In The Night, In The Nefud, The Curse Falls
We fell into the Nefud more as a column of refugees than a Roman exercitus. As the dusk drew her skirts to her, we passed over that uneasy line between the Harra and the Crimson Waste, that Alij of the Saba, its Bleakness which had no true name, and as we crossed that tenuous boundary, that limitrophus no Roman or Greek dared own, we drifted slowly apart from each other, almost in awe of where we now trod . . .
We fell into the Nefud and those frozen waves rose up above us like the edges of giant razors, the dying light gleaming along the rim. Deep dark shadow enveloped us for we dared not traverse up and over those gigantic dunes but instead wove ourselves in amongst the troughs as we traversed along the bottom of a static and immutable sea of blood. Red fell upon us. Crimson encompassed our eyes. Scarlet rippled over our heads in a constant mist of dust and sand. And we - we marched slowly and in hushed tones far below those gleaming rims, in a pool of shadow and darkness that give us no relief. Above us towered a storm of waves and crests all poised as if a single god had reached down and stilled it all - but a god who might at any moment remove that hand and allow it to crash down upon us. And so the long column lengthened under this monumental arcade of curves. It lengthened and the maniples and the centuries fell apart into loose crowds of men who constantly craned their heads upwards, marvelling at the sheer magnitude of that we passed through. The Clibanarii under Parthenius dismounted and led their horses slowly all mingled in among us as if seeking comfort. The numeri hovered about the edges of our long snaking column but fell into small groups and lone men who seemed unnerved by the veneer of faint blood which lit up the sky above us all. Only those rough sweating Arabs atop their bawling camels seemed unfazed up at the head of the column. That Tusca shouted out and waved his fly-swatch so that his camel auxiliaries always moved forwards in a long loose but steady line, paving the way for the rest of us. It was an irony not lost on me that this most irregular of Roman mounted troops seemed now to be the most ordered of us all.
And of course it was his idea later that evening, as the dusk fell into a deeper purple and then the pitch black of night, that we forgo marching by day and instead march by night and the light of the stars above - those that we saw down among the troughs of this crimson sea. He advised us that marching by day through the Nefud now was different from travel in the Harra. We would be exhausted and scorched by the sun. Our animals would faint from the heat. The armour and helmets would bake the legionaries like lobsters in a pot. Move by night, he advised, under the cool crisp mantle of the stars, allowing the moon herself to stand above like a solid diadem, and we would absolve ourselves from that full ferocity of the Nefud. So it was that we rested briefly for a single watch and then resumed our march into that first night - quietly, slowly, in hushed tones, as the darkness drowned us and the stars above winked fitfully as if echoing our fatigue.
And all about we fell apart - no more a Roman army in its ordered units and sections but instead as nothing more than a long stream of refugees. Only occasionally did we post scouts atop the rim of the dunes but all they reported back was emptiness under a black shroud. Nothing else moved in the Nefud as we trudged through the night while above us towered walls and sloping ramparts lit only by starlight.
We lost a dozen men on that first march through the night - and in not one single instance did we divine what it was which had stilled their hearts. They lay alone in the red sand, immobile, prone, and on each face lay a vague peace as if finally all toil had been put apart. We buried them where they fell, each in a shallow pit, a slight libation poured over them or a soft prayer muttered by those who knew them. Ceremony was abandoned. Rituals improvised. Then we moved on without a look back. In moments, the rippling red sand had devoured even that small burial mound and it was as if they never existed at all
Each night after that we lost more and more men, as though the Nefud itself was stealing away their souls and leaving behind only the husks of men . . .
By day, we slept fitfully under the papillio tents, barely able to doze as that endless heat hammered down upon us. Slaves drifted among us bringing water or food but a certain lassitude enveloped us and we found the morsels tasteless and the water stale. It felt as if the discipline of Rome, that old harridan who steeled our limbs, had abandoned us so that now we lay unnerved and languid under the little tents. We pitched them each dawn up against one of the huge dune waves like a tiny town sprouting at the edge of a mountain range. And slowly as the day advanced and the sun rose across the sky in its inferno-like chariot, our world split into that place scorched by the sun and its counterpart: a deep well of inky blackness - and these two halves scythed across our meagre shelters in an inexorable and fatal dance.
