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Banners in the Mist:
a quarterly newsletter
delving deep into the past

Hi! I'm Joyce Holt, writer of historical fantasy.

Eventually I'll use this venue to offer sneak peaks of my forthcoming novels. For now, while my career is in the limbo-land of waiting to hear back from agents, I'll devote this quarterly newsletter to glimpses into the past, not necessarily related to my body of work.

World News

January 1, 241 AD

reprinted January 1, 2017   - -   Volume 4 Number 1

    on Kamchatka

The Horrendous Death
    of Mount Ksudach

ASIA: Kamchatka--

Winter solstice is always a gloomy time of year here on the Kamchatkan peninsula, but now the skies sag under the weight of clouds darker than burial shrouds, and winter winds stab to the bone like death's spear.

Ash still rains from the heavy skies. The ground still trembles from time to time, though nothing like the terrible upheaval back in the fall. Wrack and ruin still clutter the beaches, a fearful reminder of the huge waves that washed away three whole villages.

With no word from our southern kin since the disaster, a small group of hunters made a grueling trek to southern Kamchatka to learn their fate.

They return now with sobering tales of a landscape flayed and scorched.

Whole forests, flattened.

A powdery, silty, barren plain smothering the verdant valleys.

A magestic peak, blown away.

And where that mountain -- the king of all creation -- once sprawled across the heights, there now spreads a deathly lake, roiling with scalding water like a great boiling cauldron, steaming beneath the heavy clouds.

Not a living soul remains to tell the horrors of that day when the mountain belched death and destruction, when the sun fled, when an unending winter clamped Kamchatka in its icy grip.

A caldera lake, all that remains of the volcano Ksudach...
until it rises again

Of Unicorns
  and Aurochs

Mysteries of the Hercynian Woods

Hercynian Forest

EUROPE: Galish-Lovacka [Mukacheve],
Province of Dacia [Subcarpathian Rus': west point of Ukraine]

Officers from the Legio V Macedonica (Fifth Macedonian Legion) today descended on this town nestled on the southern flanks of the Carpathian mountains. Their purported mission was to inspect the iron-smelting ovens that have been based here since Celtic times, but all talk in the taverns seems to center upon hunting in the Hercynian Forest.

The local Free Dacians warn these runty imperials from mild, balmy southlands about the perils in the deep dark woods of the Carpathian heights. Wintertime is especially dangerous, and this winter more than most.

A strange high cloud cover veils the sun, and temperatures have plummeted. Wild boars and bears attack anyone in their path, as do the hulking aurochs bulls. Packs of wolves, gaunt and ravenous, grow ever bolder. Snowpack is deeper than anytime in memory, and drift-buried gullies can swallow man and horse.

But the swaggering Romans must have their sport. Tavern talk echoes with the phrase, "bos cervi figura" -- ox in the shape of a deer, in the words of Julius Caesar. Roman faces glow with fervor for the hunt, and quoting something they call a bestiary, they name the creature, "unicornuus."

the fabulous unicornuus, or bos cervi figura

As Free Dacians leave the taverns, they snigger at those foolish foreignors. "Deer-shaped ox" obviously refers to our native reindeer, unknown in the south. Note: the beast certainly is not one-horned.

It won't do to insult the Romans, however. The Pax Romana is a fragile peace. Dacia barely maintains its independence on the border of the Roman Empire, processing iron ore from the Batar River valley, guarding the Amber Road that crosses the mountains from the north, and coaxing a different kind of amber from Dacia's famous beehives.

our not so fabulous reindeer,
fauna of the Carpathian mountains

HISTORY: Back And Forth In Dacia

Dacia's iron-smelting ovens were first set into major operation by the Boii, Anartii, and Teurisci -- Celtic tribes who dwelt in this region five centuries ago.

The Romans greedily eyed our lands -- rich in iron ore and precious metals; ripe with wheat fields, vinyards and orchards; lush with forests and wild game. Julius Caesar himself planned to invade, but fortunately met his demise before he had a chance to act.

