The fourth installment in the serialized version of Tros of Samothrace is titled “Hostages to Luck” and consists of what would become chapters 38 – 51 of the novel published in 1934. Set in winter at the beginning of the year 54 B.C., this story tells of the aftermath of Julius Caesar’s first invasion of Britain and was first published in the August 20th 1925 issue of Adventure magazine. It is available in a number of editions in book form or you can read it here at the invaluable library of Roy Glashan.
It is winter and Tros has begun to build the ship of his dreams and also to settle into married life. Marriage seems to be going well enough, but building the ship is complicated by problems with the morale of his men and tensions between his friend King Caswallon and the other kings of Britain. All of these issues are either caused or heightened by their enemy, Julius Caesar. After the failure of his spy and assassin Cornelia, Caesar has flooded Britain with his agents; their goal is not just to gather information for Rome’s next invasion but to sow discord among the Britons and if at all possible, sabotage Tros in any way they can.
These agents take advantage of the ancient traditions of hospitality that bind the Britons with the force of law (traditions that no Briton can even conceive that a guest would break) and two of them have gained entry to Caswallon’s court and thereby to the shipyard where Tros builds his ship. They are Marius and Galba; the first a seasoned centurion who is one of Caesar’s most trusted followers and the second is his Sicilian servant. Neither man attempts to hide the fact that they are spies for Caesar but they do more than just look; they offer Tros a position as Caesar’s admiral on one hand and make other offers to Tros’s men in attempts to sabotage both the new ship and its crew before it is even launched. They also bribe Skell to foment even more treachery and the dissent among the crew comes to a head in a series of roaring brawls.
Tros needs Sigurdsen; he is his brother-in-law and he won’t be able to finish his ship without the big man’s help, but even more he needs to be acknowledged as captain, ashore or afloat. He outwrestles the big Northman and throws him into the embers on the hearth; Sigurdsen rolls clear and is doused with a bucket of water by someone and laughed at by the other Northmen who mock him as a failed leader. It is the perfect opening for Tros:
He takes a length of oak wood and backs the Northmen into a corner where they have to defend themselves and that is when Sigurdsen joins him with a cudgel of his own because he can’t afford to have anyone beat Tros but himself. Together they give Sigurdsen’s blood relations a hiding until all hell breaks loose outside: the Britons who serve Tros think the Northmen have killed him and they clamor outside for everyone to make a break for the hills. These men are sentenced criminals and captured rebels given to Tros by his friend Caswallon and their leader is Glendwyr, a young nobleman who will do anything for freedom. Tros orders the Northmen to arm themselves with oak clubs and they rally to him against the threat from outside; he leads them outside into a howling blizzard to show the Britons who is in charge.
By the time Caswallon arrives with an impromptu relief force (led by the ever-treacherous Skell who first tried to set fire to the half-built ship), Tros has proven himself the leader to Sigurdsen, the Northmen and his Britons, giving him the beating heart of the magnificent crew he will need to man the ship of his dreams. Then he and Caswallon are called away by someone they cannot ignore: Taliesan, the Archdruid of Great Britain and the greatest of his order in living memory. They go to a council of kings held in Verulam by the Druids because such a council is the only way to deal with the rumors spread by Caesar’s agents and the fears caused by Caswallon’s attempts to raise an army big enough to oppose Caesar’s next invasion without blood being spilt.
The council is an interesting look at the author’s view of religion and politics in pre-roman Britain, but it is cut short by two disasters that strike one after the other. First, Taliesan, the only man who could have rallied all of the kingdoms of Britain behind Caswallon to stand against Rome, dies literally while trying to draw the breath needed for his pronouncement. Second, word comes from Lunden that the Romans have done the unthinkable; they have violated the laws of hospitality and kidnapped both Helma and Queen Fflur (along with a handful of her personal followers)! The council breaks up without deciding anything and with Tros and Caswallon speeding back to the shipyard to get a ship to sea as soon as they can. On the way, Tros persuades the reluctant king and the valiant Orwic to pay a visit to the strangest of allies: Eough the Sorcerer.