Each dusk we left dead men in the sand and each night we picked up their empty bodies and tumbled them into the shallow pits we dug as the long and uneven files shambled past. And each dusk and each night the number of those bodies grew.
It was the third night in the Nefud and I had fallen back into the rearguard of some dozen camel-riders. We drifted in among them, me and a phalanx of legionaries under Suetonius, marvelling at the litany of debris this scorched and listless column left in its wake, gently interring body after body. Around us, those Arab auxiliaries slouched over their mounts, half-asleep and half-alert, like drowsy beggars waiting for a coin to tumble their way outside the agora. Above us lay the most magnificent aurora of diamonds in the blackest night I had ever seen. The shapes of the crests and dunes which framed this unearthly halo were sharp and distinct against the night, as if in them lay a deeper black, an obsidian black cut from the harshest glass. We toiled slowly, our eyes blinking away the dust of sleep, and stared still up at these magnificent and murderous shapes still in awe of them. I saw that camel auxiliary praefectus Tusca urge his stinking mount back in among us and snap some harsh words to his men in the rearguard. Without even looking at him, they shrugged and tugged at their reins. With a squeal, the camels lifted up their heads and picked up the pace.
I drifted over to him, curious. Behind me, Suetonius and a dozen men of the Second began to fill in another shallow grave, the sand falling in like crimson silk, enveloping that corpse with a speed which we all found obscene. In the face of my Draconarius, I saw only an empty fatalism, all his youth now scoured away by the Nefud and its ancient enmity.
Tusca saw me advance on him and hawked a long spume into the dust about us. His hand with that eternal fly-swatch flicked casually. We had established a sort of uneasy truce since that night in the tent and I had had him dragged out from his cloak to appear before Cassianus. I knew he feared me and also loathed me but was powerless to do anything about it. For my part, I was - unexpectedly, I must add - developing a strange respect for him; for his understanding of the deep desert. His advice to Cassianus to march now at night had proved his worth at least.
He smiled mirthlessly at me as I drew near. ‘Another night under the diadem of Ishtar, Ducenarius,’ he muttered, glancing up at the stars.
I nodded back to the grave filling up with the red sand. Torches flamed about it and gave the men who closed it up a savage aspect. ‘We lose men more and more each night we march, Tusca. I do not honestly know whether we lose more men in this night march or at the end of the day when dusk arrives and we pack away the tents onto the mules and wagons. This Nefud soaks up our life faster than a sponge spilt wine, eh?’ I reached up to run my hand soothingly along the flank his camel. It swung its bulbous head around and stared at me with dull and supine eyes.
‘The Nefud?’ he laughed back. ‘Ducenarius, I think you mistake what it is that is killing us all here!’
I saw him look about - to the legionaries toiling over the pit, with Suetonius stepping aside to fall down in tiredness on a low rise of crimson sand - then back at me. He leaned in low over that hump of his camel. ‘Where are we going, proud officer of Rome, eh? Have you asked yourself that, I wonder?’
I frowned up at him. ‘To the Euphrates, Tusca. That is the plan. You were there in that tent, remember? Or has this heat baked what little brains you have, eh?’
‘The Euphrates, eh? I wonder on that.’ He spat again into the sand below him.
‘We are marching through this desolation so that we can fall upon the Bani Lakhm whose oases and tribes lie up against that river -'
He pointed that fly-swatch at me and suddenly grinned a toothless grin in the dark. ‘Nah, we are not marching through the Nefud, Ducenarius. We are marching into it. Do you not see the difference?’
‘Into it? What do you mean?’
‘Ask Aemilianus. Ask that officer. He knows. Watch him whisper to this Dux Ripae of ours. Watch how this Armenian lion bends his dark head to his words. Ask Aemilianus why it is that we march not through the Nefud but into it. I am an Arab, Ducenarius. I know the deserts - but more than that I know of the Nefud. No Arab does not. Look to the stars and see how they revolve and turn about our heads at night -' he pointed up high and then away over to his left shoulder. ‘That is the edge of the Nefud a dozen night’s travel. And beyond it, the fertile oases and fields of the Bani Lakhm and behind them the Water of Lamentation. That river you call the Euphrates. Watch the stars, Ducenarius and see how this Aemilianus of yours draws that Armenian not through the Nefud but deeper into it -' again, he pointed his stick but southwards this time. ‘We are marching into the Nefud not through it.’
