Auriane Warrior and visionary. She takes the oath of a shield maiden and rises to become the Light Bearer for a nation.
Ramis Shaman, teacher, and greatest tribal seeress of all the tribes of Germania. She foresees Auriane's rise from shield maiden to savior of her people.
Baldemar The celebrated Chattian war leader. He commands his daughter, Auriane, to commit the one crime for which there is no absolution. His refusal to bow to Roman might incites the wrath of the greatest military power on earth. His untimely death fractures the stability of the tribe, and touches off a chain reaction of war and vengeance that does not end until Auriane, half a world away, confronts the war-leader who betrayed them all.
Decius Once a legionary soldier decorated for valor, now he's a slave of the Chattian tribe. He instructs Auriane in the art of the sword. An unlikely bond forms between them that, if discovered, would earn them both condemnation to death by the most agonizing means.
Avenahar The daughter of Auriane and Decius, conceived while they live together as outlaws--a child of both races who contains the seeds of the future.
Wido A war chieftain loyal only to himself. For private gain, he delivers his tribe into the hands of the Romans. He plotted to kidnap Auriane for his son.
Odberht The son of Wido, even more corrupt than the father. Deeds others are loath to comtemplate he performs with relish. The day comes when turns an army against his own people.
Marcus Julianus Senator, nobleman and Stoic humanist who fights with truth and reason. He rises to the loftiest pinnacles of the imperial government to save Rome from the tyrant Domitian.
Junilla Julianus' wife, a noblewoman corrupted by Nero. When Marcus Julianus divorces her, she never ceases plotting to destroy him. Eventually, one of her plots succeeds.
Nero An emperor who took pride in the fact that, like a god, he could commit any atrocity and still receive the people's worship.
Domitian Domitian: A tyrant whose reign begins with a great crime. His acts of cruelty become legendary. When festering suspicions of conspiracy began to take his reason, he instigates a reign of terror.
Domitia Longina Domitia Longina: The Empress, Domitian's wife. A desperate captive of her husband's cruel games, she sees death as her only escape.
In the harsh wastes of the barbarian north, remote from the sumptuous imperial court of first-century Rome, a child is born on dirt and straw in the rude thatched hall of a tribal chieftain. She is AURIANE, daughter of the most influential war leader of the Chattians, the fiercest and most independent of Rome's Germanic barbarian enemies beyond the Rhine. Her birth is attended by the seeress RAMIS, first among a reclusive sisterhood of powerful northern prophetesses. Ramis prophesies a startling future for the child. She will bear arms. She will be "a thorn in the paw of the Great Wolf" (Rome). She will be tested greatly in a foreign land. And--inexplicably, horribly--Auriane will be the slayer of her own beloved father. None in attendance can comprehend how this could be, and Auriane's grandmother Hertha demands that this prodigal girl-child be drowned in the bogs. But the will of Auriane's mother prevails. The child is given milk, and a name, and so, is made a kinswoman.
As the young maid grows in power and strength, three forces seek to claim her. The first is Rome: To the inexorably advancing empire, she's a pawn to be forced into a loathsome marriage meant to ensure intertribal peace. To the seeress Ramis, Auriane is the heir who must carry on the light of the esoteric teachings--for the prophetess recognizes in Auriane a spirit able to pierce the veil of culture. But to Auriane's people, she's the voice of the pre-Roman forest, a proud symbol of freedom. When the Romans order her father's hall burned and she witnesses the rape of her mother, she spurns the first two paths and embraces the third: She takes the warrior's oath. She will be a living shield, bound to protect her people until she can protect them no more.
Auriane's unwillingness to be fettered by tribal tradition prompts her to seek out DECIUS, a Roman soldier captured in a Chattian raid on a legionary work party, living now in slavery on her ancestral lands. She's fascinated by this isolated specimen of the terrifying, all-conquering 'tribe' of the south whose 'war magic' is so superior to that of her people. She strives to strike a bargain with him. She will aid his escape, if he agrees to instruct her in the mysteries of Roman battle tactics, and the swordfighting techniques taught to legionary soldiers in the Roman army. Reluctantly Decius obliges, wondering at his willingness to do a thing that seems not only sadly absurd, but a betrayal of his own people as well. As their odd, unlikely friendship becomes stronger, he taunts her with cynical humor as a way of distancing himself from the growing affection he's beginning to feel for this unusual maid, who recalls for him the fleet Atalanta of myth, or the warlike Camilla of boyhood tales.
Auriane's father BALDEMAR is the war leader most adamantly opposed to cooperation with Rome. He alone refuses to honor treaties proposed by the Roman governor at the great Rhine fortress of Mogontiacum, and continues to lead raids on the empire's frontier. The Romans seek constantly for ways to destroy him, or at least, discredit him before his people, because they believe that without him, Roman-controlled peace would reign on the Rhine. When his daughter joins forces with him, and tales of their predations reach the ears of imperial ministers in Rome, storm clouds of war gather and darken. Father and daughter hasten the day when all the fury of the empire will be turned upon their people.
