To The Parched Throat, No Poison is Avoided
‘Nothing?’ I echoed, in exasperation.
‘Nothing, Ducenarius. Not a bloody thing.’
The tired legionary waited beside me while I shaded my eyes and again peered down into the husk of the fort. He was sweating heavily in his armour and helmet and looking at me warily. The men around me were silent - watching the fort below uneasily. A few were glancing backwards deep in the dusk and the shadows of the Harra to see if the main column had appeared yet. I knew it wouldn’t. We had made good time ahead of that column under Cassianus and it was at least an hour behind us as the sun moved. I turned my gaze back upon the sweating legionary.
‘Are you sure?’
‘I know it makes no sense, Ducenarius.’ He scowled back towards the walls and ramparts. ‘Octavio himself made me run back here and report. We searched everywhere, we did.’
Below us in that little dip stood the castellum of Nasranum all empty and still and its gates wide open. I had ordered my Centenarius Octavio to take the posterior century down into the fort and report back on what he found while I had remained up here on the lip of the dune with the prior century, ready to advance if needed. We had watched those lads under the little Umbrian dart forwards and advance into the fort in good skirmish order, covering each other. For a moment, I had held my breath as they entered through the wide flanking portals of the northern gateway but nothing had happened and presently they had appeared upon the ramparts moving swiftly about the perimeter. There was no movement of surprise from within the fort. No trap sprung. No cries of alarm. Nothing. And then this legionary had sprinted back up to me from the fort, covered in sweat, and reported that the whole fort was empty and deserted. The actual phrase he had used was as empty as an emperor’s sacred pay chest but I had ignored that. I looked again back into the fort. The heat caused waves of air to dance around it making it difficult to discern anything clearly from here on the dune. I saw what I thought was Octavio walking along the nearside rampart and gesturing with his open hands as if to say ‘nihilum but I could not be sure.
I swore under my breath and scuffed the sand about my feet. ‘The gateways then -'
The legionary shrugged with that flat manner all soldiers have who are merely reporting someone else’s bad omens. ‘All open, Ducenarius.’
‘They haven’t been forced open?’ My voice was getting edgier for this made no sense. By my side, I noticed Suetonius scratching the down on his jaw and frowning.
‘Nothing. The Centenarius bade me tell you it is as if that praepositus just lit out with all his numeri and the slaves and the infirm and . . . well . . . he said . . .’ he trailed away apologetically.
‘Spit it out,’ I said, almost dreading what he was going to utter next.
He shrugged. ‘Well, the Centenarius said it was as if he had forgot to lock up, Ducenarius.’
‘Why would Aemilianus abandon the fort and leave the gateways open? Are you certain there was no sign of fighting? Soot on the walls or broken weapons? The ground trampled over? Anything?’
He opened his mouth to reply but I already knew the answer and turned away from him in disgust. This was yet another riddle here in the Harra. One I could well do without. I could understand if Nasranum had been taken in a sudden assault - indeed, had half expected something of that ilk on the march back but had pushed it away in my mind - but to find it empty and untouched as though he had simply got up and walked out made no sense to me at all. I looked down the line of the century around me and saw my own confusion mirrored in the faces of those men too. If there is one thing guaranteed to unnerve soldiers it is a mystery in which the will of the gods cannot be divined.
The air was still and oppressive now that the sun was dipping into that purple dusk which always seems to mark the Harra. Ahead of me, down in that slight hollow where the fort lay, I could see various tent-squads searching the interior but now moving slowly aware that any immediate danger was over. Cursing inwardly, I beckoned Suetonius over with the biarchii of the prior century. The men that assembled about me were tired and dirty, glancing over towards Nasranum with an almost eager eye - and I knew that no matter what mystery lay inside, I could not put off my decision any longer.
‘Move the century into fort,’ I began. ‘Suetonius, take Naxos here with his contubernales and do a wide patrol around the perimeter. Be methodical and do not stray out of sight of the fort. Understand?’ He nodded back. ‘Good. All you remaining men, take your conturbernia into the fort and relieve Octavio. Order him to dismiss the posterior century so that they can start settling down for the night. This century will take the first watch until the main column arrives. Dismissed.’
