty Cerberus, he would pull with them. Cerberus is a warrior. He only hates weakness.”

Common horse sense told Meagan that the stallion only hated rivals, but she decided against pressing the point. Instead she watched a small shadow dance toward them in the moonlight, approaching with a comical jig. A goat came up to the fence and shoved his wiry neck through the timber poles, hoping for a handout. It is not uncommon for a horse to bond with a smaller animal, and a transformation came over the stallion as he sniffed his tiny companion. Meagan reached to pet the goat and Cerberus laid back his ears. She stepped back. “So, they do not fight because this is a strong warrior goat? I mean, the horse does not hate everything. You can see he has a nice side.”

“We are not interested in the stallion’s nice side,” the driver said sharply. “Cerberus is not the Emperor’s favorite stallion for his nice side.”

This is the Emperor’s favorite?”

“Yes. From the day Cerberus savaged Titus’ Blues and scattered them across the track. A glorious day.”

Meagan made herself stay silent.

“It was the same month the horse became a centenarius!” The charioteer’s voice was a boast. “Emperor Trajan gave orders that Cerberus would always run in his team. Trajan was a general of the legions, and Cerberus is to represent the military strength that now rules Rome!” The boast died. “Of course, that was many months ago. And many horses.”

“I am sorry, what is a ‘centenarius?’”

“A horse that has won a hundred races. I drove Cerberus to half of those victories before he became too fierce.” His voice grew boastful again. “One of my fans is a poet named Martial. He gave me an epitaph for when I am killed.” The driver stood straighter and recited: “Here lies Braedin, the glory of the roaring Circus, the object of Rome’s cheers and her short-lived darling. The Fates, counting not years but victories, judged me an old man.”

Meagan listened appreciatively. “That is very nice, Braedin, for when you are killed.” She watched the goat grazing quietly by the stallion. At least the horse was not insane, she realized, ending doubts. “I think Cerberus wants friends. Horses do, you know.”

Eclipsed by Shadow (Book #1 of the trilogy) won national awards including the Eric Hoffer Award for best Young Adult Fiction, and the Mom’s Choice Award for best family-friendly Young Adult Fantasy.

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#57- The Chariot Driver

When the driver did not leave, Meagan sat up straighter. Maybe some Romans were friendly, she thought. One shouldn’t judge based on a few. “Have you been a driver very long?” – Eclipsed by Shadow (excerpt)

The Horse Tamer from Marly-le-Roi

A lone shape approached from the shadows of the barracks. “Of an evening!” the dark figure called. “May I join you?”

“Of course!” Meagan called back. Horace usually retired early, but she would be glad of his company.

Instead it was the Emperor’s chariot driver who approached. He knelt, two eyes shining in the moonlight. “Are you planning your place among the stars?”

She swallowed, unable to think of anything sensible to say in English, much less Latin.

“I have seen you here before. You like this little grove. Are you a worshipper of wood nymphs?”

“Oh, I am. They are so clean.” When the driver did not leave, Meagan sat up straighter. Maybe some Romans were friendly, she thought. One shouldn’t judge based on a few. “Have you been a driver very long?”

“All my life. I have driven three seasons for the Emperor. I drove Cerberus to his greatest victories.”

“Did you say ‘Sir-Bearus?’ Is that one of the horses?”

The driver laughed. “I do not mean the demon hound that guards Hades! Of course Cerberus is a horse!”

“Oh,” Meagan said politely. “You named a horse after a demon?”

“Yes, the three-headed dog-beast who devours all who try to escape the Underworld.” The driver spoke with admiration. “Our stallion Cerberus does the same to any who try to pass him.”

“I see,” she answered, trying to sound impressed. Then she asked casually, “have you seen any new black horses lately … say, a really tall mare?”

“We keep no mares in the Emperor’s stables,” the driver said curtly. “We favor stallions.” He lowered his voice. “I wonder, how does it feel to know the time of your death?”

A flash of panic went through her. “Well, I do not know that yet.”

“The Festival of Mars begins in six days. Are you not sad, not miserable?”

“I suppose.” Meagan felt a chill beyond the cold. “Are you trying to be nice?”

The young man’s teeth shone in the moonlight.

