The Shadow of Ararat: Chapters missing from misbound paperback edition
Missing section starts on page 334.
Dwyrin tucked the papers into his tunic and clasped the Greek’s shoulder in return.
“Many thanks, Drago, I’ll be on my way, then.”
Though of poor color and given to fits of eye-rolling, the horse that Dwyrin rode out of Solis was no nag. It was a stout little steppe pony that had been gathered up in the sweep for suitable horses in the province. Dwyrin named it Macha in hopes that the spirit of the goddess would fill it and give its stocky legs more speed. It was a fruitless hope – the pony clopped along at a steady pace for hour after hour, but it refused to canter, much less break into a gallop. Still, it had a mild nature and rarely bit.
The road from the port to the inland city of Tarsus was crowded with legionnaires moving in both directions, as well as trains of heavily laden mules and wagons. Tarsus, a sprawl of red brick buildings and dusty-tan edifices of poor quality marble, was swarming with Eastern officers and cavalrymen. Dwyrin slept in a barn on the eastern side of the city; no lodgings were to be had in the town with the press of army billeting. Dwyrin ate a sparse breakfast and watered Macha at a well on the eastern edge of the city. The citizens, drawing water for their homes, held forth that prince Theodore was preparing to advance east into Persian lands without the support of the rest of the army, which was still held up unloading at Solis. The great triple-spanned bridge across the river beyond Tarsus was blocked when Dwyrin reached it. He waited for an hour behind a press of Gothic horsemen and bands of Cyrenaican archers.
At the far end of the span, a wagon had lost an axle. The northern horsemen were hooting and laughing at the efforts of a troop of Roman engineers to clear the wagon, but it had been loaded with baskets of lead shot and heavy, pre-cut, timbers. The Cyrene troops were squatting in a long line along the side of the bridge, talking in low tones. Their patterned tan cloaks and dark, burnished, skin stood out in stark contrast to the sunburned faces of the Goths and their heavy, grease-slicked, blonde and red hair. Dwyrin managed to edge his pony around the upstream side of the wreck, drawing the curses of the centurion in charge of the gang trying to move the wagon. It was overloaded and too heavy to push. The engineers began shouting at one another.
Dwyrin rode on, now that the road was clear. Another, smaller, camp had been thrown up on the far bank of the river. The garrison troops, a clean-shaven lot of dark-haired Celts, looked on with amusement as the Hibernian rode past, almost swallowed in his red cloak and gear.
“Don’t be home late for dinner!” they shouted after him, laughing.
He waved and rode onwards. Before him, the flat plain of Adana stretched out, a fertile valley of olive groves, vineyards, whitewashed mud brick houses, stands of cedar and spruce trees. Beyond it, a low range of mountains rose in the east, running from the sea north to the vast escarpment of the Taurus mountains. Even through the humid air, Dwyrin could see the snow-crowned peaks off to his left glitter in the afternoon sun. Clouds were gathering among them, but for now the sun was bright and the air clear. Tiny red birds sang in the trees along the road. It was quiet and peaceful, the clamor of the army left far behind.
He urged Macha to go faster, it was a long road to Samosata.
Cold wind howled out of the north, driving a fine spray of grit and dust against the Hibernian. Dwyrin leaned into the gusts, his cloak, now pale with dust, wrapped tight around his head and shoulders. Gravel, whipped by the wind, stung at his legs as he struggled forward through the wind. Macha, her head low, trudged along behind him at the end of the bridle. The pleasant valleys that drew up to the coast were well behind him now, and he had crossed a bleak range of rocky hills and barren mountains to come out onto an endless plain of dried mud and broad dry streambeds. The Taurus still towered on the northern horizon, cool and distant, but the old Roman road that he was following slashed almost due east across the headwaters of an enormous river plain.
