Editor’s Note: Hannibal’s Witch, by Robin Craig, blends science fiction, alternative history, and a hint of fantasy into a thought-provoking epic. Angela Milton is an ordinary young woman studying history and languages. At a lavish party for Bitcoin millionaires, she encounters a heady atmosphere of tequila and dreams of New Phoenicia, a world of wealth and trade beyond borders and controls. Then she awakens in ancient Carthage, millennia before her time. As she travels with the great Phoenician general Hannibal on his epic journey across the Alps to attack the heart of Rome itself, Angela wrestles with the questions that might define or end her life. Is any of this real? Is it all just a dream, or worse, a madness she cannot escape? If it is real, can she change history, or will the attempt destroy her? And if she can change history: should she?
Chapter 17 of the novel is excerpted here as part of The Writers Series – our highly popular monthly series that features the work of contemporary novelists influenced by Ayn Rand.
How many of my men still live?
Somehow the Carthaginian dogs have defeated our army. It is not my place to blame my commander, though his rashness was surely part of our downfall. My own maniple was cut off and decimated; after fierce fighting I and a handful of my men broke free. We could do nothing but flee and hope to join up with a larger group; to retreat or fight some more I cannot yet say. Perhaps we will meet other refugees from our maniple. I hope so, but however many of us live or die the battle is lost.
We stumble into a clearing. What I see chills me to my bones. A woman stands nearby, her gaze fixed on her view of the battle’s end as hair the color of dried blood whips around her face.
Despite the cold she is dressed only in a filmy gown of the richest purple, and the sight is so unexpected that for a moment I imagine this is all a dream.
Then I know what she is.
“Hannibal’s witch!” I cry.
Time seems to slow. Startled, the woman’s gaze turns toward us, as do the faces of her guards. We are badly outnumbered and cannot win. But we can strike a blow for Rome; and if the witch falls, maybe in the confusion some of us may escape. Even if we do not, we die in glory.
I signal my men, and feel pride at how quickly and unreservedly they form into a spearhead, myself positioned behind its point, and rush towards the woman. Her guards snarl and run to intercept us, but I know they will be too late. They engage my men, but our wedge breaks through their scattered ranks, the tip of our formation peels apart, and like an arrow from a bow I charge at the witch.
I see the look of shock on her strange face and expect her to turn and flee, knowing it will not help her: I am already bearing down on her, and before she can take more than a few steps I will be upon her and easily cut her down.
But she surprises me. Though unarmed, she crouches into an odd stance, facing me with arms wide as if embracing death. I am happy to oblige her and thrust my sword into her stomach: but she is no longer there! With the speed of a snake, somehow she has twisted her body to evade my stroke. But I am a Roman soldier, and my training is equal to her tricks. I twist my own body and arms, changing direction mid thrust and slashing my blade into her side and down toward her groin. Yet still she has the strength to grab my arm as she twists her body beneath me, and somehow I find myself in the air for a moment before crashing down onto my back! The breath is driven from my body, and as I lie there struggling to recover, the woman spins and stamps her foot hard on my wrist. My sword falls from my paralyzed hand, and before I can react she has scooped it up and holds it at my throat, driving it in deep enough for the point to draw blood, and I know I am about to die.
I lie here in shock, still struggling to force breath into my chest, wondering how I come to be lying helpless on my back when it should be her lying dead on the ground; my gaze darting between the sky above and her wounded side. I expect to see her organs spilling to the ground and her lifeblood spurting after them as she collapses. Yet she stands there, intact and unharmed. I have time only to wonder why she delays my own death.
Then I see her guards running toward us. My men are gone; dead or captured. The lead guard has a look of murder in his eyes and I watch him come, prepared to die as a Roman. But the woman holds up her hand and says something in their foreign tongue. The guards stop, their swords still pointed in my direction but their violence stayed for now.
My eyes keep returning to her side, which should bear a mortal wound yet is untouched except for the mark of my sword on its cloth; my mind can grasp neither that nor how I ended up helpless on my back, bested like a child by an unarmed woman. Finally able to breathe, I gasp, “You are a witch!”
She stares at me and I wonder if she can understand me. Then she speaks again to her men. I wince as heavy feet stamp on my arms, then two more swords press at my throat. Now she withdraws my sword, steps back and briefly regards me with her unholy eyes, the color of the sky. Giving me a dire look, she slides my own sword up between my legs and I fear she intends to castrate me here and now; but at the last moment she stops. She stares at me silently, but her message is clear: my life and future are in her hands, and anything left to me is at her choice and mercy.
If her purpose is to concentrate my mind on her and her words, she has succeeded admirably.
“I am no witch, tribune,” she finally says in a low voice in my own language, accented but comprehensible. “If I were a witch, I would remove the useless parts of your manhood one by one, roast them over the fire and make you eat them!”
“With a nice chianti,” she adds mysteriously. I do not know what this means or why she seems to find it amusing. I think I prefer never to find out what this ‘chianti’ is or what it might do to me.
“Then what are you? How do you still live? How did you toss me like a leaf onto the ground?”
“What I am is not your concern. You Romans think you should rule the world, yet it is far bigger than you can imagine and holds mysteries you cannot conceive of. Just know that the gods can be capricious and they can be cruel, but they can also be merciful. I leave you alive for a purpose. We have been enemies today, Roman, and may be again: but enemies can respect each other, can they not? Or is that also a concept beyond Roman understanding?”
“What purpose?” I ask, striking for the heart of the matter. “What price will you demand of me?” “You have but to swear to do the task I set you, and you and your surviving men can go free and unharmed.”
