Historical Fantasy Adventure - First book in the Swords & Stones Series (60,500 words).
One man and seven women drawn together in a trading business in first century Rome. Their wagon home and white horses their constant companions as they travel the roads of Empire in search of goods to trade. Racing chariots their favourite pastime, until an illness at their main warehouse sets transforming events in motion.
A sent-for healer initiates them in the ancient ways of stone and they learn that their being together was no accident. Now their travels have a focus beyond only trade. Visits to places of ancient power and meetings with people from outside the Empire bring the need for more security. Some become warriors and some become guards and some learn to see trouble coming. Hidden knives and swords become part of everyday life until events force their use. Blooded, the crew grow stronger and more confident, ready to face the future with excitement and purpose.
Cal had everything a citizen of Rome could want, but his soul was dying. Vivid nightly dreams inspired him to abandon the excesses of the city and wander the country in a small covered wagon. Travelling alone until Sara, a farmer’s daughter, found him, then together beginning a new life and a new direction, delivering chariots for their new friend, Maxim, then buying goods to trade.
Soon the couple were joined by Miena, the daughter of an iron merchant, and then Ameena, from a copper mining family. A delivery to Rome saw them buy the freedom of a young slave girl, and so Nerrina joined them. Trips to distant lands in the west brought new supplies and new wives. First Ava, daughter of Horst the furniture maker, and then Helga and Heidi, twins living on the river bank to escape trouble at home.
Seven loving wives. A business spanning the Empire, now with two warehouses, three teams of wagons and a fleet of boats managed by Maree in their main Aquileia warehouse.
What more could a man want?
Trouble at Warehouse
“We’ll be first,” Sara yelled over her shoulder while flicking the reins to encourage the horse.
“The twins are racing too,” Ava yelled, monitoring the first of the string of wagons behind.
“We’ll beat them, this road’s too narrow for them to pass,” Sara now concentrating on guiding the horse to pace in the middle of the roadway while hearing Helga urging her horse faster, then Heidi taking her turn, but the twins would never get passed them.
“Watch that barrow,” Ava yelled. Sara took no notice. The barrow can watch me as I fly past.
Through the town walls now, more people and animals on the road, most racing to the edge for safety, fists raised. The horse can smell the sea now. He knows he’s nearly home, I’m not slowing for those people.
“They were yelling rude words at us,” Ava yelled over the rush of the wind.
“I’m going too fast to hear,” Sara said. “The twins, how close?” They never stood a chance against the greatest racers of all time.
“Way back, we’re winning. I can’t see anyone else.”
“We’ll be first to tell Maree. You get ready to open the gate.”
“Promise you won’t run in first,” Ava asked before yelling “Watch that chariot.”
“Watch this,” Sara yelled, swerving the wagon to the far edge of the road, sounds of sacks sliding across the wooden floor in the back and the horse not missing a beat.
“There’s people near our gate.”
“They’ll soon move. Get ready to open.”
“You still didn’t promise you wouldn’t run in first,” Ava said, poised to jump from the still moving wagon.
“I promise we’ll go through the door together.” Then I’ll run!
Alone in the home wagon, Cal was expecting the race. They did it every time and it ended the same every time. “Sort the horses first,” he yelled forward, but he wasn’t expecting miracles. This time even Ameena was going faster. It wasn’t as if they had exciting stories to tell, this trip had only been a few weeks. At least they’d left the gate open for him, not that there was anywhere to park the wagon. Four freight wagons abandoned in the yard ahead of him, horses still harnessed leaving only enough room for him to get halfway through the gate. He was mounting the seat in Sara’s wagon to move it to park under the wagon shelter when he heard it, the sound resonating through his very core. The wagons could wait. Jumping back to the paving stones and following the women in dashing for the open warehouse doors. Darker inside, but he knew where to look, left and upwards towards the door of the first floor flat of their manager. Identifying the women clustered on the stairs as his eyes adjusted. No sign of Sara or Miena.
“Maree’s had a baby boy, but she’s not well,” Ameena said, standing last at the bottom of the stairs.
Sara knew babies and Miena healing. Cal knew better than to interfere so walked on through their warehouse and out the front door onto the main street. The clamour of the market and the aroma of Sara’s favourite fish soup seller reminded him he hadn’t eaten for a while. Wide open doors to Daniel’s produce shop just paces away. Quieter inside, he could see Daniel slumped against the wooden shelves he used for calculating deals, hardly bothering to check who was entering. Cal was close enough to see his bloodshot eyes when he did look up. “She had the baby fine, two days ago. Things going well, then she started getting sick. Still trying with the baby but not sure what to do.”
“Her mother been?” Cal asked.
“Praying to the gods was all she could suggest.”
“You need to be with her, I’ll get my girls to look after your shop.”
