Here are the first two chapters of my inspirational novel… Enjoy! :)
Chapter 1. The boy on the hill
The boy was startled out of a deep sleep and quickly jumped to his feet.
The soldier shouted again, this time stepping up just inches from the boy. The smell of strong drink came from his breath as his beady eyes scanned up and down the boy’s form. Scrunched brows kept his helmet from falling over his face and the side flaps bounced on either side of his sweaty scowl. He panted from the climb up the hill.
“Worthless mute! Even this simple task you cannot handle! And you wanted to join the army?” Before the man even finished the sentence a hard slap struck the boy’s face and he staggered to the ground from the unexpected blow.
The dusty leather sandal slammed against his throat as the man pinned him to the dirt. “If I catch you sleeping on your post again,” he sneered, “not only will you not get your pay but I’ll have you hung up there beside him!” The foot then landed hard against the boy’s ribs.
The soldier marched off, swearing aloud, and the boy lifted himself off of the ground. A metallic taste filled his mouth and he pressed his tongue against the inside of his cheek to stop the bleeding.
Brushing himself off with shaky hands, he picked up the belt with the sheathed sword, and buckled it around his waist. He grabbed his old pouch, the animal skin darkened by years in the sun, and slung it over his shoulder.
He was disgusted with himself for falling asleep and then his anger turned to the soldier.
How can a man like that be in the army but I can’t join!?
He sat down at the foot of the wood beam, still holding his cheek, and stared out into the hills as the sun neared the horizon. Down in the city, most of the torches left burning overnight had already died. A new day was beginning. It was a cold morning and the boy watched his breath swirl before him and vanish with each exhale. He hadn’t planned on staying all night and shivered without an extra layer to cover his tunic.
The night before had marked his third shift on the hill and usually by this time, the criminals were already dead. He turned and looked up at the man hanging above him, chest still moving.
This one wants to live, he thought and turned back to the hills, again falling deep in thought as the sun finally peeked over the horizon.
Three months ago the boy turned 17, the age he would be considered a man. At 17, he could join the military and fight. He had admired the Roman soldiers since he was a child. It was everything that made a man, a man. The silver helmets topped by the crimson crest and the chest plates gleaming in the sun as they marched in and out of the city were more than enough reason to enlist. He would stop and marvel as the soldiers marched by, steps perfectly in sync.
Raised in an orphanage where he didn’t know who his mother or father were, he had plenty of other reasons to join. After all, he had been a burden to people all of his life. A burden to the citizens of Rome whose taxes paid for his food and shelter at the orphanage. A burden to the women who raised him and prepared his meals, and obviously, a burden to his mother who had left him on the steps of the temple as an infant.
His plan was foolproof. As soon as he joined, he would go from burden to glory. He would be a soldier and earn a soldier’s wages. With these he would save enough money to buy a plot of land in the hills outside of the city. He would grow his olive trees and sell the oil and olives.
He would be a wealthy man and give the orphanage his time and gold so that others would not grow up in the loneliness he himself was imprisoned to.
And then there was Licinia, the only girl at the orphanage. Her unusual green eyes sparkled. Her kindness made her prettier still. Since the day she slapped the bully who mocked the boy for not being able to speak, she’d been his friend.
One day she would help him till the fields and care for the trees. All he needed to do was convince her of this dream and he would surely win her over. Once he joined the army, everything would fall into place.
The day came and he entered the office of the general. His excitement soon turned to a trembling terror and his palms grew sweaty as each question from the general only led to more mocking. His big brown eyes studied the general’s face hoping to be understood, but found only sarcasm. When all he could do was nod or shake his head to each question, the room, quickly filling with curious centurions, erupted into laughter.
The boy was born a mute.
The general hadn’t bothered reading the pleading words the boy had scribbled on a torn piece of a scroll.
He would never be able to fight alongside others. A Roman soldier must be able to echo orders given in the heat of battle and a mute boy would create a weak spot. His head spun as the general explained.
“We do need an execution guard, however,” the general finally offered. “The pay is not much but for a useless boy like yourself whom the gods haven’t favored, you can’t ask for more.”
