Saturday, May 29, 2021

PRESIDENT HAMILTON Updates! Lots of News!

     Let me begin this post with the blogger's usual lament:  I am SO SORRY that it's been so long since my last update!!  Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa!   The end of the school year is a very busy time for teachers, and I have a lot of other irons in the fire, so to speak, besides just teaching school.   But, to be perfectly honest, I've also spent a lot of time on the local river looking for fossils and arrowheads, because I know once this book comes out I am going to be doing signing events most Saturdays and opportunities for "treasure hunting" will be few and far between!  Still, that is no excuse to go over two months without updating what was originally supposed to be a weekly blog.  I have not been idle on the literary front, however; in fact, there have been a number of exciting developments there that I'm itching to tell you about!

     First of all, let's talk endorsements for a moment.  I've been reaching out to various people in the historical community and especially to those who have a special interest Alexander Hamilton, and I've sent out a number of copies for review.  First on that list, as with all my books, is my dear friend and long-time beta reader Ellie.  I typically write a chapter at a time, and then send the chapter to her for review and commentary.  For nearly ten years now, she's helped me catch typos, close plotholes, avoid redundancies and anachronisms, and more than that, she's asked probing questions and challenged me on the purpose and direction of the stories I've told.  Never have those questions and challenges been more searching and potent than they were for PRESIDENT HAMILTON, and I feel the finished work is a better book for her input.  Tip o'the hat, Ellie, and I hope you enjoy your upcoming retirement!

     Next came my longtime friend and fellow history and artifact enthusiast Dr. Jerry W. Jones, a professor of history in the Texas A&M system.  Jerry was the first one besides Ellie to read the finished book, and I appreciated his professional opinion.  He gave me a solid thumbs-up and told me that the story was "historically plausible," which was something I was truly hoping to hear.  He was also kind enough to write a nice testimonial for the book which I am hoping will be included in the published work.   Getting some buy-in from a fellow historian meant a great deal to me, as you can imagine.

     Back in March, I sent four digital copies of the manuscript to four different Hamilton fans: one to Hamilton biographer Michael Newton, one to Douglas Hamilton (the 5X great-grandson of Alexander), one to Lin-Manuel Miranda creator and star of HAMILTON: AN AMERICAN MUSICAL, and one to Elizabeth Matic, who is a moderator/admin on the "Alexander Hamilton: Life and Legacy" FB page.  I wound up hearing back from all four of them!  Michael Newton, who has written two books on Hamilton and also runs the "Discovering Hamilton" website, found several historical errors in the early chapters and told me that, while the story was lively and well-written, he felt he could not write an endorsement for it at this time. (I did correct a couple of the errors he pointed out in the galley proofs, however, and I value his input and honesty.)  Douglas Hamilton, who is one of the keepers of the family legacy, told me he thoroughly enjoyed the work and wrote me a very nice testimonial which will be featured on the back cover of the book.  Eliza Matic told me the work was "heartfelt and poignant" and wrote me a beautiful testimonial; if it's not shared in the published version of the book (it came in later than the others), then I will be sure to publish it here.  And Lin-Manuel Miranda, despite the many demands on his time, took a moment to write me a wonderful letter of encouragement that included this line: "I can't wait to dive into PRESIDENT HAMILTON!"  I sincerely hope he's reading it right now, but even if he doesn't, his letter is sitting, framed, on my mantel.  (And showing it to my classes gave me temporary rock star status with my high school students!)

     One thing I really wanted for this book was an original, commissioned painting to serve as cover art.  Electio Publishing has always done great jobs on my book covers (all of them are good, but REDEMPTION OF PONTIUS PILATE is hands down my favorite so far), but they have all been a combination of stock images combined with classical artworks.  There are many paintings of Hamilton out there, of course, but I wanted to have something created just for this book; a study of an older, more thoughtful Hamilton, as he might have appeared if he had lived another decade.  I have taught some incredibly talented artists at the private school where I am employed, and I approached a couple of them about doing it, but ultimately it was our art teacher, Annee Helmreich, who accepted the challenge and finished her work this week.  It's a beautiful portrait, with a smiling Hamilton posing in a blue frock coat, looking very Presidential.  A million thanks, Annee, YOU ROCK!  I can't wait to see how the graphic design team at Electio incorporates your work into the finished book cover.

     Last of all, this week I received the galley proof of PRESIDENT HAMILTON.  For those not familiar with the term, this is a PDF file that shows exactly how the interior of the printed book will look. It's also the last chance an author has to go through and make any changes or emendations.  The editing team also sent along a number of questions about various words, phrases, and names that struck them as odd for one reason or another.  It took me five days to read all the way through the story (this is, I believe, the longest book I have ever written - the galley proof is about 660 pages!), and I spotted maybe a dozen places where I needed to make corrections or alterations to the manuscript (besides the ones the editors had already asked about).  I finished my revisions yesterday, and sent my changes back to the publisher.  It's a heady feeling, being DONE with a book - knowing that the next time that I see the text I read, it will be in a physical copy of the book I can hold in my hands!