Later Roman emperors attacked our fair land of Dacia:
  • Two hundred years ago, Drusus tried to foray into our forested mountain homeland, but to no avail.
  • A century and a half ago, Domitian pushed deep into our territory, then formed a treaty of peace, demanding annual tributes.
  • A dozen years after that, Trajan broke the treaty, greedy for utter domination. He conquered our capital city Sarmizegethusa, though he never mastered pronunciation of that venerable name! We've never forgiven his plundering of our lands, for he hauled back to Rome over 165 tons of gold and 330 tons of silver.
  • A little more than a hundred years ago, Hadrian divided our land into Dacia Superior and Dacia Inferior.
  • Fifty-six years ago, Commodus stationed the 5th Macedonian Legion at our town of Potaissa.

Romans taking over a conquered town

Even now, in the reign of young Gordian III, the Romans perpetuate rumors from their ignorant past about the Hercynian Forest. More than 250 years ago, Julius Caesar wrote:
"It is certain that many kinds of wild beast are produced in it which have not been seen in other parts… There is an ox of the shape of a stag, between whose ears a horn rises from the middle of the forehead, higher and straighter than those horns which are known to us. From the top of this, branches, like palms, stretch out a considerable distance. The shape of the female and of the male is the same; the appearance and the size of the horns is the same. [Reindeer, of course! snicker, snicker ]

"There are also animals which are called elks. The shape of these, and the varied color of their skins, is much like roes, but in size they surpass them a little and are destitute of horns, and have legs without joints and ligatures; nor do they lie down for the purpose of rest, nor if they have been thrown down by any accident, can they raise or lift themselves up. Trees serve as beds to them; they lean themselves against them, and thus reclining only slightly, they take their rest… [No joints??? LOL! What ignorant fools these Romans are!]

"There is a third kind, consisting of those animals which are called uri. These are a little below the elephant in size, and of the appearance, color, and shape of a bull. Their strength and speed are extraordinary; they spare neither man nor wild beast…" [The aurochs, obviously.]

the formidable wild aurochs,
terror of the steppes and forest fringes

Hercynian Forest coloring page

Lines of Solstice,
  Circles of Eternity

Trenched and Ditched
  in the Amazon Basin

Kuhikugu, Xingu River, [Mato Grosso,] Brazil--

Kuhikugu village

Summer solstice ceremonies at last are winding down in this riverside community. At dawn today the chief appeared at the door to his longhouse, holding the traditional bow and arrows as badge of his rank. He spoke of the continued need for prayers and songs to implore the return of summer sunshine.

Never has summer been so cool and dim, say the elders of the village of Kuhikugu on the banks of the Xingu ("shin-goo") River. The sun is like a coal covered with ash, gray and cooling.

The manioc fields are not thriving in the cooler weather, though the fish ponds seem unaffected. Even children sense the looming tragedy, should the sun not return to its former glory.

A delegation of shamans from all the neighboring villages set out a full moon ago on a pilgrimage to the holy places -- far to the west, high up the headwaters of the great river.

There at the Iquiri River they have spent many days fasting and praying and entreating the gods, ceremonies performed solemnly in the holy circles and squares.

Dug into the living soil by countless workers in the past, the great universal shapes write our hopes across the landscape. Surely they will attract the attention of the gods and earn their grace.

geoglyphs near Ituzi/Iquiri River
in Acre, Brazil

Besides circles and squares, it is said that the holy shapes include ovals, octagons, hexagons, rectangles, and half-circles like the moon.

The lines of earthwork are dug to the depth of two men, and the soil piled in a berm alongside, as tall as one man. A typical great holy shape, it is said, stretches wide and long enough to hold a whole village with room to spare.

Such technique we use at home, as well, in laying out our villages. All is orderly, and squared with the heavens. Our own main road leads straight as an arrow toward the rising of the summer solstice sun -- which now wanes as pale and feeble as a winter sun.

Oh please, lords above, fan the sun into flame again!

Cresting the Flood
Artisans and architecture
    triumph over the tide

Muskingum River (Ohio)--

Heavy clouds have blanketed the sky for three months straight. The elders calculated the sacred date of winter solstice, but still the heavens remain closed.