Here he was. On the hill just north of the city gate, waiting for the man charged with murder to die. His job was to watch over the guilty and ensure their accomplices didn’t sneak up in the night and take down those being executed.
A common Roman execution, resulting in humiliating, excruciating pain, and a slow death. Some died from the pain within hours. Stripped naked and nailed to the cross with their arms stretched out, their feet were nailed together and pinned below them at an angle. Others lasted a few days, until they could no longer shift their back up against the wood for another breath. Their arms were stretched wide, causing them much difficulty and pain to hold themselves up. Eventually unable to breathe, they would suffocate.
The other guards were not patient: “We get paid for each body, not for our time spent up here. If you break their knees, they are gone within a few hours,” they said. “Besides, it puts them out of their misery.”
They do not have the courage required to become real soldiers but they can kill a helpless man without a second thought, the boy thought with disgust.
He looked up at the man whose eyes had already been closed for hours. Only a slight rising and deflating of the chest revealed any sign of life. He shuddered at the thought of clubbing the man’s knees; he would never be able to live with himself. It didn’t matter how long he had to stay up here, he would wait for death.
In his months as a guard on the hill, he watched one life after another leave with a final breath and he often thought about these men. Most of the convicted were poor: slaves, bandits, thieves, and murderers who had been dealt a bad hand in life by the gods and chose to take a path that, ultimately, led them here.
Others were wealthy, prominent men of high political status who were convicted of treason, bribery, or conspiracy.
Up on the cross, naked with his hands pierced through the bone, it didn’t matter how much gold or fame a man had collected in his lifetime. The boy could not distinguish between one and the next without the plank that listed each man’s criminal convictions.
Some of them begged for help. Every time this happened he distanced himself until he could see them but no longer hear their screams for mercy. He learned quickly to avoid making eye contact and tried hard to detach himself from the thought of them being human.
At times it was more than he could handle. His knees would grow weak, his body would begin to shake and he’d vomit on the ground as the fear paralyzed him. But with time, it became easier and he learned to control himself, especially when the soldiers came around to check on him.
It was almost midday when he walked up to the foot of the cross again. He pushed the body with the back end of his spear and saw that it was limp. The entire weight of the man was now sagging on the nails.
Thus began the easy part of his job, for he no longer feared a conversation with the criminal. He pulled the nails for their next use and the body dropped to the ground. Wrapping the man with a sheet, he rolled him onto his stretcher and pulled the stretcher behind him down towards the city. He delivered the body for burial and collected his pay.
He stopped at a lone tent in the market on his way back to the orphanage. The rest of the merchants had folded up for the day. Pointing to the cheapest wine skin, he pulled a few coins from his pouch.
At the orphanage he climbed to the roof where the women often sun-dried their carpets and clothes. It was his favorite spot and he spent a lot of time up here when he needed to get away from the others. From here he could see the hills above the city, which formed a peaceful background in the distance as if to mock the insignificant worries of the people below. Licinia had joined him here many times and he loved to listen to her voice and marvel at her beauty as she shared her dreams.
She would talk and he would listen, glancing away quickly when she caught him staring.
He was jealous of the other boys. They could speak. They spoke freely about everything that came to mind, even things that made them look foolish, which he found odd. They compared muscle size and apparently knew exactly what women found attractive in a man.
Perhaps when you are able to speak, you can’t think at the same time.
Just like all of them, he had so much to say. He wished he could speak about his dreams and the things he thought about, but he could only listen.
There were times in the orphanage classroom when his frustrations would erupt and he would scream, silently, tears rolling down his face as others read aloud. He couldn’t form words like they did. And he couldn’t understand why.
That early pain gave him a desire to communicate any way possible and he began to read and write much sooner than the rest of the orphans. But it was far worse now not to be able to speak to Licinia than it had ever been at school. She was the only one he really ever wanted to speak to anyway.
It was only a few more months until he would have to leave the orphanage and go out on his own. He was considered a man now and the woman who had raised him here had told him he could stay only until he was able to find a place to live. All his glorious former plans had been based around joining the Roman army.
Now I am destined to join the rest of the beggars wandering the streets. Slaves have it better than I do, he thought.
The sun was starting to set and just as the day was fading, his dream of olive fields and riches began to fade with it.