     One more step between now and publication is the book cover!  The central image will be Anne's portrait of Hamilton, of course, but there are so many other things that will goo into the finished work - background color (I am thinking crimson, fading to black, or perhaps maroon), typeset and size of the title, a back cover image (crossed dueling pistols, perhaps, since my story begins with the duel at Weekawken?), and maybe even a small image to go on the spine.  In the past, my publishers have sent me an image and I have told them whether or not I liked it, and suggested alternatives, and we've gone back and forth multiple times before settling on the final version.  I expect this part of the process to be concluded in the next couple of weeks, and then it's time for my least favorite part of the writing game: WAITING.  Waiting for the release date, waiting for my copies of the book to arrive in the mail, and above all, waiting for my most favorite part of the writing game: the BOOK LAUNCH!

     This will be my sixth published book, and I've been excited for all of them, but I don't remember being this giddy since my first novel, THE TESTIMONIUM, was published in 2014.  I think that PRESIDENT HAMILTON is going to outsell everything else I have ever written, and my fondest hope is that it will be the one thing every writer hopes and dreams of: a book that captures a national audience and maybe even achieves that most elusive goal of all: the "Best-Seller" lists!  I smile and sigh just typing those words; I've been writing since 2012, but nothing I've done has ever gained any kind of national recognition.  With the widespread interest in Alexander Hamilton and the wonderful endorsements I've gotten so far, this is my time to dream big!  So thanks to all of you, my faithful readers and friends who follow my musings here.   The time is getting short!  July 6 will be here before you know it, and I hope as many of you as can make it will come and meet me in person and get your signed copy of PRESIDENT HAMILTON at Half Price Books in Rockwall, TX on Saturday, July 24, 2021.  I'll be at the Half Price Books store in Firewheel Mall in Garland the following Saturday, July 31, and will list other events as they draw near!

     Thanks for coming with me on this literary journey, and hang in there with me for a while longer! That release date is coming soon.  In the meantime, if you just can't wait to read something I've written, may I recommend one of my previous works of historical fiction, THEOPHILUS: A TALE OF ANCIENT ROME.  Mad Emperors, courageous Senators, apostles, miracles, monsters, and all the splendor that was Rome comes to life in this story of courage, faith, and redemption.  Check it out here, on Amazon:

   That's it for now, faithful readers.   Thanks, as always, for your support!

Saturday, March 13, 2021

Creating the Perfect HAMILTON "Blurb"

      Once a novel has been accepted for publication, one of the tasks generally left to the author is creating the "blurb" that will go on the back of the book.  Other than the cover (because, contrary to popular opinion, many people do judge the book by what they see on the front!), the blurb is the most critical component of persuading people to buy your book.  You have one paragraph, maybe two, to set the hook and persuade a total stranger that your story is worth spending their hard-earned money on. A poorly written blurb can turn readers away from a perfectly wonderful story; a compelling blurb can sometimes sell a bad book.   The choices are intimidating.  How much of the story do you want to give away? Should you go for short and punchy, or try to explain your plot a bit more fully?

     PRESIDENT HAMILTON isn't my first rodeo.  I have five novels already in print, all of which have gotten excellent reviews.  I've written some blurbs I'm proud of and a couple I wish I'd taken another run at before submitting.  For my last three books, I have composed two or three different version of the blurb and let my family, friends, students, and co-workers take a look at them and tell me which ones they liked.  So, for my latest work, I came up with these three options:

On July 11, 1804, a single bullet changed the course of U.S.         

                                           history . . .

                      BUT NOT IN THE WAY YOU THINK!


          After nearly perishing from an infected bullet wound suffered in his duel with Vice President Aaron Burr, Alexander Hamilton returns to politics. A vision of the future compels him to dare anything and everything to stop the spread of slavery in the young United States, and fight for its abolition in the states where it already exists.  He sets his eyes on the Senate, and then the White House, enlisting former allies and reconciling with old enemies in his quest to become President and crush slavery.

            Overcoming incredible odds, facing down enemies at home and abroad, Hamilton moves with steadfast perseverance towards his goal – to prevent the Civil War he has foreseen by removing its cause in advance.  But there are some who will stop at nothing to derail President Hamilton’s crusade for liberty.  Will they succeed? Can one man change the course of history? 

            PRESIDENT HAMILTON will take you on a thrilling ride through a history of America that never was, but could have been, and answers the question of how much he could have done - if he’d only had time.

      This blurb had an interesting history.  My beta reader Ellie, whose advice means a great deal to me, hated this one.  When I submitted it to a couple of Hamilton forums online, most readers didn't like the copy, although several said the tagline was very effective. But when I let my students read all three of these, this one was their overwhelming favorite.  The other two versions got maybe a dozen votes between them, this one over 80.   I think what sold it was the last line, which links it to the HAMILTON musical.  But I wasn't sure of the legality of using such a direct link, and I thought the first paragraph was rather weak.  Still, it was hard to ignore such a "strong popular vote" among the teens who, admittedly, are a big part of my target audience.


                What if the most famous duel in history . . .

                              Had ended differently?


          Alexander Hamilton lies wounded and feverish after a deadly duel that ended the life of Vice President Burr.  As he hovers near death, he catches a glimpse of what lies ahead for his country – and sees a Civil War that will consume a generation and poison America’s future.  Upon his recovery, Hamilton returns to politics with a new vision that compels him to risk everything to achieve his goal – to stop the spread of slavery and prevent the horrors he has foreseen.