It bodes ill for the coming year not to get a glimpse of the setting solstice sun, sighted along the boulevard at the heart of our town.

copper disk
(the width of a man's palm)
symbol of folk along
Muskingum River

Rain falls constantly, flooding the Muskingum River below the town walls. Should it creep even higher, the townfolk will find their houses rising as islands upon their squared pyramidal bases of beaten earth.

Every household stands ready with canoes for such a flooding, so there need be no panic or distress. The river, after all, flows as lifeblood of the land, bringing trade to our very doorstep.

Let the winter rage! Our craftsmen work through the dark times, forging copper tools and decor, chipping blades from obsidian, preparing for another busy trade season.

other motifs common to this locale:
thunderbird, spider, serpent, and the weeping eye

Folk from afar travel here by land and by river, bringing exotic wares to trade. They also bring fables of distant places, of people who build in stone or sun-dried mud, of tribes who dwell in tents of hides or bark, of cities in the far south who dig downward to trench their town rather than upward as any enlightened civilization would do.

Such as our own prosperous trading center, here on the banks of the mighty Muskingum.

Citizen of the Year
Lauded for Integrity, Loyalty and Honor

AFRICA: Carthage, Province of Africa [Tunisia]--
Announcing "Northern Africa's Man of the Year" for the year 993 AUC*
as voted by the chastened and repentant citizens of Carthage:

Capellianus, Governor of Mauretania [Morocco].

Capellianus first came into the public limelight when appointed commander of the Legio III Augusta, the only legionary force in these lands south of the Mediterranean.

He was charged with ensuring a steady grain supply from Africa to Rome.
A man of steadfast integrity, Capellianus does not seek power and glory for himself but remains unswervingly loyal to the Empire as embodied by the Emperor of the moment.

(Jupiter knows there's been a confusing string of them lately, what with the power struggle between army and senate... and one assassination after another!)

Three years ago, Capellianus defended Emperor Maximinus Thrax's right to rule, and in so doing caused the deaths of Carthaginian rebels Gordianus I and Gordianus II.

As Fortuna would have it, Gordianus III was lawfully acclaimed Emperor within a matter of months, after the death of Maximinus by assassination.

Young Emperor Gordianus III disbanded Capellianus' Legion as punishment for the deaths of his uncle and grandfather, but Capellianus bore his new emperor no ill will.

Just last year another rebellion ignited at Carthage, led by proconsul Sabinianus. Once again our hero Capellianus rode to the defense of law and order and the honor of the duly-appointed emperor, Gordianus III, his former foe.

All hail Capellianus, man of integrity, loyalty and honor!

coins struck with the image of young Emperor Gordian III

Upcoming Grand Celebrations:

-- In nineteen days, Gordian III will celebrate his sixteenth birthday!

-- Gordian III announces his betrothal to Furia Sabinia Tranquillina!    

* AUC: "ab urbe condita": from the founding of the city [Rome: established 753BC]

Roman Intrigue:
A bed of unrest in Carthage

March 22, 991 AUC,
the 3rd year of the rule of Emperor Maximinus Thrax
The people of Carthage -- Senate supporters for the most part -- broke into rebellion against Army-supported Emperor Maximinus. The Carthaginians had persuaded elderly, former-Governor Gordianus to vie for Rome's throne, jointly with his son Gordianus II. With backing from the Senate, they organized a defense by arming the citizens of Carthage.

In faithful service to his emperor, Capellianus marshalled his legion to march against the rebels.

April 12, 991 AUC
The untrained rebels didn't stand a chance against Legatus Capellianus and his Third Legion. Gordianus II fell in battle. When Gordianus I received that news, he committed suicide, and the revolt was over.

Capellianus was rewarded with the governorship of the nearby province of Mauretania. Peace returned to Northern Africa.

But the heartland was not as lucky. Maximinus marched on Rome in a fury, threatening vengeance upon those traitorous Senators.