They hurried away from me, eager to get the men inside. For a moment, I stood alone on the rim of the dune, watching them scamper down the sands, over the black dust and those fragments of bone and weapon shards which littered the immediate proximity of the fort, and I wondered again on what had happened here. The sun was swelling now into a great misty wound on the far western horizon, flaming the dunes and hillocks of the Black Desert in a prophesy of dying light while long tongues of ink seeped towards the fort below. I saw Suetonius and Naxos descend a little into the lower reaches of sand and then skirt eastwards, their contubernales in a wide open skirmish line, jogging as best they could through the hard rocks and desert. The fading light coruscated against the walls and gate towers of the fort like a molten wave and from that fluid crash I saw sparkles and glints of javelin tip and shield rim. The prior century moved quickly into the main northern gateway, a little trail of dust kicking up behind them, and soon I glimpsed them fanning out along the ramparts as the men of the posterior century under Octavio fell back into the main ground of the fort in relief. So few men in so a large fort that I wondered for a moment on the absurdity of it all.
Over to the south of the fort I glimpsed the Black Gate, or the Negra Porta, as the rank and file nicknamed it, even as a small knot of legionaries now sweated to heave the burnt portals shut and let fall the heavy wooden bar. It was a black stain, this Negra Porta, a witness to who knew what horror or atrocity in the past. I wondered again on the fact that all four of the gateways were wide open. A siege or sudden assault would never leave such evidence and I could not fathom what had happened here. Where was Aemilianus and his numeri? Where the remaining slaves and baggage-handlers? The wounded and the hangers-on - the women and the servants? Why was Nasranum simply empty?
I stood alone on that lip of the dune looking down into the low hollow towards the fort. To the slight east and over my left shoulder stood a dim hazy mark in the dying light where the Nabatean ruin stood like a stubbly fist with a crumpled finger holding forth. It was nothing but a shade in the light, a slight hardening in the heat-saturated air of the evening. I turned around and far in the distance northwards thought I saw a tuft of dust that was the main column advancing slowly out of the Harra towards the fort. It would be here soon and Cassianus would quickly loose that pleased face he was carrying now. For a moment I wondered on those little ragged numeri in the march and what they would think when they arrived here to find their commander missing as if he had never existed. I did not know whether to smile or scowl at that. Over to the west, into that falling sea of fire over the dunes, lay a far distant Bosana and the Roman respublica, over eight day’s march away. It might has well have been Rome itself for all the good those eight days were. I raised my hand to the helmet rim and shaded my eyes looking into that west. I remembered the day we released our old standards and took up the new ones so cherished by Valens Augustus - the labarum and monogram of this Christ - and it seemed as if it was a different age. A simpler time when Romans were Romans and barbarians were barbarians. Now it seemed as if this religion of Christ was blurring even those boundaries and now we stood on uneven ground that shifted like a Persian mechanism, revealing and then concealing even as we turned to face it.
We stood now on a ground that shimmered as we strode across it.
I stood surrounded by cardinal points: the fort before me, the Nabatean tower towards my left, the Dux behind me, and far far away on my right what little was left of a Rome I could scarcely recall. And under me only the dark sands of an uncertain present. On a whim I turned slowly tracing a circle in the black dust about me with my spatha tip, runnelling that sand in a deep ditch about a foot from me. I stood in the still point of a shallow circle, its little walls tumbling in with that eternal seep of the desert, and wondered on what peace I could find at that centre. I looked west back towards an unseen Rome swollen in that monstrous light of a sunset and then to Oblivion below me and then up towards that faint tumble of ruins and finally back towards to oncoming column, its little haze of dust heralding its arrival.
I stood alone in a centre as absolute as death and which lay marked by ruin, betrayal, oblivion and destruction. They say the gods mark our doom in omens but that we do not see them. Our eyes are blind and our ears deaf. Only in our dreams does the truth seep in and then it is always twisted and rent apart into fragments. I stood alone and knew that it only takes a moment of clarity to see such things as if a veil is rent aside. I stood then and saw as clearly as if the oracles themselves were whispering into my ears. And what I saw brought an ache into my heart such as I had never known in the past - not even after Palladius had fallen into his doom, the helmet cracking, the petals flaking. It was an ache which clutched at my heart as if a hand wrenched it. I gasped then and staggered slightly in the heat and the sunset wash. Below me, that circle was filling in like a fossa giving way to the enemy. Then it was gone as if it had never existed.