            Making new allies and reconciling with old enemies, Hamilton is filled with a new sense of purpose, determined to use the powers of the Presidency to save his adopted country from the peril it faces.  Many Americans join him on his crusade for liberty, but others will stop at nothing to protect the “peculiar institution.”  Can President Hamilton change history?

            PRESIDENT HAMILTON will show you the Founding Fathers and their successors in a whole new light as you join them in a thrilling battle for the future – and the very soul – of America!


           My online readers favored this version by a three-to-one margin, and Ellie thought it was the best by far, but I had some problems with it.  The tagline at the top was the weakest of the three, and I thought that it left out too much of the scope of the novel.  A little tease is one thing, but a writer has to "show a little leg" to make the sale sometimes.  Still, adult readers seemed to like this one.  


                         ONE BULLET CHANGED THE WORLD


            What if the duel with Aaron Burr was the beginning of Alexander Hamilton’s political odyssey, instead of its conclusion?  After nearly dying from an infected bullet wound, Hamilton returns to politics with a new purpose, derived from a fevered vision of America’s future.  Determined to prevent a civil war that will consume hundreds of thousands of lives and poison the nation’s future, Alex re-enters politics and launches a bid for the Presidency.  Mending fences with old enemies and rekindling former friendships, Hamilton uses every political stratagem he knows, and invents some new ones along the way, all focused on stopping the spread of slavery into America’s new territories and rolling it back where it already exists.

            PRESIDENT HAMILTON reintroduces the founding generation – the brilliant, crafty Thomas Jefferson, the diminutive genius James Madison, and professional curmudgeon John Adams – and introduces us to the next generation of American leaders – Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, John Quincy Adams, and Andrew Jackson – in a lively epic of alternative history that begins with the famous duel at Weehawken and rewrites the history of the early 19th century.  Can Alex persuade the Southern states to abandon their “peculiar institution?”  Can his powers of persuasion move the conscience of a nation?  Can one man change history? 

     I originally wrote only the first two versions, but after sleeping on it and thinking about it, I put this one together.  Several of my students and co-workers liked the fact that I mentioned some of the founders who are characters in my story; but others pointed out that the tag line was a bit . . . brutal, perhaps?  As I re-read it and looked at the comments that people made, I came to see that the first paragraph was a bit too wordy.  However, my friend and co-worker Tom Witt made the best suggestion of them all.  He wrote a question beneath the tag line that summed up the heart of my story so effectively that I read it and let out an involuntary Sheldon Cooper "Bazinga!" on the spot!  So after mulling over all three versions,  reading all the comments, and discussing things online,  I came up with the final version of my blurb:

       On July 11, 1804, a single bullet changed the course of                                           American history . . .

                         BUT WHAT IF IT DIDN’T?


            Alexander Hamilton lies wounded and feverish after a deadly duel that ended the life of Vice President Burr.  Hovering near death, he catches a glimpse of what lies ahead – and sees a Civil War that will consume a generation and poison America’s future.  This vision compels him to return to the political arena.  He sets his eyes on the Senate, and then the White House, enlisting former allies and reconciling with old enemies in his quest to become President and crush slavery.   Overcoming great odds while facing down enemies at home and abroad, Hamilton moves steadily toward his goal - but there are some who will stop at nothing to derail the President’s crusade for liberty.  Will they succeed?

            PRESIDENT HAMILTON reintroduces us to the founding generation – the brilliant, crafty Thomas Jefferson, the diminutive genius James Madison, and professional curmudgeon John Adams – and brings on the next generation of American leaders – Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, John Quincy Adams, and Andrew Jackson – in a lively epic of alternative history that begins with the famous duel at Weehawken and rewrites the history of the 19th century.  Can Hamilton persuade the Southern states to change their course? Can his powers of persuasion move the conscience of a nation?  Can one man change history?    

Turn the page and see. . . 

     I put this version online for commentary and got universally positive feedback, plus a couple of minor grammatical corrections that made it smoother and more compelling.  The more I read over this one, the better I liked it.  It combined the best elements of all three versions, and included Tom's brilliant question in the tag line.  After letting it set for a few days, I read it again to make sure I was truly satisfied with this version, and then sent it off to my publisher.  Now comes the hardest part . . . waiting.  July 6 can't get here soon enough!!!

     In the meantime, as I mentioned earlier, I do have five other titles in print.  Feel free to surf on over to Amazon and check them out!


Sunday, February 14, 2021


    Alexander Hamilton has always been one of my favorite of our Founding Fathers.  Long before Lin-Manuel Miranda made him a household word with his brilliant work HAMILTON: AN AMERICAN MUSICAL, I admired this young man whose story was so quintessentially American.  Rising by virtue of guts and smarts from the most impoverished of backgrounds to become the most powerful cabinet member in American history, Hamilton is the epitome of America's immigrant experience, but more than that, he was the archetype of the American dream.   He became the right hand man of our first President, the closest thing to to a Prime Minister America has ever had - but he was also the arch-nemesis of men like Jefferson and Adams, who did their best to bury him on the ash heap of history after his untimely death.  He was vilified as a monarchist, an unprincipled scoundrel, the serpent of America's Eden by his enemies, and dismissed by many.  