“They wouldn’t know.”
“The twins would, I’ll send them in and you show them, then you come and support your wife, the twins will get you if they have problems.”
Cal walked back to their shop, remembering for the hundredth time to see about getting a doorway cut in the wall between the two shops, they did own both them after all. The twins were high on the steps near the door to the flat, he beckoned them down. “I want you to come next door and run the produce shop so Daniel can help his wife.”
“That we can do,” Helga said.
“Letting us, would he?” Heidi said, looking at her sister and smiling.
“I’ve told him you’d be great at the job. You come and talk to him.”
The twins led the walk back to Daniel’s shop. “Our produce experts will take over now. You show them where things are and come back with me.” The twin’s eyes glued to Daniel’s hand as he pointed different bags and sacks. Cal could hear them taking turns in saying “yes” and “we understand.” As Daniel seemed to be running out of instructions, Cal came close and put his hand on Daniel’s shoulder. “They’re smart women, they’ll do a great job. Now it’s time for you to be with your wife, she really needs you.”
“I don’t know what to do to help,” Daniel confided as Cal finally managed to get him out the door of his shop, the twins happily chattering together behind them.
“Just being by her side will help.”
“Your girls will be more help than I ever could be.”
“She loves you. All she needs is to know you’re there for her.”
The noise from the street brought Daniel more to life and he needed less encouragement to turn into the warehouse door and make towards the rear flat. Cal noticed he hadn’t even registered the stock levels as they walked across the marble floor, nothing else seemed to matter while Maree was in pain. “Let Daniel through,” he said to those on the steps, letting Daniel lead and following him into the single room flat. Maree was lying on the bed, face pale and sickly, a tiny baby lying on her chest trying to extract life from her breast. Daniel went to her side.
“The twins are looking after the shop so I can be with you,” he said, trying to choose between sitting close on the bed or standing alongside.
Cal, still by the door, had Sara behind whisper in his ear, “The baby needs milk.”
Miena was in the room further, but looking like she wanted to get out. He caught her eye and she came close, “Any ideas?”
“I’m not used to babies like this,” Miena whispered back, her hands wringing in front of her. He tilted his head towards the open door, and found Miena almost pushing him down the steps. “I’m afraid for her,” she whispered as they reached the bottom.
“Nothing in your herbs and potions to help?”
“The baby needs milk. We need to find another mother with a baby, and maybe then I can try herbs on Maree.”
“Our sailor’s wives, one of them must have a young baby.”
“I’ll come too,” Miena said, her eyes darting around the shop.
“I’d rather you stay and help run the business, maybe get Ameena and Nerrina to help you.”
“And work out what’s happening,” Miena said as her business mind engaged.
“Just in case. I don’t want Selina to be in charge,” Cal whispered, Miena nodding.
“Ava,” he called quietly towards the crew on the stairs. “I’m putting you in charge of getting food for everyone and getting anything anyone wants.”
“The twins always do food,” Ava said.
“The twins are running the produce store for today. I know you can do it, you’re fast.”
“Maree and Daniel?”
“I’m sure he hasn’t eaten for days. You take charge and do it.”
“I can,” Ava said and started looking around for what to do first.
With the situation quietened, Cal wandered back outside to the yard, the horses still patiently waiting to be set free. They’ll wait a few more minutes he thought as he went through the still open rear gates and paced the streets towards the apartments they’d built for their sailor’s families. No need to knock, surrounded by sailor’s wives and children as he approached, he started to explain the problems he’d seen.
“You need help quickly,” one of the older wives said. “Would you let us help her?”
“I’ll come and bring someone who can help feed the baby, we’ll be there in a few moments. You go back, she trusts you.”
He went back, walking the streets unseeing. Things were much the same. Horses still waiting in the rear yard and shop quiet except upstairs where Daniel was munching on a hunk of bread and there was a mug of some soup close to Maree. Sara had hold of the baby.
“Help for the baby coming,” he whispered to her.
“Quickly,” she said.
Cal nodded, backing out and heading downstairs to check on Miena. “Things are up to date and we have boats due. Ancona boat at the wharf, Rome boat due back any day,” she said.
“Thanks, keep on top of it.”
“I never wanted to do this job like this.”
“I didn’t either. Let’s hope we don’t have to.”
“Ava’s doing good.”
“I like seeing her without being second,” Cal said.
“I think she likes it too.”
“Haven’t seen them yet.”
He walked next door. The twins were in action, rearranging the displays, tidying, sweeping mess. Daniel would never find anything again.
“We’re liking this,” Helga said.
“Ava fed you?”
“Yes, she’s running around,” Heidi said.
“None,” Helga said.
“We’ve had a good sale already,” Heidi said.
“Come next door if you need anything.”
“Ava is doing that for us,” Helga said.