Every ten miles, a waymarker rose from the barren soil to mark the road, most of which was covered with blown drifts of dirt and sand. The stele, once deeply graven with the sigil of Rome and the Emperors that had raised them, were worn and chipped by the weather. The road ran straight, but the stones at its verge were tumbled and broken. Off the road, in the distance, he could sometimes see villages, or perhaps the ruins of villages. Short grass peeked from between the stones at the edge of the road, but the low hills were dry and yellow, barren of trees or cultivation. Even the legion night-camps, dug out of the baked mud only weeks before, seemed empty for long years, already half-filled with windblown sand and fallen-in walls.
The wind had struck him as soon as he had come out of the hills above the abandoned city of Gaziantep, four days ago. It did not let up, even in the night when the temperature of the plain – hot as a baker’s oven in the day – plunged to near freezing. His eyes were nearly glued shut with grime and dust. His hair and nose were coated with a thick layer of yellow matter. Still, he kept trudging east, keeping to the road, sleeping in the bare hollows of the land where there was some respite from the wind. Every third waymarker, there was a house of stone or brick built at the side of the road. In the shelter of these crumbling dwellings, cisterns had been cut into the earth and lined with stones. Usually, there was water at the bottom of the shallow pits. He kept on, though most days the sun was only a brassy disk in the sky, burning down through heavy air.
He had begun to get nervous. Though his othersight no longer overwhelmed him like it had on the voyage on the Father of Rivers, little things still leaked through to his consciousness. The endless flat plain seemed to affect his mind, emptying it of trivial things, paring down his thoughts until they were little more than the desire to put one foot in front of the other. The drone of flies was constant. The power was very deep in the earth here, hidden and dim. Sometimes as he crossed one of the shallow valleys, he could feel the water in the ground, running cold and distant, but it did not come near the surface. Other things trickled around the edge of sight. Voices seemed to call in the darkness and the land felt watched and angry.
One night, as he lay sleeping in the lee of an ancient masonry wall, he woke to see the figures of four men standing beyond the pale ring of his campfire. Macha was sleeping, leaning against the wall, her breathing heavy and slow. The pale men stared down at him with shadowed faces. They were dressed in long robes, worked with crosshatched patterns and flat-topped helmets of fluted brass. Their beards were curled and painted, but they were so dim that he could see the gleam of stars in the pits of their eyes. He moved to rise, and they faded, but the echoes of their anger and hatred lingered. That night, he broke camp before dawn and pressed on in the darkness, eager to leave that place.
Four days onto the plain, he topped a rise that he had not even noticed climbing, so gentle was its slope, and looked down onto a ribbon of pale green and the broad surface of a great river. The road turned and ran down the slope below him, to a small village and a great bridge of stone pilings and a wooden truss. In the distance, he could see men in red-cloaks standing watch on the circular stone towers at either end of the span. The river was easily two hundred paces across and a deep blue, rushing swift under the sandstone pilings of the bridge. Macha whinnied, smelling the water and the greenery. Dwyrin smiled and urged her down the slope with his knees.
A dead man lay in the shadow of one of the outlying buildings. Dwyrin rode up the road, slowly, and stopped thirty feet from the entrance to the village. The place was quiet, the only sound the idle rattle of a shutter in the wind. He could smell the dead man from the road, and see that the outthrust arm was puffy and discolored. Scratching his chin, he shrugged the legion cloak back, off of his arms and rode slowly forward. In his mind, a flurry of thoughts scattered and a point of calm formed, oil on the waters, and he extended his perception out to the sun-heated walls and the cool shadows of the doorways.
At the center of the village, there was a square of bare earth fronting a dilapidated temple with four pillars of brick, faced with carved wooden slats painted to approximate marble. Other buildings crowded the plaza, their doors dark and empty. Dwyrin skirted the center of the space, angling to the left, toward the towers by the bridge. As he passed opposite the temple, he could see the bare legs of two bodies – man or woman, he could not tell – lying on the portico. Flies buzzed in the still air at the center of the village. A door rattled, but he had felt the wind move against it, and he was not distracted.
Dwyrin muttered to himself, raising the first defense, the shield of Athena, around him. To his partially opened othersight, he could see the wan blue veil fall between him and the sun. The power of the river was close, a rolling green wave, and he reached out to tap into the eddy of it as it broke and curled against the bridge supports. A hot spark began to flicker in the back of his mind. Macha moseyed on, never in a hurry, past the dead square and into the lane beyond.