“I will never betray Rome, witch, not even for my life!”
“I do not ask you to betray Rome. I can see in your heart that you are an honorable man. For many men, honor is as cheap as their souls, do you not agree? But I would not ask a man such as you to dishonor himself.”
I do not answer. How can those eyes penetrate even into my soul?
“What is your name, Tribune?”
I fear giving her my name, for what power might that give her over me? I know little of the ways of sorcerers. So I give her the name of a friend of mine who died in his youth; if even he is not beyond her power then we are all doomed.
She looks at me for a moment. “Truly you are a son of Rome, Publius Critonius,” she replies with a faint smile. I do not know if this means I have fooled her, or not; and if not, whether her remark is a compliment or damnation.
“No, Publius Critonius, I will not ask you to betray Rome. I ask only that you help Rome. Take them my message. Tell your Senate what transpired here today. Tell them that the gods favor Hannibal. Tell them that the gods who favor Hannibal are merciful, and do not seek the destruction of Rome, merely its accord with the men of Carthage.”
“Why should they believe you? Why should I?”
She shrugs, as if our belief or lack of it is of no moment. “You do not have to believe it. You merely have to report the truth and relay my words. You know what happened here. Rome thinks the whole world must bow before them. The truth is much greater than that, and the two of us are a symbol of it, Critonius. You thought I was easy prey, yet here I stand. Then you thought I would kill you, yet here you breathe. You feared I might take your manhood, yet I leave you your future. These are my words to you, and my only concern is that Rome hears them. What you say about them and what they do about them is not my concern.”
She transfixes me with her gaze and adds darkly, “But understand, Roman. I do not care what you do about them, but your future and that of your people hinges upon it.”
I look at her speculatively. I am willing to die; but not so stupid that I would die for nothing. “And that is all?” I ask, unable to keep the suspicion out of my voice.
“Swear by your manhood,” she says, poking me there with the sword for emphasis, “by your honor and by your gods. Swear that you will carry the message I asked and that you will leave in peace, not attacking any person of Carthage until after you have returned to Rome. Then you and your men will be free to go.”
I look at my sword, held in her hands. It would shame me to return to my family without it. “And my sword?” I ask.
“I will keep your sword, Roman, for I won it in battle, and not even equal battle. But you may take any other sword you choose from among your fallen comrades, to defend yourself on your journey.”
My eyes wander: to my surviving men, to her miraculously intact body, to her burning blue eyes.
“Will… do you swear you will not force us to act against Rome?”
She laughs. “Courage as well as honor! I would not like to slay you, Critonius, but consider where your sword now lies: you are in no position to demand oaths from me. But I will tell you, as between people of honor: I ask only that you carry my message, and do not kill any more of my people while you do so.”
I can die here; but would I then die honorably, or as a fool? Perhaps Rome is indeed better off knowing the things I have learned. If this woman wishes to control my mind and force me to betray Rome against my will, why would she go through this pretense of oaths and promises?
“Very well,” I finally agree. “I swear to you before my men and the gods that I shall carry your message in peace to the Senate of Rome. This I swear by my manhood, my honor and the gods of my household and Rome.”
She stares at me as if again looking into my soul, then nods to her men, who withdraw their swords from my throat but not from my direction. I rise cautiously and walk over to my men, who take the same oath.
Then I turn to her. “I have done as you have commanded.”
She nods and turns to her men, again giving them instructions in their own language, before turning back to me.
“I have told them to escort you to the edge of the clearing and release you.”
Then she adds in her implacable voice, “I have also told them that if you resist, tarry or return, to kill you all.”
I look regretfully at my sword as I collect its replacement. I turn to her again: “But what of my fallen comrades?”
“We will treat them honorably. Go!”
We walk to the end of the clearing, half expecting treachery despite her words. But we are not molested when we reach the trees. When we are hidden from view but still able to see into the clearing, I stop and look back. She is still standing where I left her, looking in our direction as if she knows I am looking at her; holding my sword down at an angle like some avenging god or Fury. Then she turns on her heel and strides imperiously back into her tent, as if to underline not only that she knows I am watching, but that it is of no consequence to her.
I stand there for long moments, wondering what manner of creature this is. Then I signal to my men, and we vanish into the forest.
At last in the safety of my tent and away from the eyes of friends and enemies, I allow the sword to drop to the ground with a clatter and I collapse onto a stool. The dam of the tension holding me together now broken, I sit and sob into my hands, my whole body shaking.
Gingerly I feel my damaged side. I fear I have some cracked ribs, though they appear to remain unbroken, so my lungs are probably safe from jagged bone. Whatever the state of my ribs, the tenderness tells me I will be blessed with some spectacular bruises for a while yet. But the technological miracle of my gown has saved my life even if it has not saved me from pain.
My reflexes had not deserted me, but nor were they quite good enough. If I had ever thought that a Roman Tribune would be some effete aristocrat, this man has taught me better. But he was forced to overextend himself in his attack, thus granting me the momentum of his own strength. Then my body used its training in modern martial arts, honed over how many centuries, against him; and it was over before either of us knew it.
I expect Hannibal will be furious at me for letting them go, and I don’t know how I can explain psychological warfare to him. But really, these people are like children, as superstitious in their beliefs as they are unrestrained in their emotions.
I hope I can rely on this man’s honor. I told him I could see he was honorable: a safe enough claim, as how many men are not honorable in their own eyes? But will it be enough? And will it have any effect at all on the future?
I hope he will live to take my message to Rome. If I knew which God to pray to, I would pray I will also live long enough to find out whether he did.