Out Of The Waters — Snippet 01

By David Drake


Hoping that they will be reading my books to one another for many years to come.


Dan Breen continues as my first reader. He catches typos and mental lapses–dropped plurals, subject and verb agreement, not infrequently missing words; that sort of thing. More important, he highlights some really clumsy constructions. I have tendencies to be both over-precise and elliptical, sometimes in the same sentence.

Dorothy Day and my webmaster, Karen Zimmerman, archive my texts in distant places and search them when I don’t remember a name (for example, “What was the name of the night doorman?”). If an asteroid hits Pittsboro, Tor will still be able to retrieve my work in progress. (Unless it’s a really big asteroid, of course.)

For the most part, I took my quotations of The Book of the Dead from the EA Wallis Budge version, which I’ve owned and used for many years. I needed one particular phrasing which did not appear in Budge. Karen found it for me in a Normandi Ellis paraphrase. I could cite many similar examples, from this book and from earlier ones, of how valuable it is to a writer to know a librarian.

While I was writing the very last sections of Out of the Waters, the screen of my first-line laptop got wonky because of a loose connection. A minor thing, I assumed. It isn’t. My son Jonathan determined it was a job for factory repair and immediately ordered a replacement, which he then set up for me.

I have said that I’ll continue writing even if I need to chip my words out on a block of stone–and I will. I am very fortunate that my family and close friends include professionals at all levels of the IT industry, making it unlikely that I will have to resort to chisels.

I don’t care what anyone else thinks of the content of my fiction, but I run my non-fiction, including the Author’s Note which immediately follows these acknowledgements, by Mark Van Name for a useful outside viewpoint. Mark is more circumspect in what he says than I am (almost everyone is more circumspect than I am), but he’s very good at pointing out places where people who don’t know me will misunderstand what I’m saying and also places where I might in a few days wish that I had chosen to be a little less brutally frank.

I do not always do what Mark suggests, but I listen to him. Only a fool would not.

My wife Jo continues to maintain the nest in which I live and work. The bills get paid, appointments are remembered, and I eat extremely well. When I’m working, which is most of the time, I focus very sharply on the work itself. That’s good for the work, but it would be disastrous for life in the broader sense were it not for Jo’s unflagging support.

My thanks to the people above and to all the other friends who make my life not only possible but worthwhile.


Out of the Waters is set in a fictional city named Carce (pronounced CAR-see). Things occur in this novel and in all The Books of the Elements which did not happen and could not have happened in the historical Rome in 30 AD. This is a fantasy novel, not a historical novel with fantasy elements. I’m trying to keep that fact at the front of readers’ minds by referring to Carce (in homage to The Worm Ouroboros by ER Eddison, by the way).

That said, I have hewed closely to Roman culture and to events from Roman history in creating the background of the series. The literary works which occur in the series (including the Sibylline Books and The Book of the Dead), and the quotes from them, are real.

The Native American myths which form the core of Out of the Waters are real also. I found the story of Uktena very powerful when I first read it. In reworking the story for my use here, I at last understood why it resonated so strongly with me.

While you should not assume that everything in the series is historical truth–it isn’t–you can be sure that I research the details which go into my fiction. This brings me to another reason for setting The Books of the Elements in Carce, not Rome.

Most educated people have an idea of what Ancient Rome was like. Much of what they think they know is false. I find it distressing to have folks write (and even phone!) me to complain about some “mistake” in my fiction when in fact my statement was correct.

For example, I’ve learned not to refer to Roman shields as being plywood, though in fact they were plywood and archeologists use “plywood” to describe the material from which they were molded. If I say the shields were “laminated wood,” people don’t complain (and I hope that I avoid breaking their suspension of disbelief).

Whereas I could say that the legions of Carce go to war wearing topcoats and tails without anybody claiming I was historically wrong. (They might think I was a complete twit–I would think I was a complete twit if I did something so silly–but that’s a separate matter.)

My purpose in writing is to tell interesting, exciting stories that many people will take pleasure in reading; my role is not to educate readers. I hope, however, that those who read The Books of the Elements will get glimpses of a culture very different from our own–but which is nonetheless one of the major supports on which our culture has been built.

Still, I’ll be satisfied if you tell me that you had a good time reading Out of the Waters. I certainly hope that you do.

Dave Drake


Varus sat upright at his father’s side in the Tribunal–the patron’s box–over the right edge of the stage in the Pompeian Theater, jotting notes in the waxed memorandum book on in his lap. Staring at him from the vast bowl of the theater was an audience of thousands: perhaps twenty thousand all told, including the slaves standing–they weren’t allowed to sit–in the aisles and the surrounding colonnades.

It was disquieting to look out at many human faces, though he knew that only a handful of them were even vaguely aware of Gaius Alphenus Varus. Indeed, very few of the spectators would pay any attention to his father, Gaius Alphenus Saxa: Senator of Carce, Replacement Consul, and destined governor of the province of Lusitania on the Atlantic Coast of the Iberian Peninsula.