Here the houses were a little better built – fieldstone with plaster facings. Down the street, on his left, a garden wall jutted out from a house, ornamented by a trailing vine sporting little blue and white flowers. Dwyrin became uneasy, a sense of cold and hunger was seeping in around the edges of the shield. He loosened the short-sword in its scabbard on his right hip. The street was empty as he rode on, the echoes of hooves sounding thin to his ear. Past the houses, there was a bank of palms and part of a garden field. As he rode by the last house – tightly shuttered, with a painted door in muted red – he twitched, looking to the right, into the field. Something…
A crack like thunder knocked him off of the horse and slammed him into the ground. The shield of Athena blazed into full strength as he rolled away on the ground. Macha wailed in pain and toppled over, most of her hindquarters burned away. Dwyrin was partially blinded, the etched zigzag of a bright blue-white light searing his retinas. The hot spark in his mind exploded and his hands danced in the invocation of Geb, the stone of the earth. Through a blur of tears, he saw men rushing forward out of the palms on the left side of the road. Facing them, he stabbed his hand out, loosing the dammed up power that he had drawn from the earth and the river.
A bolt of scarlet flame ripped across the road and slashed through the gang of running men. The lead two men, clad in desert robes and light chainmail, flashed to ash in the torrent of fire. The men behind them screamed in horror as the wall of flame washed over them, clawing at their clothes with bright fingers. Dwyrin staggered forward, a halo of blazing white flame roaring around him. The remains of the faithful horse smoked and then burst alight, filling the air with greasy smoke. Nine men howled in despair on the ground, their muscle and fat sizzling away in the heat of the fire that he had summoned. Contorted limbs thrashed, as they crisped to a reddish black and finally lay still.
The Hibernian, sick, finished the last man off with his sword. The twisted features, eyeless and locked in an endless scream, mocked him from the ashy ground. The palm trees were ablaze as well, sending pillars of white smoke into the air. Dwyrin turned around, stunned at the devastation that he had wrought. The field was burning too, and the nearest houses were black with smoke. Flames licked at the eaves. The othersight surged in his mind and the physical world was washed away in a torrent of colors and living sound. He fell to his knees, clawing at his face. His mouth was open, gasping for air, but he could not scream.
Smoke, faintly lit by fire, smudged the night sky. It drifted in long streamers across the arc of heaven, obscuring the stars and the fattening moon. Beyond the smoke and the dim red light of the fires, it was dark as pitch. Dwyrin groaned and blinked. His eyes were gritty. He sat up, and a thin layer of ash flaked off of him to settle to the ground around him in a white cloud. The world was solid again, the earth firm under his feet instead of an infinite abyss of miniscule fires and strobing adamantine forces. The sky was close and filled with the comfortable light of stars, not a dizzying unguessable depth congested with millions of whirling spherical fires, packed so closely that they left no room between them.
The grove of palms had burned down to the ground, and the nearest houses sagged, roofs gone, windows black scars with trails of smoke along the whitewash. The bodies of the dead still lay around him, along with the poor horse. There were scuttling sounds in the night as scorpions and other scavengers retreated from his movement. He stood, though he felt weak, and tiredly brushed the ash off of him. All of his kit on the horse was gone. He checked his belt and cursed aloud.
“Mother of storms! Grave-robbers…”
While he had lain unconscious, someone had crept up and lifted his pouch, his knife, his sword, everything but the woolen shirt, his leggings, the cloak he had lain upon and, thankfully, his boots. He checked the pouch on a thong around his neck and was vastly relieved to find that his orders and identification disk were still there. He rubbed the tin disk and felt better, knowing that as soon as he reached some kind of legion outpost, he would be home again, of a sort. He bent over the body of the horse and chanted soft words. After he had made the prayer of the dead, he cupped his hands and blew into them. A little white spark guttered there after a moment, and then it became a pale cold light. He set it in the air before him, where it bobbed and weaved, lighting his path. Then he walked on, heading for the bridge over the river. If his eyes had not deceived him, there had been Roman soldiers there.