     But the twentieth century was kinder to Hamilton than his contemporaries were, and for years as I taught American history, Hamilton's four-point plan for restoring America's economy, and his key role in founding the Federalist Party were an integral part of the lesson.  The question always came up: Why was he never President?  There were several answers, of course.  Most of them came back to Hamilton's own missteps and mistakes.  The Reynolds affair, and his disastrous response to it, diminished his moral authority, and his pamphlet against the re-nomination of John Adams split the Federalist Party and certainly helped ensure Adams' defeat in the election of 1800.   In short, Hamilton shot himself in the foot, and died before he could recover from his self-inflicted political injuries.  But what if he hadn't?

   In May of 2017, shortly after my beloved father Ben Smith passed away after a long battle with dementia and other health issues, I wrote a short story called AN INTERVIEW AT WEEHAUKEN. It was a pleasant bit of historical escapism for me, re-imagining the famous duel but changing the outcome, leaving open the possibility that Hamilton might, indeed, re-ignite his political career and strive for the Presidency in the future.  (You can read the story here on my blog if you scroll back to May 2017.)  I wrote it, enjoyed a few favorable responses, and continued with the writing project I was working on at the time - a historical novel set in ancient Rome at the end of the First Century AD.

  But INTERVIEW AT WEEHAUKEN kept popping up in my mind and I wondered, how would Hamilton proceed in restoring his reputation if he survived the duel?  How could he re-ignite his career when he was - let's be honest - a has-been at the time of his death?  Meanwhile, like many Americans, I watched the unfolding protests against systemic racism and police brutality with a mixture of sympathy and horror.  America's sins were coming home to roost - our failure to establish racial equality at the end of the Civil War, or to follow through fully on the great gains of the Civil Rights movement, were all culminating in a great national outcry of pain and frustration.  I don't know the solutions to all the conundrums facing our country, but as a writer, the thought came to me - what if we'd dealt with all of this sooner?  What if we had avoided a Civil War altogether, by crushing slavery while we were still a new nation?  In short, what if I could re-write history?

   Of course, in the middle of all this, HAMILTON: AN AMERICAN MUSICAL burst onto the scene.  I bought the sound-track and fell in love with it, used the songs as a launching point for my lectures in history class, and even got tickets to see the musical when it came to Dallas.  Lin-Manuel Miranda's work is brilliant, catchy, funny and tragic by turns.  Of course it takes a lot of artistic license, but it still managed to plug a new generation into the Founding Fathers and get them interested in history again.  As a teacher, I tip my hat to Mr. Miranda for making my job easier and more enjoyable.  But there was that one line, from the last song in the show, that kept popping up in my head: "You could have done so much more if you'd only had time."

  So in January of 2019, I sat down and pulled up AN INTERVIEW AT WEEHAUKEN.  I changed the ending a little bit, and I added the words "Prologue" at the top.  And then . . . I continued the story.  It took me a little over a year to finish it, and there were a lot of twists and turns along the way.  I rewrote most of a decade of American history, with Hamilton making the abolition of slavery in the national territories the primary focus of his administration, as well as encouraging the slave states to liberate their captives in a program of voluntary, compensated emancipation.  I re-imagined Hamilton's relationships with his fellow founders - Adams, Jefferson, and Madison, among others.  I humbled Alex, and set him to building bridges instead of burning them.  I re-cast some of the second generation of American leaders - men like Clay, Webster, and Calhoun - into new roles. I prevented one war and wound up creating another. I discovered, once you change one thing, you change EVERYTHING.  For years I told my students: "History turns on the tiniest of hinges."  I discovered this to be more true than I knew, as Hamilton's survival and re-entry into national politics cast a ripple effect that grew into a tidal wave.

   PRESIDENT HAMILTON: A NOVEL OF ALTERNATIVE HISTORY is scheduled for release on July 6, 2021.  I'll be hosting a book launch party and signing event at Half Price Books in Rockwall on July 24, with subsequent signing events all over Texas following afterward.  I'd like to invite all of my Texas readers to come out and get a signed copy, and give me a chance to meet you in person!  I am more excited for this book, I think, than for any of my previous five.  I've let a couple of people read it, one a PhD historian in the A&M system, the other my wonderful beta reader, Ellie, and gotten some very positive feedback. The HAMILTON fan community that I have joined has also been encouraging and enthusiastic in their responses to some of my teasers.  It's coming, guys, "just you wait!" I also have sent a copy of the manuscript to Lin-Manuel Miranda himself, and I'm hoping that he will read it and maybe even give me a plug.  This story will have something for everyone: fans of the musical will see their beloved "Alex" and his Eliza continuing their journey together,  historians will be intrigued by the possibilities it raises, and maybe it will even do something to encourage a more constructive and peaceful dialogue on race, history, and the future of our country.  Most of all, it is, I think, what every writer strives to create: a good story, one that readers will enjoy, share, and discuss for years to come.  

   Now if July will only get here!!!

But while we are waiting, I'd like to invite all of you to check out my previous novels, available on  Here's a link to my most popular book:

Till next time, stay warm, and Happy President's Day!

Monday, January 4, 2021

Here is the Prologue of my new novel, THE SANDSTORM

 I started this on New Year's Day; I have no idea where all it's going to go, but I think this is a strong start!  Please drop a comment and tell me what you think.





          “Why in the name of Christ and all his saints are we out here again?” Simon Meridius demanded.

          “We’re building a fort to protect this incredibly valuable territory from enemy incursions,” Marcus Philippus replied.