Eough is the leader of the charcoal-burners (who are a separate tribe all to themselves) and a dwarf, who has struck up an unlikely friendship with Tros. He is not really a sorcerer but he IS something of an alchemist, with a frightening ability to read the stars and an uncanny knack for sifting news out of rumor. He has taught Tros a formula for mixing sulfur, saltpeter, sawdust, resin and a few other things into a mixture that when burned will emit great heat and a horrible stench. Now Tros has the glimmerings of an idea of how to force Caesar to give them back their wives and their people but he needs Eough and some of his wood-crafty people to make it work. Surprisingly, Eough agrees but only if Tros will take ALL of the charcoal-burners and put them ashore in Gaul. The odd little man has read the stars and knows that war is coming to Britain and he wants to get his people behind it so they are not caught up in the fighting. He also knows that Caesar is doomed to die in his own time and place; he warns them that they cannot kill him and they will bring doom upon themselves if they even try. Tros agrees and persuades Caswallon to go along without killing Eough, who has the Britons badly frightened.
Tros gathers his forces (which includes Glendwyr as a scout and a dozen lead balls filled with Eough’s concoction and fitted with fuses) and sets his plan in motion; his only seaworthy ship is the long ship he captured from the Northmen and he sets to sea with it packed to the rails with Northmen and charcoal-burners. His plan (Tros never tells anyone how much of his ‘plan’ is just being prepared to seize any opportunities that present themselves) starts off well enough: Caswallon takes a boat to drop Glendwyr off and runs into Marius and Galba, the Roman spies that kidnapped their wives and were on their way to report to Caesar when a vengeful Caswallon rams their boat and hacks them down. The ship carrying Fflur and Helma couldn’t be intercepted so they proceed with the plan. They land a number of charcoal-burners and a force of Northmen near the small camp containing Caesar’s tent and his guards (the larger camp holding the Tenth Legion is on the other side of a small river) and wait while Eough’s people gather loads of firewood to sell to the camp quartermaster. The plan is for Eough to plant lead balls in each stack of firewood and ignite them that night, but while they are waiting for that signal, tragedy strikes. Glendwyr, wounded, finds Tros and leads him to Helma who is near death with a Roman arrow in her back. Glendwyr had found Fflur and Helma; he had managed to speak with them, but Helma choose to attempt to escape with him and both were wounded. Helma dies in Tros’s arms after asking Tros to free Glendwyr and saying farewell to her husband. Tros frees Glendwyr and has Helma’s body taken back to the long ship while his small force waits for Eough to complete his task. The dwarf does so and each of the lead balls not only sends up a stench but explodes, blowing Caesar’s camp apart and panicking both man and beast.
Tros and his force attack under the cover of this chaos and cut their way into the smaller Roman camp to find Caesar stricken by an epileptic seizure, guarded by a single trumpeter who blows his horn madly until felled by a northman’s axe. Tros grabs Caesar and they make a run for the coast, aided by a dense fog. They set Eough and his people ashore and then wait for Caesar to recover from his seizure, knowing that they can’t kill him but desperate to win Fflur’s freedom. Tros and Caswallon find themselves in a battle of wits with Caesar once he is himself again but manage to make a bargain: Caesar’s freedom in exchange for Fflur, a ship load of tin that Tros knows of and a letter signed by Caesar himself naming Tros the admiral of Caesar’s fleet. Caesar attempts a trick but Tros and his friend are wary enough not to fall for it. They free Fflur and all of Caswallon’s people in Roman hands and then row for the open sea as fast as they can to avoid the ships that Caesar is sure to send after them.
Helma is Tros’s wife for only a dozen or so chapters but she has a lasting influence; it will be years before Tros allows another woman that close to him. Her death is not an accident or something that happens to a hapless victim; she chooses to attempt to escape knowing full well that she may not survive it. So why not just wait and see what happens? Tros confided completely in his wife and she knew just how dangerous Caesar and Rome were and how she might be used as a hostage against her husband and his allies. She chose escape knowing that success meant freedom and failure meant death but in either case she would cease to be Caesar’s pawn; she and her unborn child would no longer be hostages to luck.
Tros’s adventures continue in the next installment “Admiral of Caesar’s Fleet”.
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