The bridge was deserted. The remains of a camp lay at the end towards the village, but the soldiers were gone. The coals in the cook-pit were cold and Dwyrin searched fruitlessly in the tents for any personal effects that he might use. He did find a spear behind one of the tents, which he took to use as a walking stick. The tiny mite of glowing light attracted itself to the head of the spear and, after fluttering around it, came to rest. The river gurgled softly to itself under the bridge as he crossed. When he reached the other end, he stopped.
The air was silent. The wind had died down. He looked back across the long span of the bridge, gleaming palely under the light of the moon. Something had attacked him in the village with a storm-power. Only his aegis had saved him. He could feel nothing in the ether of the night. The land was sleeping, only the river was still awake, running green and quiet in its bed. He turned away and walked down onto the hard road. At the edge of his vision, there was a flicker of hidden warmth. Ignoring it, he continued along the road, though he turned his head slightly to see if he could catch sight of it out of the corner of his eye.
A man was crouched in the shadow of the last support of the bridge on the eastern bank. Only a muffled outline marked him, though now that he was aware and focussed, Dwyrin could see the patterns of heat that rippled in his blood and bones. The boy turned, facing the man, and leaned on the spear.
“I’ll not bite,” he said, his voice squeaking unexpectedly. Dwyrin paused, disgusted with himself. He had meant to sound strong and assured, adult. Instead he was certain that he sounded like a tired, sixteen-year-old boy. “Come out. Are you a Roman?”
The figure shifted, and then stood up. A dark cloak fell away from a naked blade, but that vanished with a scraping sound into a scabbard. A man stepped gingerly out of the darkness to the edge of the pale cold light that shone from the spearpoint. He was older, with a stubby beard and lank brown hair. His face was creased with furrows cut by years under sun and wind. His eyes were deep-set and glittered in the dim light. He wore the cloak of a Roman soldier, with a mail shirt of heavy round links and hard leather straps. A battered leather bag was slung over his shoulder, and the shortsword was accompanied by two long knives and a short stabbing spear. The man cautiously slid sideways, putting himself away from the bridge.
“Who are you?” he asked, his voice deep and rough with hard use. “Did you come out of the village?”
Dwyrin nodded wearily. He did not move; the man was ready to bolt into the night at any provocation.
“I came over the hill this afternoon, but someone attacked me in the village and I had to defend myself. I was overcome, though, and … well, I fainted, I think. When I woke up, it was dark. Were you stationed in the camp?”
The man nodded, but he did not relax. He shifted the spear in his hand, passing it to his right.
“I’m Colonna,” said the man, “ouragos for the fourth lochaghai of the sixth banda of the Third Cyrene. What’s your name?”
“Dwyrin MacDonald,” said Dwyrin, “I’m a recruit for the Ars Magica of the Third. I was late getting to Constantinople and I’ve been trying to catch up ever since.”
Colonna snorted and swung the spear over his shoulder in an easy manner. He stepped closer and looked Dwyrin over closely.
“A wonder-worker? You seem mighty damned young to be a hell-caster.”
Dwyrin stared back, his face set. His ears were burning though. The man had moved from cautious fear to insolence in record time. The ill-hidden sneer on the man’s face was far too familiar to Dwyrin – the bullies in the village were no different than this fellow.
“What happened here?” Now Dwyrin’s voice was steady.
Colonna shrugged. “Bandits attacked the village yesterday. Fifty or sixty of them on horses and camels. There was a fight among the houses and the lochagos decided that we should fall back to the bridge. Most everyone was killed on the bridge, but the bandits were pretty badly beat up. I fell in the river and took my time getting back. Everyone else was dead by then. I hid out down by the edge of the fields, keeping an eye on things.”
The soldier pointed back across the bridge.
“Today they set up shop in the village, with some of them on the bridge in the cloaks of the dead men. I moved up under the bridge to listen – most of them left about noon with the people from the village. Raiders down from the north, looking for easy pickings now that the war has started. I lifted what was left of my gear from the camp when the big show started in the village.”