          “So we’ve been sent four days’ march from Constantine, the last outpost of civilization, to build a fort in the middle of nowhere, to protect rocks and sand?” the legionary asked in derision.

          “Quit whining, you two lagabouts!” snapped Centurion Paulus Caepio.  “We are building this fort for one simple reason: because General Belisarius commanded us to do so.  And Belisarius commanded it because the Augustus commanded him.  So unless you want to take it up with Justinian himself, I’d recommend you shut your traps and get back to mortaring those blocks!”

          The two soldiers returned to their labor, shooting venomous looks at the centurion as he walked away to check on the progress of the other workers.  Half a cohort of veteran soldiers, four military engineers, and half a hundred slaves had been dispatched from the beautiful city of Constantine, the jewel of the African Exarchate, two weeks earlier, striking south from the verdant plains at the foot of the Atlas mountains and a day’s march into the forbidding desert.  They’d carried wagonloads of limestone and tufa, barrels of powdered mortar, and enough provisions for two months’ worth of lean rations.  Junius Macro, their military tribune, brought along a closely guarded leather satchel which contained the plans for the fortress they had been ordered to construct.

          It was these plans that troubled Meridius.  They made no sense.  The fort the Byzantine soldiers were building would barely contain a century of men, much less a full cohort.  It was being built far from any normal trade route or town – in fact, they had to bring in water from an oasis nearly twenty miles away to drink and to mix mortar with.  As for bathing, a quarter of the soldiers were dispatched to the oasis every week for a couple of days to wash up, drink up, rest up, and then return to the task at hand.  There was nothing there that needed guarding, and the fort was not well-designed for defense.  Oh, the walls were thick enough, he thought, but there was not going to be room atop them for any heavy military equipment.  And, most puzzling, the soldiers had been directed to dig two underground chambers, one directly below the other, beneath the commandant’s quarters.  The sand of the desert was shallow here, and underneath it lay solid basalt.  They had sworn and sweated as they chiseled the stubborn rock away to create the two chambers, and then scratched their heads as they were ordered to build a firm floor of limestone blocks over each of them, leaving only one large square opening into each chamber.

          “Do you think it’s a treasure vault?” Meridius asked his friend Brutus Afranius one night over supper.

          “Why would the Emperor bury any treasure so far from the capitol of the province?” Afranius replied.  “He has palaces and vaults from here to Constantinople!  Do you really think old Justinian is going to stow some of Theodora’s jewels out here in this god-forsaken, sand-blasted wilderness?”

          “Then why that tiny chamber so far underground?  With a slab ready to be mortared into place as soon as the priests get here with whatever it is?” Meridius wondered.  “I’ve marched under the eagles for fifteen years and never had a detail like this!”

          But their questions remained unanswered as the walls of the fort slowly rose over the mysterious chambers.  A hundred and twenty feet on each side it measured, with one massive gate in front and a smaller, postern gate to the rear. The soldiers were crowded into barracks built on the inside of the walls. For six weeks they labored on the project day and night with grim determination, praying that they would be rewarded with some coin and a bit of leave time in the city of Constantine if they did their work well enough.

          The fort was finished at the beginning of the seventh week, and despite what many soldiers thought of as a flawed design, they had followed the plans that Tribune Macro dictated down to the last detail.  The outer wall, some ten feet thick, towered forty feet above the desert floor.  Inside, there was a well in one corner, dug straight down nearly 100 feet until it struck the aquifer beneath the desert.  The legionary’s barracks ran along the full length of one wall’s interior and down half of another.  There was a small stable, suitable for perhaps a dozen horses, a chapel, and the commandant’s quarters along the other interior walls, and in the center was a large tent filled with benches and tables where the men could eat their meals and play at dice.  It was a comfortable enough fort for a force of fifty to a hundred men, but any more than that and it would be cramped, as it was now.

          After inspecting the completed building from top to bottom, Tribune Macro called the men together for a quick meeting.

          “First of all, I want to thank you for completing this fort in such a prompt and thorough manner,” he said.  “As you may know, the order to build this outpost came straight from the Emperor himself, therefore it shall bear the name Fort Justinian now that it is completed!’

          The men gave the obligatory cheer at the mention of the Emperor’s name.  Justinian Augustus had ruled over the vast Byzantine Empire – well, call it what you will, Meridius thought, they were still Romans, even if the capitol wasn’t in Rome anymore.  They were the proud descendants of Caesar’s legions, and Emperor Justinian still bore the title Princeps, just as Augustus and Trajan had centuries before.  The legionary wondered what the ancient pagan rulers of Rome would make of the Christian empire that Constantine had created, and Justinian had expanded so greatly.  But Macro was speaking again, and Meridius put the thought aside.

          “I know that many of you have wondered what purpose such a small outpost, in such a remote corner of the Empire, could possibly serve.  I must confess I do not know the whole of the story myself, save that the Emperor has ordered something to be buried here, sealed deep under the desert, and guarded with ceaseless vigilance from this day forward.  But that guard duty will be for other soldiers, not you.  Once the Emperor’s orders are complete, you will return to Constantine for some well-earned rest and relaxation, with full purses and the sincere thanks of Justinian the Great!”

          The cheers were louder and more sincere this time, as the soldiers whispered among themselves about what they would do with their bonuses – the vast majority of those plans involving liquor and women.   Pagan or Christian, Meridius thought, the ways of soldiers would never change.