He took another swig from the half-empty wine skin. Propped up with his back against the clay wall, heated by a day full of sun, he closed his eyes and let the last bit of warmth kiss him on the cheeks.
The sun, all of nature, the hills outside of the city where he spent much of his time, had treated him better than any gods of Rome that he learned about as a child. Tears came down his face as a familiar anger swept over him.
He threw the wine skin and watched it skid across the dusty clay roof. Every curse word he had ever learned came through his mind bringing more anger and tears with it.
This was the meaning of his name in Latin.
I am about as lucky and successful as bull shit stuck to the bottom of the emperor’s shoe!
I can’t sell in the market place. I haven’t been raised with any skills like the men in the blacksmith shops or the stables. I can’t earn enough gold to buy land for my olive trees… I might as well become a beggar. Licinia won’t want anything to do with a useless mute anyway.
He thought again of the general and the centurions who laughed at him and it only kindled his frustration and feeling of rejection. There was nothing left for him here. All hope of success had faded and he had awakened to a new reality — drowning in a bottomless sea without a soul in sight to toss a rope.
His dream had fueled him for so long it felt strange to lose direction and any sense of purpose.
He needed to leave. He needed to get as far away as possible from his failures, the pity of others, the identity that was his life here in Rome.
The sun set and darkness began to creep in. The boy picked himself up from his perch and stumbled down the steps to his cot.
Chapter 2. A journey begins
It was still dark outside when the boy rose and rolled his bedding tightly, placing his sword carefully in the middle and securing it with a string. Romans were not popular in territories they had conquered and he did not want to be mistaken for a soldier wherever he ended up. He wanted to return the sword assigned to him for protection on the hill but he feared being laughed at again, this time for quitting. Besides, having it on his back gave him a sense of safety.
He crept out the main entrance to the orphanage, stepped into the courtyard, and headed for the front gate. He had only taken a few steps when he heard a familiar voice from behind.
“Felix!” Licinia whispered as she stood in the doorway. He turned around to look at her for a moment and then stared at the ground. He had wanted to tell her goodbye the evening before but did not want to let her know he was not coming back.
As she stepped into the moonlight, he saw tears lining her face. He remembered when they were both 11, and she taught him about olive trees. “Sometimes they take 5 to 8 years to produce fruit,” she had said. And he fell in love with these trees, barren and useless for so long just like he had been. But when they became ripe, they produced an abundance of fruit. He would one day do the same with his life.
That day they both ran to the market where he stole a few olive seeds and planted them in the hills outside the city.
She had seen his frustration when the other boys got jobs in the market, temples and government palaces, and he was turned away each time. She had seen him try again and again to do what all the normal boys did, only to fail harder each time and endure yet more rejection.
Here in Rome, anybody with a disability was considered a hindrance to society and he was certainly treated as such.
The girl leaned in and kissed him on the cheek. “Just when it seems like the olive tree will never produce, it brings forth more fruit than can be contained,” she whispered. She turned around and stepped into the darkness of the home.
The boy stood and stared at the entrance for a moment, then turned and headed down the quiet street. His mind screamed to turn back as the familiar walk suddenly felt lonelier. But his feet kept moving forward.
Flickering torches, still lit at the door posts, were the only sign of life in the soundless streets. As he reached the gate he so often passed through, he brushed his hand against the cold clay walls for the last time and headed west towards Fiumicino.
He had only been to Fiumicino once as a younger boy, traveling there with a few of the women who ran the orphanage. They needed his help to load up and haul back a supply cart from the ships. He had strong arms and enjoyed the challenge of the labor.
He recalled it would take nearly five hours to get there by foot.
The sky behind was brightening as he walked down the road. Just as the road began to curve he turned for a final glance at the city. He’d spent his entire life there and it was all he knew. In the hours before dawn, the city looked cold and uninviting. And he knew he would not be missed. Only the girl in the orphanage would even remember him. He touched his cheek where she’d kissed him and turned toward his destination again.
The road carved through the dips in the hills and to the east, the mountain range loomed in the sky. Jagged cliffs still wrapped in dusk made him feel small as he passed by.