The beleaguered Chattians also harbor enemies within: The Romans have corrupted a Chattian war leader called WIDO, a chieftain without scruple, willing to betray the tribe into Roman hands in exchange for a steady supply of cattle, weapons and silver. In the interest of consolidating power within the tribe so the region will be easier to bring to heel, the Roman military government sought to induce a societal hierarchy based on wealth--a system opposed to the older order that Auriane's father Baldemar represents, in which influence is based on deeds of valor, and is fragmented among a number of powerful chieftains and priestesses. In the war leader called Wido, the Romans believe they've found their perfect implement. Wido secretly conspires with the Roman Governor to forcibly marry Auriane to his son, ODBERHT, as a means of getting a securer hold on Baldemar.
The lone voice raised against swift-approaching war is that of RAMIS, a tribal seeress whose practices are shamanic: She remains remote from society, and her teachings are intended only for the few who are ready to hear them. Ramis is an august, forbidding figure revered by warrior and farmer alike. She can halt a battle by simply walking between the two armies; many believe she can stop the moon. Ramis has no interest in striving to overcome the brutal forces pressing all about; she desires only to encourage a few to carry a lamp into the psychic unknown, and see the true nature of earthly life. She tries, with no success at first, to inspire Auriane to question all those truths that seem beyond question, to see no boundaries between souls or nations. But the young maid is bitterly opposed to all Ramis represents, insisting that Ramis' 'riddling lies' make sense only to those who've been eating sorcerer's mushrooms.
While Auriane is gaining notoriety on the northern frontier, in a parallel tale in distant Rome, a wretched slave boy called ENDYMION is condemned to die following a harrowing escape attempt through the most sordid slums of the imperial capitol. Though given the scantiest of educations, Endymion can recite from memory the essays of the great Stoic philosopher Seneca, because a former master employed him as a scribe in a scriptorium that produced primarily Seneca's works. Even as he's led to death, the boy nurses a glorious dream of becoming a philosopher after the fashion of Seneca, who's said to be able to curb the cruelties of the Emperor Nero solely through the practical application of reason.
But a grander fate intervenes for the boy. He eludes the executioner, learns his true identity, and is restored to his father's house, which proves to be one of the most ancient and honored in the city. In his new life as MARCUS ARRIUS JULIANUS, he's master over hundreds of servants and family dependents. He vows never to forget his days of enslavement, when he was 'counted no more than an engine of muscle and bone', and he becomes a champion of the weak in the Senate. He swiftly gains a reputation for being the one man not afraid to speak the truth to a tyrant. "What others scribble on walls at night," it's said of him, "Julianus shouts aloud in the shadow of the Palace."
Marcus Julianus quickly discovers, however, that this golden ship he's climbed aboard is one that's slowly sinking: In his exalted new role, has a fresh crop of enemies far more devious and dangerous than any he could have imagined during his life as a slave. Chief among these is the EMPEROR NERO himself, who enjoys playing with his victims before he slays them. When Marcus Julianus is wedded to JUNILLA -- a noblewoman whose dark, startling beauty and aristocratic composure are marred by strange, passionless acts of cruelty--the Emperor Nero intrudes on the wedding festivities in disguise. The affair descends to farce, then horror, as Nero turns the wedding celebration into a madman's court.
Throughout these years, Marcus Julianus repeatedly comes across reports in his father's military records of a mysterious warrior maid called Auriane. It's unclear from these soldiers' accounts whether this is an earthly creature of flesh and bone, or a manifestation of some local earth goddess. One report claimed she successfully ambushed a cohort by turning the imperial army's weapons against it. But the next would claim she transformed herself into the the form of a raven, a doe. More and more he feels a powerful affinity with this noble but ghostly maid of the north, and experiences a growing sense they are kindred spirits.
The young DOMITIAN, later to become emperor, aggressively seeks Julianus' friendship, recognizing at once the inestimable value of having a man about him unafraid of speaking the truth. Domitian believes Nero fell in good part because he surrounded himself with men who spoke only words he wished to hear, leaving the beleaguered emperor blindfolded and ignorant at the last "as they flattered him to a bloody end." In addition, the esteem in which Marcus Julianus is held by men of learning make him irresistible to the young prince, who seeks to burnish his own reputation by association. As emperor, Domitian names Marcus Julianus as chief over his ruthless, fiercely competitive imperial advisors, a precarious post Julianus hardly wants, and accepts only because he believes he may be the one man in Rome able to check the emperor's cruelties. As Domitian becomes increasingly fearful, irrational and despotic, Julianus exercises all his ingenuity to preserve his own life and the lives of those he loves. Inevitably the day comes when Julianus is compelled by conscience to plan the unthinkable: the assassination of the Emperor Domitian.
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