Dwyrin quirked an eyebrow up.
“Yeah, the thunderbolts and pillars of fire. Flattened most of the village, so I decided I should cross the river and keep an eye on things from the far bank. Quieted down quick, though. The last of the bandits scattered right after, but it didn’t seem to safe to go back. I figured that I’d wait a day and see what turned up. And I got you…”
“You got me,” answered Dwyrin. “Unless you’ve got some horses hidden around somewhere, we should go. How far is Samosata?”
Colonna flipped the spear around the back of his head, shoulder to shoulder, considering the boy. Then he swung it down and tapped the butt against the stones of the road. Dwyrin waited with weary patience. Finally, the soldier shrugged again and adjusted the bag on his back.
“It’s about three days, kid. On foot. You sure you don’t want to wait it out here? Another supply convoy or column will be through pretty quick. This is some empty country, travelling all alone.”
“No.” Dwyrin started walking. He had no stomach to remain in this place.
“This is dangerous land,” said Colonna, as they topped a rise and began hiking down a long grade towards, at last, a valley littered with green orchards and fields. Both the older man and the youth wore hats of plaited reed and grass, gathered from the banks of the last dry watercourse they had crossed. Dwyrin ignored the muttering of the Sicilian. After three days of travelling with the ouragos, he spent more and more time in his own head, wondering what the teachers at the school were doing. The lessons that they had tried so hard to drum into his unreceptive mind were filtering back up now, but whole in some way, complete. He practiced them while they walked.
“The sun will roast a man in his breastplate. The natives are of an evil disposition and will murder the man found alone, away from his unit. The nights are cold enough to freeze. The water is poor and will give you the runs.”
Colonna went on and on, his voice grating against Dwyrin’s ears with an endless litany of complaints. In some sense, Dwyrin thought, the old soldier was trying to help him by unburdening himself of observations made in decades of service. It made Dwyrin’s head hurt. He hoped that the city ahead was Samosata and they would, at last, part company.
“Poison asps crawl under the rocks and will creep into your bedroll while you sleep. You wake to the feel of their fangs piercing your skin. The fodder for horses is sparse and bitter – those animals not raised here will soon sicken and some will perish. The land hates men, so long has it…”
Dwyrin shut out the voice. He felt cold, despite the burning heat of the day. There was something in the dead rocks and parched soil around them that disturbed him. The city seemed far away, shimmering in the heat haze of the middle day. He stopped in the middle of the road and turned around, staring back up the road that wound out of the hills. He felt uneasy, a prickling sensation rippled along his arms. Something was watching them from the ridge behind.
Colonna had stopped, too, and was leaning on his walking stick. The soldier seemed old and weary. Dwyrin completed his slow circuit of the horizon. There was nothing.
“Funny feeling?” asked the older man.
“Yes, like hidden eyes watching us.”
Colonna nodded. “I feel that way most of the time. They are watching up there somewhere in the rocks. Remember, the land hates us, and so do the people that live here. They only wait for a chance to murder us without cost to themselves.”
They continued onwards, though now Dwyrin looked out on the barren tablelands and sparse vegetation crouched in the folds and crevices of the land as if he were adrift in a hostile sea. Dark intent slid along under the surface, waiting for a chance to rise out of the depths with crushing teeth. The sun, unrelenting, filled the brassy white bowl of the sky with fire. At the edges of his othersight, dim greens and sullen red crept in at the edges of the road. In the flat, between fields of dusty tan plantings, they passed a broken building. White pillars, cracked and worn by the wind, leaned drunkenly, broken teeth in the raw red gums of the soil. Dwyrin shuddered as they passed the temple, moving to the far side of the road and keeping Colonna between him and the well of despair collected amongst the scattered bricks.
Colonna stopped talking.