Salty air filled his nostrils as he approached the city. A cool breeze coming from the Tyrrhenian Sea blew against his face, filling him with a new energy. He made his way towards the boat docks. He knew he did not have enough coins to pay for a trip but perhaps he could work on a boat as payment.
I’ll go anywhere a ship can go, as long as it sails away from Rome.
As he sat at the docks and watched the slaves loading bags onto a ship, he realized the flaw in his plan. How could he convince someone to let him on board in exchange for work when they had all the help they needed for no payment?
A man approached, and sat next to him on a post. He was dressed in unusual clothes, which the boy had seen before. The long robe hardly seemed comfortable in the heat of the day but it certainly was elegant with the bright colors weaved around the seams of the silky material. The man looked like the people who came from Arabia to trade in the markets. With their sacks of gold strapped to their waists, they seemed wealthy and the boy often wondered how they accumulated so much.
The man wiped his forehead with his sleeve and turned to the boy, staring at him for a moment. A fresh bead of sweat crept down from his head cover and stopped at the wrinkles on his face. Each crease in the dark skin told a story of an experienced life.
“What are you running from?” he finally asked, pointing out the boy’s rolled bedding strapped around his back. He spoke Latin with a strong accent and the boy guessed he traveled to Rome frequently to trade. Most of the foreigners had translators but many who came to the region learned to speak the language.
Felix shrugged and waved his hand toward the sea.
The man could see the boy was unable to speak but continued to stare and Felix shifted uncomfortably, pretending not to notice.
He has never seen a mute before. Perhaps he thinks I can fly, too.
“You know changing your location will not change your situation,” the man said. Now he was intruding and Felix wanted to get up and walk away.
What does he know about my situation!?
He pulled on the collar of his tunic as if to straighten it like he often did when he grew angry or frustrated.
The man looked him up and down and spoke again. “I see many like you,” he said. “They’re running somewhere they think will get them a better life, only to face again what they once left behind.”
The boy rose and started down the dock but the man grabbed his arm and looked him dead in the eye. His black eyes peered into the boy’s soul. Felix’s heart raced and a shiver jolted down his spine. He thought about the blade he had hidden in his bedding.
“You don’t speak and you don’t look like you are in much of a hurry to get somewhere, but for some reason I was drawn to you,” the man said. “As sure as God is in heaven, you will listen to what I am going to say! I don’t like to help vagabonds like you, wandering aimlessly. I have lived with people who are no longer here on earth who would gladly trade places with you!”
The man spoke in a low voice, almost as if he was ashamed to be speaking to the boy, and his scraggly beard danced with the motion of his lips.
The boy couldn’t understand why the man was so annoyed — and why he bothered to come over to him in the first place. He had been minding his own business and hadn’t been in anyone’s way.
And how did he know I am running away?
The man spoke again, this time releasing his strong grip on the boy’s arm. “I believe in omens,” he said, “and always listen when my heart speaks. You are causing me delay. I have a large stock of fine garments loaded on that ship that I am bringing to the markets of Jerusalem for the Passover festival.”
The boy had heard of the Jews and the trouble they caused for the Roman troops in the Judean region. He’d always imagined them as a wild people refusing the influence of a civil and industrious Roman Empire, so Jerusalem wasn’t a place he wanted to go.
The man continued, “Several of my ships have been attacked in these waters by pirates. Roman ships only protect us for part of the way. I need someone who can stay on the watch through the nights.”
Felix was puzzled.
People had always treated him as if he was a ghost wandering the streets and went to great lengths to avoid him. The “Mute Boy” made people uncomfortable when they had to communicate with him.
And now this Arab had approached him and had righteously accused him of what had been running through his mind these last few months on the hill. He’d been feeling sorry for himself, angry at the gods, angry at the world, angry at himself, blaming them all and now running from it all. It was clear the man did not think much of him but for some reason was offering him a job; Felix was not about to turn away an opportunity like this.
He nodded in agreement.
“Good, the ship is ready,” the man said as he stood up. “My name is Haziq,” he said, heading for the ship without looking at the boy.
Thank you for reading!
The book will be available on AMAZON print and ebook on Monday July 17th, would love to hear your feedback!!. Find the short video (HERE) :)