“She says she’s faster,” Heidi said.
When Cal returned to their shop, three women had arrived from the sailor’s apartments, one with a young baby on her breast. “Laia has plenty of milk,” the oldest said, “She can feed the youngster.”
He led them up the stairs. The room crowded now, so after introductions, he made his way outside. Daniel was soon by his side whispering, “It’s not good, is it?”
“These women will get the baby happy, then we need to work on your wife.”
Sara came down to report progress. “Those women are great, the baby’s quiet now and they’re trying to help Maree too.”
“Is Maree eating?” Cal asked.
“Not much. She feels so hot too.”
Ava flashed through, asking Sara if she wanted any food before disappearing out the back.
“What’s happening with Ava?” Sara asked.
“I’ve put her in charge of feeding everyone and getting anything people want.”
“She seems to be liking it,” Sara said.
>Outside, Ava was working on preparing a hot stew, fire burning, pot half full. “I thought I’d get something ready in case you all got hungry later.”
“That’s a great idea,” Cal said.
“You’re doing better than the twins,” Sara said. Ava smiled and stirred harder.
“The sailor’s wives are feeding the baby, it’s going well,” Cal said to Ava.
“I’ll run and tell the twins,” Ava said, and ran off to report.
Sara stirred the pot while they waited for Ava to return. The oldest woman found them before then. “She’s a strong woman. I don’t think there is much we can do but wait.”
“Anything at all that might help?” Daniel asked.
“Try to get her to keep eating and drinking, that’s the best. Keep her warm. Pray to the gods. Laia will come every few hours and feed the baby, that’ll ease her worry.”
As they moved back inside, the rest of the women were coming down. Inside, the baby seemed nearly asleep, lying on Maree’s chest. Maree herself seemed a little better. “Thanks for finding that woman to help feed my son,” she said quietly.
“Anything we can get for you?” Sara asked.
“I don’t fancy anything, I’m not hungry.”
“There must be something you’d like,” Daniel asked gently. “Some treat?”
Maree was silent a long time. “That special smoked fish,” she whispered.
“We’ll get it,” Cal said and left Sara and Daniel to continue trying to help. Outside, watching Ava cooking, the idea came. “I’ll be back shortly,” he said to Ava and left through the rear gate towards the sailor’s apartments again. The same women met him. “I’m looking for our captain.” One child ran off to fetch him.
“She’s really not good,” the oldest woman said.
“I can see, we’ll try whatever we can though.”
It was Captain Joe that appeared, he must be doing the Ancona run. “I need you to do a special fast trip for us to Tarsatica.”
“They’re a very strange people there, they won’t let us land on that coast.”
“I’m sending one of my wives with you. She’ll deal with the people, we’ve bought from them before. I need you to get her there and back again as quick as you can. Are there enough crew who would volunteer for the trip?”
“I can get the crew ready, when do we go?”
“Now. I’ll get some supplies and meet you at the boat,” Cal said.
“It’s for Maree,” the older woman said. “You’ll do it, won’t you.”
“I’ll have a crew at the boat in half an hour,” Captain Joe said.
Cal ran back to the warehouse. “Stop that,” he said to Ava. “I’ve got an important job for you. I want you to go with our boat crew to buy some smoked fish at Tarsatica. The crew are getting ready now, we’ll get some supplies and meet them at the boat.”
“You’re tough and strong. You can do it to help Maree.”
“How long will it take?”
“A few days. Take what you think you’ll need.”
Together, they selected some supplies from their storeroom. The twins helped select extra stock from the produce store. Provisions thrown in the back of a wagon and coin extracted from the spare for wages and buying.
“I’ve never been alone before,” Ava said as they drove side by side on the wagon seat towards the wharf.
“For Maree, you can do it. Be bold and strong like Sara. I’m telling the captain you’re in charge, I believe you can do it well.”
“You really do?” She was looking into his eyes.
“Yes.” He hoped he was exuding confidence as he looked back into the pools of fear in her blue eyes.
She was silent until they stopped near The Ameena, the small single-mast boat that did the regular Ancona run. The crew were already there, the sacks of provisions passed from hand to hand, loading complete in record time, the crew gathered around. “This is a quick trip to get some special fish for Maree. Ava here knows the people and she will arrange the deal with the fishermen. I need you all to help her and keep her safe, and then return quickly,” Cal said.
“We’ve got a great wind right now, we’ll make good time today,” Captain Joe said.
“Let’s go,” Ava yelled, looking at the crew and taking charge. The crew jumped to her command. Cal nodded at the captain who smiled back before turning to the task before him. Cal watched the boat leave the wharf and make for the open water. The crew had the smaller front sail up shortly after the main one was set, they were making this a fast trip. All that was missing were the yells the girls usually made when speeding.