          “But our task is not complete until the Emperor’s special cargo arrives, and we seal it away securely.  The wagon is due to arrive in three days.  Therefore, I am going to send half of you at a time to St. Jude’s Oasis, to bathe and rest and return, so that we shall be clean, rested, and ready to receive His Excellency’s emissaries.  Centurion Caepio, you will take your men first thing in the morning.  I expect you to return no later than noon the next day.  When he gets back, Centurion Maxentius will take his legionaries to the Oasis in turn.  I will expect you and your men to be back here before noon on the third day.  After that, we shall seal the Emperor’s special cargo in its resting place, and then go enjoy our furlough!”

          With the end of their desert project in sight, the legionaries’ spirits lifted, and at sunset on the third day, the three hundred soldiers were drawn up in parade ground formation to welcome the wagon train that came rolling across the rocky desert towards the fortress.  The wagon was large, black-painted, with golden crosses on each side, and a white cloth emblazoned with the sign of the cross covering its top.  Six priests drove the wagon or rode alongside, and the oldest of them, a hoary old bishop named Alexander, rode forth to greet the men. 

          “Legionaries,” he said, “I bring you a special message of gratitude from Caesar himself!  The Emperor Justinian is pleased with the speed and efficiency of your labors and promises that your services will be well rewarded.  While I cannot tell you the details of the crisis that necessitated your work here, rest assured that your work will save countless lives from a terrible fate!  However, that salvation is only assured by your ability to keep a secret. So, each of you will swear upon the holy relic I bear, and by Christ and all his saints, that you will never speak again of the work you have done here, or of what you may see before leaving this place, on pain of death and eternal torment.  Am I clear?”

          The legionaries looked at each other in puzzlement and shock.  What treasure or secret could be so important as to be protected by such a terrible oath?  But Justinian had been Emperor for longer than most of them had been alive, and their reverence for him was right up there with their fear of God (or the gods, as some of the men still practiced the old ways).  So, after exchanging glances, they began nodding, and several voiced their agreement with loud cries.

          “Very good,” Bishop Alexander said.  “The work that remains will not take long, and then I have been authorized to personally accompany you to the fair city of Constantine, where your bonuses will be paid.  Now, I require the services of four strong men to assist us with unloading the first portion of our cargo.  Who volunteers?”

          Meridius stepped forward immediately, and his companions Marcus, Brutus, and Quintus jumped up alongside him. The old bishop smiled, a rather sad and wistful smile, Meridius thought, and gestured for them to follow him to the wagon.  The other priests had dismounted and were rolling back the linen cover, revealing four chests in the bed of the wagon.  Three were fairly small and ornate, made of deeply polished teakwood.  But the fourth – it was large, about three feet tall and four feet in length, with a domed lid and leather handles on either end, and on the sides.  It was wrapped in a heavy chain that glistened when the desert sun hit it, reflecting the light in starlike brilliance.

          “Is that chain . . .?” Meridius wondered aloud.

          “Solid silver?” the priest asked.  “Yes, it is, and each link engraved with the sign of the cross.  Now, very carefully, lift it out of the wagon and carry it to the commandant’s quarters.  The other chests can keep for now.”

          Meridius and Marcus grabbed either end, and Quintus and Brutus got the straps on the long sides.  They all heaved at once; and realized as they did that the chest was not as heavy as they had thought.  It came up easily, and they were able to walk it out the back of the wagon with little difficulty.  As they marched towards the commandant’s quarters, Meridius felt the chest’s center of balance constantly shift, as if there was something moving inside.  He also noticed a faint aroma if he got his head too close to the lid – a scent that was sweet and foul at the same time, as if a rose garden had bloomed over a charnel pit.  What on earth were they carrying? he wondered.

          Once they were inside the commandant’s quarters, the priest walked over to the hole in the center of the floor and looked at the chamber that was carved below.  Each underground chamber had a hole in its roof, but the openings were off-center from each other, so that the box could be lowered first into one room, then down into the next.

          “Splendid!” the priest said.  “Exactly according to my design.  Now, if you legionaries would go fetch some stout ropes, we can begin lowering this accursed vessel to its final resting place!”

          Meridius told the others to wait, and dashed over to the quartermaster’s shed, and got two long, strong ropes that were coiled and hung on the wall.  On impulse, he also grabbed a pulley and some tackle that they could use to lower the chest through the two openings.  Moments later, he’d returned to the commandant’s quarters with the gear.

          “Excellent!” the bishop said.  “Since the openings are deliberately off-center from each other, we will be able to lower the chest into the upper chamber first, then climb down ourselves, and lower it through the ceiling of the second chamber.  Once that is done, I will attend my last duties before we cement the slab into place, sealing the chest underground.  Then we will pour a thin layer of concrete over the floor of the second chamber, to disguise the blocks altogether and make sure that no one ever suspects there is another chamber below it.”

          Meridius thought this was an awful lot of trouble to bury a single chest, no matter what was in it, but he kept his mouth shut and set up the block and tackle.  In a few moments, his companions had lifted the chest off the ground, got the ropes under it to form a sling, and then slowly pushed it until it was suspended over the hole in the floor.  Brutus and Quintus climbed down the wooden ladder into the next chamber, while Marcus and Meridius slowly lowered the box to the floor below.  The chest seemed heavier than it had when they carried it from the wagon, and the rope felt as if it could slip from his grasp at any moment.  But in a few minutes, the task was done, and Meridius grabbed the block and tackle and handed them down through the opening to his waiting comrades.  Then he and Marcus climbed down, followed by the bishop and the tribune.  Below ground level now, the murmurs and mutterings of the soldiers outside the commandant’s quarters faded away, and the underground chamber seemed unnervingly quiet.