‘You are talking madness, you Arab bastard -'
‘Nah! Not me - this is the desolation of Kish! The awful curse of Ur-Zababa! Do you not know, Roman, that this Nefud is nothing but the blasted kingdom of Akkad, the first empire known to man, wiped out in a sea of blood! Its city cleansed from the face of the earth and with it that first great empire all others now emulate like cheap whores in the agoras - here we walk like shadows in the echoes of a civilisation over two thousand years old. The Hebrews knew it as Aggad while Nimrod ruled and it stood alongside Babel and Erech near the land of Shinar. Akkad dwarfed them all, Roman. It walls stood a hundred feet high and its towers were of alabaster and ivory. But the gods doomed the empire of Akkad for its kings claimed to rule over the stars themselves. And so a mighty curse was placed over the city - a curse the like of which has never since been uttered: he who slept on the roof died on the roof; he who slept in the house had no burial; he who hungered flailed his own skin for food - and in one night of terror and horror, Akkad was consumed by the vengeance of Ishtar and Anu and the warrior god, Kish. Together, they fell on that ancient and imperial city, the first to raise up empire, and blasted it out of existence. Akkad vanished and its empire became dust, Roman.’
I laughed into his brazen words. ‘Fool - that is nothing but fancy and agora-boasting. Where is this fabled Akkad you talk of? Nowhere, I tell you! There is only Rome and Ctesiphon and Jerusalem and Alexandria as the great cities of the world, I tell you.’
Suddenly, he reached down and gripped my hand that was patting the flank of his camel. His grip was strong and determined. I felt his filthy breath wash over me. ‘Roman, what do you think the Nefud is? Why do you think all the Arabs abjure it?’
I struggled to release my grip. ‘A desolation - nothing more -'
He laughed then and it was a laugh of utter madness. That laugh startled the camel and it bucked suddenly so that his grip fell from me and it began to trot away. Tusca laughed and threw back an evil smile to me. ‘Ask him! He knows! This is Akkad! All of it! And we march deeper into it - to the centre of the desolation, that curse which rendered an empire and that first city into this!’
I turned to start after him. Anger at his mockery boiled up in me and I meant to drag him from that animal so that he tumbled into the dust at my feet, to thrash him for his effrontery - but a sudden shout at my back turned me about, even as Tusca vanished into the night and the endless walls which rose up about us.
I heard a sudden shout and knew Suetonius needed me urgently so I turned and saw him pointing out into the night from where we had marched, back into that litter we left behind, all our trails and footprints churning up the loose red sand. I saw him pointing even as he loosened his spatha, even as the legionaries about him stood upright, cursing suddenly in that urgent way men have who are surprised and respond with action. A helmet was pulled on suddenly. Another blade flashed hard against a torch. A shield swept forwards, that eternal flower blooming in the dark - and then I saw what startled them. I saw - and all thoughts of myth and legend fell from my mind like fog before the bright dawn star. I forgot Tusca and his mad words, his talk of Akkad and a city swept from the face of the world for its hubris -
For there staggering out of the night traipsed a solitary camel, lean and covered in sweat like thick glue, its sides panting and its head lolling as if drunk. It emerged hesitantly as if unsure of a welcome, the legs threatening to snap, the splayed feet sinking into the sand of the Nefud, and atop its solitary hump, strapped to the wooden saddle, his eyes gouged out and his lips sewn shout so that it looked as if he was some grotesque mannequin, was one of the Arab riders we had sent after the Saraceni . . .
Our messenger returned and he brought a message from those we taunted and it was one of equal scorn.
Suetonius turned to face me, to see me smiling in the night, even as that poor camel and its gruesome burden settled down before us in exhaustion. ‘Ducenarius?’
‘Run to the Dux Ripae and inform him that our ploy has worked,’ I said coldly, still smiling. ‘Tell him, we are being hunted . . .’