Excerpted from Eclipsed by Shadow, the award-winning 1st volume of “The Legend of the Great Horse” trilogy. (Hrdbk pg. 138)

Book II: The Golden Spark will be published soon.

Read the 1st Chapter online!

Copyright © 2008 John Royce

Curse Tablets of Ancient Rome … or, No Wonder our Driver is not Feeling his Best!

Almost all of our modern ideas on history and mankind have been anticipated in Greek & Roman thought … human nature has not changed enough to make knowledge of our ancestors obsolete.

Almost all of our modern ideas on history and mankind have been anticipated in Greek & Roman thought … human nature has not changed enough to make our ancestors’ knowledge obsolete.

We can recognize our common (if unsavory) humanity in the prevalent Curse Tablets of ancient Rome, which were inscribed on thin lead tablets and hidden in advantageous spots … chariot racing was a hotbed of sabotage and curse tablets.

Here is an actual Roman curse typical of the day:  ‘I command you, demon, and demand from you this hour and day and moment, that you torture and kill the horses of the Greens and that you kill in a crash their drivers.’

Other authentic Curse Tablets were more elaborate and featured detailed instructions:

‘I conjure you, holy beings and holy names, to join in aiding this spell, and bind, enchant, thwart, strike, overturn, conspire against, destroy and kill the charioteer and all his horses tomorrow in the circus at Rome. May he not leave the barriers well. May he not be quick. May he not outstrip anyone. May he not make the turns well. May he not win any prizes, and if he has pressed someone from behind, may he not overtake him; but may he meet with an accident; may he be bound, may he be broken; may he be dragged along by your power, in the morning and afternoon races.

Superstition is an ancient custom and, then as now, not always a pleasant one.

#56- The Emperor’s Quadriga

THERE IS MORE to chariot racing than its appearance of runaway horses, Meagan soon learned. The game was more about survival than speed. Charioteers rode as upon a galloping skateboard, using their weight to change direction. Communication with the horses was limited to slaps and pulls.

Of course, the true horseman’s challenge of chariot racing was in keeping the animals sound. The most popular chariots were teams of four horses, the Quadrigas, which meant sixteen delicate legs exposed to overreaching and missteps, apart from the disaster of collisions. Because of these risks, chariot horses were not raced until five years of age.

As spring took hold the workout track was swamped with spectators hoping for a glimpse of the Emperor’s team. Ajax and Saxon were now sound, with only bare spots to mark their injuries. Trotting out with floating strides, the recovered Saxon was applauded for his beauty. With his large eyes and dished profile, the sleek stallion resembled an Arabian, the oldest pure breed of horse. He had been born in the fiery deserts of Persia, and each year a fleet of mares sailed the fabled stallion’s blood back to his homeland. Indeed Saxon had one of the most beautiful heads Meagan had ever seen, if the horse would only stop tossing it.

Ajax was a special favorite of the guards. The men stiffened in salute whenever the stallion jogged past, as if to a wartime hero. The short-backed, burly horse had been raised in a barracks in Gaul. He was trained to a simple, brutal code, and was eager in the extreme.

The stallion Cerberus was a daily spectacle, scattering grooms into his flocks of admirers. The Emperor’s infamous favorite had been born free in a Greek village’s semi-wild band of horses. In his youth the stallion had been allowed to choose his mares peacefully, but when the new Emperor Trajan’s preference for black horses was made known the stallion had been hauled away to Rome. It was clear from the stallion’s flashing limbs and teeth that Rome was not forgiven.

Excerpted from Eclipsed by Shadow, the award-winning 1st volume of “The Legend of the Great Horse” trilogy. (Hrdbk pg. 145)

Book II: The Golden Spark will be published soon.

Read the 1st Chapter online!

Copyright © 2008 John Royce

#55- Stranded in Ancient Rome

When she was not being reprimanded or ordered about, Meagan was generally considered not to exist. – Eclipsed by Shadow (excerpt)

Lost in the year 100 AD…

When she was not being reprimanded or ordered about, Meagan was generally considered not to exist. The fact of her station was impressed upon her by the Emperor’s driver. Handsome and popular, the young man was a celebrity. Well-dressed businessmen accompanied the star athlete at all times, and groups of admirers waited for him outside the courtyard gates. The first time Meagan saw the gray-eyed driver, she gave him a nervous greeting. The driver strode past her without the slightest acknowledgment.