The spectators didn’t worry Varus as much, though, as the vision forming in his mind: a very old woman, seated on a throne. He wasn’t sure if she really existed or if she ever had existed; but he knew why he was seeing her.

Varus was too well schooled in philosophy to lie, even to himself, about his father’s personality. Saxa was a cultured and well-read man, but not a particularly wise one. He had chosen to commemorate his consulate by putting on a mime written for the occasion: The Conquest of Lusitania by Hercules.

The Replacement Consul sat on his gilded, high-backed chair, beaming with pleasure. If the Emperor had been present, the Golden Seat would have been his. The Tribunal wasn’t the best place from which to view the three-hundred-foot wide stage, but it was the best place in which to be seen by the audience.

The citizens of Carce would probably have preferred watching exotic animals being slaughtered by the hundred and perhaps even convicted criminals being devoured by cats and bears, but Saxa was wealthy enough that the present spectacle was keeping the audience in its seats.

Varus had once imagined he could become a great poet, one whose readings would fill a hall and might even fill this theater. His first public performance had been a disaster, not so much in the eyes of those attending as in his own.

On that occasion, the audience had been of freedmen and hangers-on of his father’s wealthy friends, sent as a courtesy. They had expected to be bored. Varus himself was too intelligent and too well taught–

He glanced over his shoulder toward his teacher, Pandareus of Athens; the scholar nodded crisply in reply. He sat in the Tribunal as a mark of Saxa’s gratitude.

–not to understand how bad his epic was when he heard the words coming out of his mouth.

Under the careful direction of two handlers each, the Cattle of the Sun–big animals with bright bay hides–were marching across the stage. Though they had been gelded and their horns sparkled with gold paint for this show, they were of the same Iberian stock as the bulls which not infrequently gored to death the lions and tigers set to fight them in the arena.

While even more dangerous animals sometimes appeared on stage, these steers were nothing to have loose in the belly of the theater. That was especially true since the seats in the orchestra were reserved for senators and their families.

A steer bellowed peevishly and lashed its tail. The actor playing Hercules stood at the back of the scene on a “rock”; he twitched noticeably. It was unlikely that an angry animal would crash through the spiked iron fence protecting the orchestra, but one certainly might knock down the mountain of plaster on a wicker frame and then start in on the actor who had been standing on it.

The audience would love it, Varus thought, smiling faintly. He wasn’t the sort of aristocrat who sneered at The Many, the common people; but even at seventeen he was enough of a philosopher to be wryly amused by the difference between his tastes and those of his fellow citizens of Carce–including the tastes of many who were just as well born as the Alphenus family.

Varus gestured Pandareus to slide his chair up a few inches. The Greek had been careful to take a subordinate place rather than imply his equality with citizens of Carce, but that had now been established. Varus wanted to talk with his teacher, the only person in the box who shared his own passion for truth.

Saxa had a capacious mind, but it was like a magpie’s and his learning was slanted toward the marvelous. The more remarkable a report was, the more likely he was to believe it.

Varus preferred sober facts. His smile quirked again. It disturbed him that some of the events he’d recently seen–and participated in–were more amazing than the fantastic myths which charlatans retailed to his father.

Pandareus advanced his chair to the railing. He and the others in the Tribunal sat on backless folding chairs with fabric seats. They were identical to the chairs of the senators in the orchestra, except that the frames were of oak or fruitwood instead of ivory.

Apart from the senators, free persons in the audience sat on stone benches. The wealthier had brought cushions, while the poor made do with a cloak or an extra tunic. This mime was scheduled to last all afternoon, so even a toil-hardened farmer visiting the capital needed something between his buttocks and the stone.

Pandareus followed his pupil’s eyes to the slaves in the gallery and murmured, “I wonder how many of them are Lusitanians themselves? It’s supposed to be a rather wild province, of course. If there are any of them here, they may not have enough Latin to realize that they’re supposed to be looking at their homeland.”

The last of the cattle stamped and clattered off the stage below the Tribunal. An actor dressed as Mercury with a silver helmet and winged sandals cried, “Behold, the treasures of Lusitania, now yours by right of conquest!”

The first of what was obviously a long line of donkeys followed the steers. Instead of ordinary pack saddles, the animals were fitted with shelves which displayed silver and gold plate, bronze statuary, silks, and expensive pottery. Some of the dishes were decorated blue on a white background, products of the same far eastern peoples who produced the silk.

“Master?” Varus said as a question occurred to him. “There were twenty cattle. Is there some literary basis for that? Because frankly–”

He lowered his voice, though there was no likelihood that Saxa on his right side could have overheard.

“–I would have expected my father to provide more, just for the show.”

Pandareus allowed himself a pleased smile. “As it happens,” he said, trying to keep the pride out of his voice, “your father’s impresario, Meoetes, asked me the same question while he planned the mime. I told him that annotations by Callimachus on Euripides claim that the ‘cattle’ are actually a metaphor for the twenty letters of the Greek alphabet which Heracles–”

He used the god’s Greek name.