April 22, 991 AUC
The Senate made a pre-emptive strike by electing two of their members to supplant Maximinus as new co-emperors. Then by popular demand they added a third co-emperor: none other than the grandson of the late Gordianus I (and nephew of the late Gordianus II): Gordianus III.

Just three years into his rule, Maximinus had lost the trust and respect of his men. They assassinated him rather than continue their assault upon Mother Rome.

Then someone assassinated the two Senatorial co-emperors, leaving Gordian III alone at the helm -- at the tender age of 13.

In retribution for the deaths of his grandfather and uncle, Emperor Gordian III disbanded the Third Legion, leaving Northern Africa's armed forces undermanned.
Summer, 993 AUC
At Carthage, the capital city of the Province of Africa, the citizens rebelled against Gordian III and proclaimed Sabinianus Emperor.

Capellianus of Mauretania still had trained troops at his disposal. Though not a full legion, they proved more than enough to drive Carthage's untrained army (poorly trained city folk) back within city walls.

The panicking townsfolk surrendered and turned Sabinianus over to the victorious Capellianus. Once again our hero saved the day for the honor and glory of Rome!

the great city Carthage

Tiny Fish on Land...
...and elephants in the sea

AUSTRALIA: Lhere Mparntwe [Todd] river basin [Alice Springs]--

A wild thunderstorm swept across the land yesterday afternoon, pouring torrents of rain and hail -- and fish. Yes, it was raining fish. So say all the children who went out after the downpour to splash in streams and puddles.

Thousands of small spangled grunters flopped on the drenched landscape. Elders in the clan smiled at the children's wide-eyed tales of fish falling from the sky. The old folk know how high the rivers rise after a storm, spilling across the flat lands, stranding any fish that dares surf the surge.

Though small, the spangled grunter is a hardy creature. It doesn't mind the heavy silt of flood waters. It thrives even in shallow puddles, eating anything smaller than itself. Best of all, it's sweet and tasty! And easy to gather after a storm.
In summertime, dying cyclones often sweep in from distant seas, spilling torrents of water in the craggy heights [West MacDonnell Mountains] to the west of Lhere Mparntwe.

Deep, steep gorges channel the rainfall to ephemeral riverbeds which lie dry most of the year, springing to life after storms, sending their flow to vanish into desert sands.

The realm of lizards and wallabies -- the last place you'd expect to find swarms of flopping, stranded grunters.

FOLKLORE: Legend from India

Waterspouts are elephants' trunks
  which suck up fish from the sea,
    filling clouds borne on the wind
      to rain their unlikely catch upon the land.

A Gate Slamming Shut
Beneath Chisel Peak

Sedunum, Alpes Graiae et Poeninae
[Canton of Valais, Switzerland]

The glacier that cloaks the northern flank of Chisel Peak [Schnidehorn] threatens to wall off a popular pass into Germania Superior.

glacier on the north flank of Schnidehorn

Local Celts, of the Seduni tribe, recount tales from ages past of a massive ice wall closing off the high mountain route. During all two hundred years of occupation, Roman philosophers and well-educated aristocrats have inevitably scoffed at the absurd barbarian legend.

Scoffing falls silent now as the glacier front creeps downward day by day -- like the foot of an ice giant ready to block the mousehole taken by puny humankind across the spine of the land.

Chisel Pass [Schnidejoch] grants short access from the Rhône River valley to the upper watershed of the Aare River.

Short access, but difficult, fit only for hunters seeking mountain game like chamois, or for messengers from the Alpes Graiae capital at Forum Claudii Vallensium on urgent errands to upper Germania Superior.
If winters continue as severe as the current icy season, leading Chisel Glacier to slam shut the passage under Chisel Peak, messengers to northern reaches of Germania Superior must take the longer but easier route downstream through Agaunum (Saint-Maurice) to Lacus Lemannus (Lake Geneva), then northeast on the main Roman road to further corners of the province.

Word on the streets is that members of the league of messengers are secretly rooting for the triumph of Chisel Glacier. Taking the longer, less precipitous route, there are more taverns along the way!

northward view down from Schnidehorn

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