Someone did notice her, however. The scarred soldier, Horace, came to talk whenever he saw Meagan in the courtyard. Sometimes he would be gone for days and reappear with a new limp or nasty cut. “These scratches?” he would say, joking. “I get them training. Careless of me.”

At first the man’s hulking presence frightened her, and she avoided looking at the dried, shriveled place where his eye should have been. Still, his was the only friendship Meagan could claim, and she learned simply to look at the eye that was looking at her and to avoid the map of scars.

“You take many baths,” the soldier told her one day. (Actually, he pantomimed the splashes Meagan took in the courtyard’s fountain.) “You are so clean. Not like the others.”

She smiled and nodded, her usual response to the language. Classroom Latin had not stressed conversation.

Horace bent down to unlace his sandal and nudged it towards her with a mud-spattered toe. “Like my new sandals? I got them from a Macedonian cobbler. Good, no?” The man flipped the sandal over to show an underside studded with iron nails. “They have hobnails too, for a practical Roman. It saves the soles.”

Meagan nodded blankly.

Horace sighed and picked up his sandal to show her. “Sandalio,” he said in a good-natured baritone, and knelt to lace it. He stood and plucked his garment. “Tun-i-ca.”

“Oh! Your tunic is …” Meagan searched vainly for an adjective.

“Elegans,” Horace prompted her, grinning. Then he held up his thick fingers, counting patiently, “Unus, duo, tres…”

With his eye-patch, Horace was remotely handsome in a mashed sort of way, and Meagan tactfully encouraged him to wear it. Regardless, when Horace made her laugh she found it easy to forget his imperfections. Soon Meagan forgot academic Latin terms such as imperfect and present tense—words that described imperial Rome quite well—and instead rehearsed the names of things explained by Horace.

Excerpted from Eclipsed by Shadow, the award-winning 1st volume of “The Legend of the Great Horse” trilogy. (Hrdbk pg. 129)

Book II: The Golden Spark will be published soon.

Read the 1st Chapter online!

Copyright © 2008 John Royce

#54- The Emperor’s Stables

“Horses helped Meagan through the dark days. The familiar rhythms of their care was an anchor to the world she had always known.” – Eclipsed by Shadow (excerpt)

Charioteer of the Greens (Ancient Rome)In the year 100 A.D.

The Emperor’s chariots belonged to the Green corporation, and it was impossible to forget. Green banners flapped against squat mortar buildings and green ribbons adorned iron-grilled gates. Guards and supervisors wore leek-colored tunics and the horses worked in green-dyed wrappings and pads.

Inside the Emperor’s compound, stern horsemanship was executed with clockwork precision. Daylight hours were filled with the rumbling of chariots and shouts of men. First feeding was sharply at dawn and repeated at regular intervals throughout the day. Fresh water was supplied continuously and the stalls cleaned in rotation.

Horses helped Meagan through the dark days. The familiar rhythms of their care was an anchor to the world she had always known. Stall cleaning was her duty: slaves of better rank carried out feeding and grooming. The horses’ mangers were stuffed with fragrant hay and grains, but every morning a stained cart was wheeled down the rows, from which meat and eggs were distributed to mix with the feed. Romans believed feeding sparrow’s eggs, ground feathers and birds’ blood logically made a horse run faster.

“No, they do not,” Meagan had protested in broken Latin. “Horses are … are…”

“Horses are what?” asked a sneering voice behind her. She turned to see the baleful gaze of the Master of Horse. A waft of pungent perfume seeped from his toga. “Please, tell us. Horses are … what?”

“I-I don’t know,” Meagan said, flustered. She wanted to say “vegetarian” but could not think of the Latin word.

The man blinked up at her and wrinkled his nose. “Better not to offer opinions in the Emperor’s stable, I think. Others might find out we use idiots here.”

Meagan observed the other workers’ downcast eyes and remained silent. Later, she would learn the Master of Horse was called Posthumous, a name commonly given to a son born after his father’s death. Others’ descriptions of his character added colorful phrases to her vocabulary.

Excerpted from Eclipsed by Shadow, the award-winning 1st volume of “The Legend of the Great Horse” trilogy. (Hrdbk pg. 128)

Book II: The Golden Spark will be published soon.

Read the 1st Chapter online!