“–brought to replace the Alphabet of Cronus. Meoetes was doubtful, as you surmise, but the senator insisted on accuracy over spectacle.” He coughed and continued, “Since I couldn’t give any guidance on the loot of Iberia, I believe they decided to, ah, spread themselves.”

Varus grinned again, feeling a rush of unexpected warmth toward his father. Saxa had not been harsh toward his son and daughter–he wasn’t a man who could be harsh to anyone, even a slave; though of course he had foremen and stewards who could be do what they thought was necessary. Neither had Saxa showed any interest in his children, however.

That had changed very recently. Saxa appreciated the real erudition which he was honest enough to know that he lacked himself. He had learned that Marcus Priscus, a member of the Commission for Sacred Rites and reputedly the most learned man in the Senate, respected Varus’ scholarship and regarded Pandareus as his equal in knowledge. That had raised son and teacher enormously in Saxa’s estimation.

Alphena, Saxa’s sixteen-year-old daughter, had gained status for an even better reason: Hedia, Saxa’s third wife and the children’s stepmother, had taken the girl under her wing. Hedia was lovely and could be charming, but she knew her own mind–and got her way in everything that mattered to her.

Varus wouldn’t have believed that his tomboy sister would ever want to act like a lady, let alone that she would be capable of doing a creditable job of it. The fact that Alphena was here in the theater, wearing a long dress with a silk cape over her shoulders, was almost as remarkable as other things that had happened in the course of the past week.

Almost. Varus had seen the earth open and demons rise from the blazing rivers of the underworld. He had seen that, or he thought he had seen that; and it had seemed that he himself was the magician whose chanted spell had dispersed those demons and sealed the world against them.

Varus prided himself on his intellect; intellectually he knew the things he recalled could not be true. Unfortunately for logic and reason, his teacher recalled the same things. When a scholar of the stature of Pandareus accepted the evidence of his eyes over common sense, a mere student like Varus was left with a dilemma.

The line of mules moved steadily except when one stopped, raised its tail, and deposited dung on the stage. Pandareus leaned forward, watching with more interest than he had shown for the splendid goods themselves.

“How will they clean the stage after the performance, Lord Varus?” he said. “That is, I understand there are to be eight hundred mules. If even a small portion of such a herd…?”

Varus laughed. He wasn’t a frequent spectator at Carce’s mass entertainments, but he obviously got out more than his teacher did. He said, “They hold beast fights and hunts–”

So-called hunts, that is. Archers and javelin throwers behind metal fences shot corralled animals until they had no more living targets.

“–here also. Channels from the Virgin Aqueduct divert water over the stage and the cellars beneath to wash detritus into the sewers.”

He met his teacher’s eyes and added, “I don’t believe that will be part of the performance though, as this mime doesn’t include Hercules cleansing the stables of King Augeas.”

They smiled together. Varus was proud to be able to make literary jokes with his teacher, and he suspected that Pandareus was pleased to have students who actually appreciated literature as something more than a source for florid allusions to be thrown out during a speech. Of the ten youths studying with Pandareus at present, only Varus and his friend Corylus could be described as scholars.

Varus let his eyes drift over the audience to where he had spotted Corylus while the jugglers and rope dancers were performing before the mime itself began. Publius Cispius was a Knight of Carce, entitling his son Publius Cispius Corylus to a seat in the first fourteen rows at any public entertainment. Corylus was in the fourteenth row, so that his servant, Marcus Pulto, could sit directly behind him.

The elder Cispius had capped a successful military career with command of a squadron of Batavian cavalry and had been knighted on retirement. He had purchased a perfume business on the Bay of Puteoli with the considerable money he had made while in service.

By ordinary standards, Cispius was wealthy–but Saxa was wealthy by the standards of the Senate. At Varus’ request, Saxa had invited Corylus to watch the mime with them in the Tribunal. Corylus had refused, politely but without hesitation.

Part of Varus deplored the stiff-necked determination of a sturdy provincial not to look like a rich man’s toady. There was no question of anything of the sort: Varus just wanted his friend to sit with him at this lengthy event.

On the other hand, if Carce’s citizens hadn’t been so stiff-necked and determined, the city would not rule all the land from Mesopotamia to the Atlantic, from the German Sea to Nubia. Logically, Varus would admit that being without his friend’s presence was a cheap price to pay for an empire.

In his heart, though, he wasn’t sure. Corylus was a soldier’s son and destined for the army himself. He had grown up on the Rhine and the Danube, where mistakes meant not embarrassment and expense but death in whatever fashion barbarian ingenuity could contrive. Corylus projected calm.

Varus needed calm right now. He wasn’t really watching the stately procession of treasures across the stage. That vision of the wizened old woman seated on a throne in the clouds, was becoming sharper in his mind.

She was the Cumean Sibyl, and she prophesied the approach of Chaos.