          “Good work, men,” the Tribune said.  “Now we do it all one more time, and the job will be nearly done!

          Meridius quickly set up the block and tackle, and once more his friends scrambled down the ladder to guide the chest down.  He and Marcus slid it, still in its cradle of ropes, until it hung free over the hole in the floor.  As the ropes drew taut from its weight, Meridius grunted in shock – it was much heavier this time!  The box seemed to have doubled in weight.  Marcus was feeling it too; sweat popped out on his brow as he struggled to keep from dropping the chest, which was now swinging back and forth wildly as they tried to lower it.

          “Steady lads!” called Brutus.  “Slowly!”

          “I – can’t – hold – it!” Meridius said as the rope slipped through his hands, the box impossibly heavy now.  “Stand clear!”

          No sooner had he spoken the warning than his grip gave way altogether.  Marcus tried valiantly to stop the chest from plummeting downward, but the rope slid through his hands so fast most of the skin of his palms was burned off by the friction.  With a resounding crash, the chest fell seven feet to the floor of the bottom chamber.  He stout black wood did not shatter, but the silver chain was severed by the weight of the box and came rattling off, piling onto the floor on either side of the chest.

          “No!!” Bishop Alexander exclaimed, horror seeping into his voice.  “Get out of there, men, now, up the ladder while you can!”

          That was when the lid of the box opened a few inches, and something came shooting out, so fast the eye could barely follow it.  A long appendage thrust forth and impaled Brutus Afranius through the chest, piercing through his leather hauberk as if it were wet parchment.  The three soldiers would discuss in hushed tones later that day what they saw, and they found that none of them beheld the appendage the same way.  Marcus Phillipus had seen a long, scaly body with a fanged head that gnawed its way into Brutus’ chest, while Meridius had seen a hairy, jointed leg with razor-sharp claws at the end. Quintus Claudius, who had been in the chamber of horrors and closer than any of them, insisted that it was an impossibly long human arm, green and glistening, with a clawed hand.  But at the moment, all they could do was watch in terror as Brutus twitched and jerked and screamed for what seemed an eternity. Then, with a wet wrenching sound they never forgot, the appendage jerked itself back, clutching the soldier’s still-pumping heart.

          It was the bishop who saved them.  Elderly as he was, Alexander leaped down into the pit of horror and raised a silver, cross-shaped vial.

          “Back, foul creature!” he said in a voice that rang with authority.  “Back, in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit!”

          The appendage froze, then rotated towards him, dropping the heart to the floor with a wet plop.  The bishop shook the vial, and sprinkled the bloody limb with droplets of holy water.  There was a hissing shriek from inside the box, and the appendage withdrew as fast as it had shot forth.

          “Quickly, men,” Alexander said.  “Help me fix this chain back around the box!  Your friend is beyond all help save prayer, but we will all join him in death if we do not hurry!”

          Marcus and Meridius leapt down into the chamber, and Quintus shook off the fear that had paralyzed him.  They wrapped the chain back around the box, finding the links that were broken.  Meridius spotted a small hammer left by the masons, and he used it to pound the links back into their proper shape.  When the box was chained shut again, Alexander bade them slide it back into the far corner of the tiny chamber. 

          “Bear your fallen comrade hence,” he said.  “What remains to be done here, only I can do.  But once you have carried him outside, return quickly, and tell no one what happened!”

          They used the ropes that had lowered the chest into the chamber to carry Quintus’ limp and bloody form back up to the commandant’s quarters, then out into the courtyard.  The soldiers had been dismissed from formation, but many of them were lingering outside, having heard the faint screams from below. Tribune Macro stood with drawn sword before the door, barring their entrance.  Legionaries clustered around Meridius and his two friends, demanding explanations, but the three soldiers simply shook their heads and headed back inside.

          Bishop Alexander was climbing out of the bottom chamber, his face pale with fright and sadness. 

“Pull the ladder up, my lads.  God willing, no man will ever enter that chamber again!” he said.

Once that was done, he ordered them to lower the massive stone slab into place, which they did with alacrity.  As it slid into place, Meridius caught one last glimpse of the puddle of blood on the floor below them, where poor Quintus had died.

“Good work, men.  I am sorry for the loss of your comrade, and I will say a special mass for him this evening,” the bishop said.  “But we must finish the work that he died performing, or his death will not be the only one. Now, tell the masons to mix up several buckets of concrete!  We are going to spread it evenly across the floor, hiding all trace of the flagstones.  Tomorrow morning, when it is dry, the remaining chests in the wagon will be deposited in here, and then we will seal the last stone in the floor of the commandant’s quarters.”

“What was that thing, sir?” asked Meridius. 

“Evil,” said the priest.  “Evil in its purest and most sinister distillation. I can tell you no more than that.”

“I believe you,” Meridius said with a shudder.