Copyright © 2008 John Royce

#53- The Master of Horse

The stallion renewed his fight and pandemonium filled the aisle. Restraining chains were linked. In the end the black stallion was safely conducted outside, leaving the dazed grooms staggering as if on a battlefield. – Eclipsed by Shadow (excerpt)

“Mea-gan.”

The gentle call came again, and she recognized the soldier Horace standing in the guard line. His helmet’s shadow obscured his scarred face. Glancing to make sure the supervisor was not looking, she gave him a quick wave.

The first worker was called. The supervisor pulled a pin from one of the doors and swung it around on enormous hinges. A narrow closet of a stall appeared, presenting a black stallion’s muscular hind end. The chosen worker looked dumbfounded as he was handed a woven basket and scoop. Stall cleaning, Meagan thought resignedly. Some things never change.

The stallion shifted in the narrow confines of his stall as the shaking worker knelt beside the open door and began to delicately scrape the closest clods. Exasperated, the supervisor raised his voice and gave the horse’s rump an ill-considered slap.

The enraged stallion bunched his hindquarters and launched a kicking barrage. Chain broke from the masonry and the horse rushed backwards like a dam giving way. Meagan flattened against the wall as men came from both directions. The stallion lunged at a nearby groom—alien behavior for a horse—and wheeled to attack another. Men scrambled to escape the deadly hooves.

Grooms ran and tossed ropes until the raging horse was trussed like a fly in a web. The scene had almost quieted when a piercing whine filled the stable aisle. Workers and guards came to attention as a pale, puny man in an oversized toga entered, flanked by armed men. The Master of Horse had arrived.

The man pointed and shouted and called out instructions until the scene was more confused than before. The stallion renewed his fight and pandemonium filled the aisle. Restraining chains were linked. In the end the black stallion was safely conducted outside, leaving the dazed grooms staggering as if on a battlefield.

The horse was clearly a product of harsh treatment, Meagan thought. An emblem of Rome’s brutality. She watched the Master of Horse angrily confront the supervisor, who pointed first to the abject servant who crouched, cowering, and then to Meagan who remained standing. The Master of Horse took measured steps to stand in front of her, coming only to her chin but managing to look down on her. She did recognize the Latin words for “pain” and “punishment,” since they were repeated several times.

Excerpted from Eclipsed by Shadow, the award-winning 1st volume of “The Legend of the Great Horse” trilogy. (Hrdbk pg. 125)

Book II: The Golden Spark will be published soon.

Read the 1st Chapter online!

Copyright © 2008 John Royce

#52- The Slave Quarters

Meagan hugged her knees tighter, feeling ridiculous to find herself rehearsing the finer points of riding a flying horse. No, she could not be where she seemed to be, shivering on a cot in the ancient city of Rome. This experience was clearly the result of reading too much history and getting a bump on the head. Eclipsed by Shadow (excerpt)

Roman Republic 1st Century BC

MEAGAN LAY CURLED on an uncomfortable cot. She had been numb since her arrival; the cold was not intense but it was seeping and damp. Her extremely unprivate quarters consisted of a row of filthy beds crowded into a low room.

The cracked cement walls were coated with dirt and scratched graffiti. Meagan’s cot was only a foot above the floor, but it was a crucial distance. She felt about the floor of her living space as she would the underside of a rotten forest log.

For clothing she had been given a wool tunic with holes for her head and arms, and a tie-cord around the middle: only people of distinction wore togas, and she was clearly not one of those. She waited for the meager candlelight to be put out before crying softly, missing home.

Meagan hugged her knees, listening to the rattling sleep of the other slaves. She struggled to understand what was happening. The flights had seemed a normal ride over the top of a jump … then Meagan hugged her knees tighter, feeling ridiculous to find herself rehearsing the finer points of riding a flying horse. No, she could not be where she seemed to be, shivering on a cot in the ancient city of Rome. This experience was clearly the result of reading too much history and getting a bump on the head. She needed to forget the tomb and the arena—if she could.

The next morning her roommates failed to show the courtesy of ceasing to exist. Instead they resumed talking as if sleep had been a polite interruption, and after a few disoriented moments Meagan sat up groggily. She tried to pick out Latin words she knew from the confused conversation, but the talk was too fast to follow.