Samosata was a sullen maze of empty streets. Native guardsmen passed them in through the western gate of the city without a word. The local men were wrapped in long turbans that covered their faces, leaving only dark crevices for their eyes. They had long spears and curved swords hung from jeweled harness and scabbard. Even their hands were covered with wrappings. No one could be seen on the streets. The houses were blank, gray-white walls with shuttered rose-red windows. There was a close, hot, feeling to the squares that they crossed.
They stopped at the far edge of the city, having seen no one, but edgy with the sense of anticipation that had slowly filled the air around them like water seeping through a pinhole into a bladder. A plaza, barely thirty feet across, butted up to the eastern wall of the city. Three story buildings of heavily plastered mud brick pressed against the open space. A gate with two square towers cut the wall. There were no guardsmen to be seen on the wall, or in the shadow of the gate embrasure itself. Colonna stopped at a well in the southeast corner of the square. Dwyrin stood behind him while the soldier drew up the bucket, facing back towards the narrow alley they had come out of.
Only the scrape and jangle of the bucket and the rope that secured it broke the empty silence in the square. Dwyrin leaned against his staff, hood drawn over most of his face. His eyes were closed and within the quiet of his mind, he felt the hidden air around them trembling with violence. The hot spark that always seemed to glow at the back of his mind sputtered and flame licked against the tinder of his fear.
“Keep easy, lad,” came Colonna’s voice in a whisper. The so-familiar nasal whine was gone, his voice quiet and professional. “I feel it too. Just wait.” The bucket rattled on the edge of the stone wall that cupped the well. Colonna thumbed the top off of his water-skin and carefully poured the cold water into the grimy mouth. When he had filled the skin, and stoppered it again, he raised the bucket and drank thirstily from it. Water spilled around the corners of his mouth, soaking the front of his cloak and pattering to the ground. Done, he passed the bucket to Dwyrin.
The boy took it, a heavy wooden thing, with a bent copper handle and bolts. It was almost empty, but he drank from it, heedless of the mud swirling at the bottom. The air leached any moisture from man or beast, making the taste of water an elixir. He put the bucket down. Two figures had appeared in the mouth of a street across the square. Dwyrin turned to face them.
Like the citizens of the city, they were completely covered by long desert robes – though these were pale baize and white. They bore no open weapons, but a sense of menace flowed forward from them like a fog. Dwyrin felt Colonna slide in behind him, and there was a tink of sound as the soldier swung his spear up. The desertmen stepped out of the street, into the square, and stood aside from the opening. There was a sense of darkness there, filling the street. Dwyrin hissed in surprise.
“What is it?” whispered Colonna. “There’s something there?”
Dwyrin raised a hand. There was something in the shadow of the street. Something lame and crippled, but filled with bile and a seething, dark, power. A hint of the smell of burned flesh reached the two Romans, even across the length of the square.
“Aiii… that doesn’t smell good.” Colonna shifted his stance, raising the spear into a throwing position. Dwyrin angled his own walking stick downwards, towards the flagstones of the square. Brittle red-black power trickled amongst the stones, and there was more in the deep blue-green of the well at his back. Using the staff as a focus, he began teasing the stones to yield to his will. It would not be much, but more than nothing.
The something in the street crept closer, its hate beating against Dwyrin like the heat from a bonfire. More of the desertmen appeared. The power in the stones and the air and the water suddenly shifted its pattern, bending towards the mouth of the street like filings to a lodestone. Dwyrin began to sweat. The thing coming along the shadows of the street was very, very, strong. He prepared to let go the fire-spark that had swollen to an incandescent fury in his heart.
“Get ready,” he croaked at Colonna, “cover your eyes and hide behind me.”
The rattle of a heavy chain falling, link by link through a brass housing, broke the tense silence in the square. The gate between the towers creaked and began to open. Citymen in dusky brown robes came out of the dark openings at the base of the towers and dragged the massive wooden doors apart. Dwyrin’s eyes twitched back to the opening to the shadowed street. The desert men had faded back and were disappearing at a trot into the other byways opening onto the square. The bitter hatred of the lamed creature receded as well. There was the clatter of hooves on flagstones.