By the next day, it was done.  The cement dried quickly in the arid desert climate, and remaining chests were lowered into the chamber beneath the commandant’s quarters without incident.  They were heavy, but it was a normal heaviness that did not shift, move, or change as they were lowered through the hole.

“What is in these, then?” Meridius asked the Bishop when they were alone for a moment.

“Coins,” the Bishop said.  “Mostly silver, some gold.  They are to be a decoy, so that, if thieves or looters ever discover the hidden chamber, they will take them and be content, and not delve any further to disturb that which should be buried for eternity.”

Once both chambers had been sealed and the commandant’s quarters restored to normal, Bishop Alexander spoke to the men.

“Your hard work and diligence are appreciated,” he said.  “Tomorrow morning, we will all journey together to the Oasis of St. Jude to rest for a day or two before proceeding to Constantine.  The permanent garrison is already en route and should arrive at the fort by tomorrow night.  This has been a difficult task for us all, and your reward will be great, both on earth and in heaven.”

When he was done speaking, the bishop turned to Tribune Loukas Macro and whispered: “I have something for you, from the Emperor himself.  I know the gist of what it contains, but I would ask that you read it alone, and do not come out to face the men till you have time to consider its contents.  Duty is a hard thing, my friend, but in this case, adherence to it is a matter of life and death, not just for these men, but for uncounted future generations.”

Macro nodded, took the sealed scroll, and retired to the commandant’s quarters.  It was nearly two hours later when he finally emerged for the evening meal, but his gait was steady, and when Alexander gave him a searching look, he simply nodded and then sat to eat with his men.

The next day they packed up and marched out; the priests riding in the mostly empty wagon, and the legionaries marching in neat step, eager to put this grim place behind them.  Macro and Alexander alone rode, leading the way towards the oasis.  They set a good pace, with a short break for a midday meal and a long draught of water and wine, and they arrived at the oasis as the sun was westering.  Alexander walked over to the wagon and spoke to the priests who had driven it, and they nodded and took the two hefty barrels that had been tied down near the front and set them up by the wagon’s tailgate.

“Men,” said Macro, “Before you go to bathe in the springs, Bishop Alexander has prepared a bit of a reward for us all.  Two barrels of fine ale, so that we can drink a toast to the Emperor’s health before we break ranks!  Everyone form a queue, with your drinking cups ready.  And no one takes a sip until I give the word.  For the Emperor!”

The men cheered, and then they dug into their kits for the battered pewter drinking cups they all carried.  They quickly lined up and the priests drew each of them a generous draft of what smelled like a very fine brew.  It did not take long for every legionary to be served, and they returned to their ranks, holding their mugs in front of them so the Tribune could see they were following orders.

“To his most Christian Excellency, Emperor Justinian the First!” Macro bellowed and raised his own cup to his lips.  Three hundred soldiers, and all the rest of the entourage, drained their cups, shouting the Emperor’s name with real enthusiasm.  The bishop watched the men with an expression of genuine sorrow, as did Tribune Macro.

Less than a minute after the drinks were swallowed, a soldier in the front ranks screamed and doubled over, clutching at his belly.  His comrades stepped up to catch him as he slumped, but then they, too, began to cry out in pain as the poison took effect.  Within two minutes, all the legionaries, auxiliaries, and engineers were writhing, screaming, and frantically clawing at their midriffs as the deadly poison did its grim work.  Even the four priests who had served the poisoned ale convulsed and died; for they, too, had drunk to the Emperor’s health. In five minutes, it was all over.  The entire company that had ridden forth from Fort Justinian lay dead on the grasses that grew by the Oasis of St. Jude – all except for the tribune and the bishop.

“God rest their souls,” Alexander said.  “There was no other way that we could guarantee the secret of the fort would be kept forever.”

“A grim necessity,” said Junius Macro.  “One for which the Emperor expressed deep regret in his letter to me.”

“He said something similar in his orders to me.  But our task is not complete.  You did not drain your cup, my son,” the Bishop said.

“I had to be sure that they had all done so first,” the tribune replied.  “And I now have one last duty the Emperor commanded me to perform.”

“What is that?” the bishop asked him.  “He mentioned nothing else in his instructions to me.”

Macro drew his gladius like lightning and drove it deep into the bishop’s chest.  Alexander’s eyes widened with shock, and then a flash of understanding crossed his countenance as he died.

“God rest your soul,” Macro said.  “There was no other way to guarantee the secret would be kept forever.”

He looked out over the bodies of his soldiers and choked back a bitter sob.  Such good boys, all of them!  Then, with a grim laugh, he drained his own mug and waited for its contents to take effect.

The replacement garrison had already taken possession of Fort Justinian by the time the bodies of its builders began to cool with the coming of the evening.  The mass suicide of the garrison became a topic of gossip throughout the Empire, but no one connected it to the building of the fort.  For a century, Byzantine soldiers were stationed there, on the edge of the desert, bored and frustrated, always wondering why it was their lot to guard rocks and sand.  A hundred and twenty years after the chambers had been sealed, Arabs led by the Caliph’s nephew overran the fort and held it for the next fifty years.  But they, too, could not see any reason to stand watch over empty rocks and sand, and long before Charles Martel blocked the Moorish invasion of France, the old fort was abandoned to the elements, and there it stood, a grim stone square in the middle of nowhere, as the centuries passed, and the Dark Ages came and went.  Then, eventually, a new Dark Age threatened . . .