Conversations halted upon the arrival of a man wearing a dingy toga. He was apparently a supervisor, and from his tone Meagan inferred a toughening of policies. She stood barefoot on the cold, gritty floor—this fact was not addressed, nor was breakfast. Her conviction that she was only dreaming was again challenged as her group formed a line and followed the supervisor into the damp morning: she could see puffs of breath as they tromped across the chilly courtyard and past iron-grilled gates into the stables.

Excerpted from Eclipsed by Shadow, the award-winning 1st volume of “The Legend of the Great Horse” trilogy. (Hrdbk pg. 124)

Book II: The Golden Spark will be published soon.

Read the 1st Chapter online!

Copyright © 2008 John Royce

#51- The Emperor’s Chariot

Caesar stood as riders in green tunics rode forth between columns of marching men. The first chariot to appear was pulled by four black horses, their manes woven in matching emerald ribbon. – Eclipsed by Shadow (excerpt)

Pegasus coin from Ancient Greece19 centuries ago …

“How are the omens, my Master of Horse?”

A puny man near the front of the platform jumped as if prodded. He stood quickly, his oversized garments in disarray. “Very good, Caesar, very good. The horses are ready and the omens are with us, favored son of gods. Victory should be ours.”

The platform’s audience clapped dutifully. The man called Caesar shifted in his seat. “So you always say, Master of Horse. So it never is.”

Trumpet blasts sounded across the stadium. On the oval sand track below, men in red tunics marched forward pounding drums and cymbals. Chariots entered, appointed in red and drawn by surging teams of four horses. The drivers turned and saluted the platform as they passed. Anxious as she was, Meagan was stirred by the pageantry flowing across the track.

Cheering rose for a new entering color. Caesar stood as riders in green tunics rode forth between columns of marching men. The first chariot to appear was pulled by four black horses, their manes woven in matching emerald ribbon.

A gasp went up from the spectators as one of the horses rose in his traces. The animal was satin black with the thick crest of a stallion. The horse struck his partner and the team swerved out of line as kicks hammered the chariot. Dull thuds echoed across the field. Men flooded the track and stretched ropes before the fighting horses.

From the raised center of the platform, stone-faced Caesar watched.

As those on the track worked to subdue the fighting horses, the man called the Master of Horse groaned piteously and covered his face. Caesar gave the shriveled man a long, chilly stare, then abruptly stood and made his way across the deck, followed by his guards.

“Emperor Trajan…” the olive-skinned man beside Meagan called respectfully. “We have the slaves you pardoned. Will you assign them?”

Meagan felt a hand at her back as she was pushed forward…

Excerpted from Eclipsed by Shadow, the award-winning 1st volume of “The Legend of the Great Horse” trilogy. (Hrdbk pg. 121)

Book II: The Golden Spark will be published soon.

Read the 1st Chapter online!

Copyright © 2008 John Royce

#50- Captive

FOR A LONG time Meagan remained in the position the soldiers had left her, stunned and afraid to move. She huddled alone in a cold, gritty underground cell, buried in catacombs beneath the amphitheater. – Eclipsed by Shadow (excerpt)

Coliseum cellFOR A LONG time Meagan remained in the position the soldiers had left her, stunned and afraid to move. She huddled alone in a cold, gritty underground cell, buried in catacombs beneath the amphitheater. Her shoulder ached from her fall, and her forearm was raw from a soldier’s hard grip. Her nightgown was torn and filthy.

Muffled cheering surged at intervals, coming from all sides of her prison. Meagan hugged her knees and rocked when the sounds came, reliving the images in her mind. I’ve seen the worst that people can do, she thought numbly. People can do anything. She rocked as another roar rose to surround her. Things could never be normal again.

In time the cheering ended. Long hours passed in silence. Scurrying cellmates skittered around her, tiny shadows in the gloom of flickering torchlight. This isn’t real, Meagan still told herself, making it a mantra. Promise will come back for me. She will come back…

The scraping of a latch startled her. “Salve!” a voice greeted her gruffly. Two men entered, their armor gleaming dully in the torchlight.

Excerpted from Eclipsed by Shadow, the award-winning 1st volume of “The Legend of the Great Horse” trilogy. (Hrdbk pg. 117)

Book II: The Golden Spark will be published December 2010.

Read the 1st Chapter online!

Copyright © 2008 John Royce