I fell to my knees, the spatha rammed into the ground for support. My head sank onto my chest and I gasped like a fish out of water, my breath coming in great rending sobs. To dream awake and see the doom wrought upon you is something I would wish on no man. To find yourself alone and surrounded by portents that speak as thunder is worse than to be deaf. I am a Roman and in my blood lie all the ancient gods of our ancestors. It is no easy thing to turn your back upon a thousand generations of ritual and belief. So is it no wonder that those gods that walk still among us breathe now dark things upon those who still walk that ancient path? That those gods had brought me to this place here and now and placed those cardinal points about me, I did not doubt. Their message was plain. It had washed over me in a moment of revelation and now I was on my knees in surprise.
Perhaps Aemilianus had been so blessed too, I wondered, as I raised myself up, still shaking. Perhaps he had seen what I had seen and was now in Elysium, laughing in the groves of olive trees, with his Augustus beside him. Perhaps -
And then I saw it.
Snaking slowly out of that wash of sunset fire. A small column - long and thin with a weave of tattered dust rising up in its wake. It seemed to emerge from the dying light as if birthed by it. Men and animals in a small column drifting with no sense of urgency - indeed, even as I saw them, small lights began to wink on in the encroaching dusk as torches were lit and passed down the column. Dust blurred their outlines but it was not enough to obscure a small column moving slowly in a loose order towards the fort. I turned around almost in disbelief only to see our column moving now closer but still behind me - for one mad moment I had imagined that Cassianus had re-routed the force around my right flank - but he had not. There it was now about a mile behind me, the skirmishers visible on the outward dunes, the unarmoured clibanarii drifting casually along the flanks, the mules and wagons in the centre. No, this was another column converging on Nasranum from Bosana and the west. It would arrive before ours and even as I watched I heard faint cries of alert drift up from the ramparts below. Legionaries were scuttling along the western walls and gate towers - while a small clump of men clustered above the gates, pointing westwards. I saw Suetonius and Naxos veer their perimeter patrol and move out to intercept this column that even now was emerging more solidly from the fires of the light into the deep shadows of the dusk. Two torches flared up in the patrol’s hands.
I stepped then out of that circle that was now no more and made to join my men in the fort. As I did so, I took one last glance about me, taking in the fort, the advancing column, the lines of our own column converging towards me, and that lonely ruin some three stades to the left - and I did so, I saw little pin-pricks of light emerge from it to guard against the rapidly falling dusk. These pin-pricks seemed to flutter before slowly steadying - and then I knew, I knew, - and saw that even the gods in their dying days still jest with us out of affection. That even they were not above such sport even as we all turned our backs upon them and embraced this twisted corpse hung up on a slave’s cross.
I raced down to Nasranum through a river of tumbling sand into the deepening shadow, laughing at their caprice. Signs and portents surround us but also mock us for the gods must play or why else do we worship them?
Torches and oil lanterns flared along the ramparts of the castellum and I heard the old familiar Latin shouts of command. The northern gate way was still open and a small guard attended it as I ran up. It was only five men - all that was left of one contuburnium: the biarchus, Flavio and four weary men, all in hacked armour and dented helmets. I grinned into Flavio’s face and I saw him step back in surprise.
‘You - take your tent-squad and run up to the old Nabatean ruins,’ I ordered, breathlessly.
‘Ducenarius?’ he asked uncertainly.
‘Do it!’ I shouted back, as I strode past into the fort. ‘And tell that Gallic bastard to stop skulking up there and get his sore arse back into the fort. We have a relief column from Bosana!’
He almost dropped his shield in surprise at my words.
‘That’s right, Biarchus. Aemilianus is holed up in the ruins. Now move!’
And as I entered under that looming gate way, I thanked the gods that they still played with us. Better that than the cosmic emptiness of their disdain. Better that than silence and ennui. Better their sport in these dying days as a bitter salve against this anaemic god who saves all whether they deserve it or not. For the Roman god laughs where the Christian one weeps.