“Mithras bless us!” breathed Colonna, making the sign of the bull. A troop of Roman cavalry in short red cloaks and leather armor cantered into the square through the open gate. They were Eastern troops, with light bows at their backs and long spears set into leather holsters at their feet. The lead officer, a swarthy fellow with a bushy black beard, reined his horse in before the well. Dwyrin looked up at him, face pale and drained. For a moment, the fire in his mind threatened to leap out and consume the officer staring down at him with a puzzled look on his face, but then, with an audible groan, the boy swallowed the whirlpool of flame and sagged to his knees in exhaustion.
Colonna grabbed his shoulder as he fell, and propped him up. He smiled broadly at the officer and saluted.
“Not used to the heat, sir, he’ll be right with some more water.”
Ahmet sat in the shade of an olive tree, his hat turned upside down in his lap. It was late afternoon on the hillside, and of all of Mohammed’s men, only he was still awake. The others, even the guards, were sleeping in the shade under the trees in the grove. The camels and horses were grazing on the low grass between the trees. Even the flies were quiet, only a few buzzing around the Egyptians’ head, and they were slow and lazy. He was eating an orange and putting the peels in his hat. From his vantage, he could see down the slope of the low hill to the gates of the great city. A pall of dust and smoke shrouded the road from the south. Ahmet finished peeling the fruit and popped a section into his mouth. Strong white teeth bit down and he savored the taste.
A river, broad and swift, lay between the hills and the walls of Damascus. Drovers on the road the previous day had named it the Baradas. Twin bridges, long wooden spans on great pilings of gray stone, arched over it, carrying the elevated road to the gates. A great bastion of towers and gates met the bridge there, and gave entrance to the teeming streets of the city. Marshlands and water-gardens surrounded the city on the southern and eastern sides, channeling all traffic onto the three raised roads that came to the gates from those directions. Ahmet was not impressed. Alexandria was ten times the larger than this provincial town.
The road leading to the river remained a confused snarl, as it had been the night before. A constant stream of people was leaking out of the fastness of Damascus, heading south by foot, by camel, by horse, by litter and by wagon. At the same time, bands of fighting men on horse and afoot were trying to move north. As Ahmet watched, another column of horsemen with brightly pennoned lancetips trotted past the base of the hill, forcing their way down the crowded road. A distant murmur of voices raised in anger drifted on the slow afternoon air. The armies of the eastern princes were trying to get north of the barrier of the Baradas. Even the noblemen were backed up at the bridge.
Near dusk, the men roused themselves and began gathering wood for a fire. Ahmet stood at the edge of the grove, his hands clasped behind him, looking across the shallow valley towards the lights of the city. Great black and silver clouds of birds rose from the marshes and wheeled away across the sky, hunting for insects before nightfall. With the gloom of twilight creeping across the valley, the Egyptian could see the lights of encampments along the northern and western roads to the city as well. The pale sandstone walls of the old city were joined by new, bustling, suburbs of canvas and wood.
Stars had begun to show in the darkening sky over the peaks of the mountains to the west of the city when Mohammed at last returned. He labored up the slope to the olive grove with a heavily laden horse in tow behind him, and two bags thrown over his own shoulders.
“Ho, priest!,” said Mohammed, wheezing with effort, “take a poor working man’s burden.” He swung one of the bags off of his shoulder and Ahmet caught it, grunting with effort. It was very heavy. Some of Mohammed’s cousins ran up to take the other and the reins of the horse. The merchant straightened up and stretched his back.
“Ah, better, better! It’s Shaitan’s own pit of torments in there, I’ll tell you. The place is a madhouse.” Mohammed looked around, counting noses. Satisfied that everyone was present, he shooed his men away and crooked a finger at Ahmet. They walked together, away from the camp, up the slope to the top of the hill. A tumble of stones crowned the summit. Mohammed sat down on a flat rock and began unlacing his sandals. Ahmet sat nearby, his shape muted in the dim light.
“I looked for your friend,” said the southerner, kneading his sore foot between powerful fingers. “But there are no Roman legionnaires in the city. There’s every other kind of fighting man in the eastern half of the Empire down there, but no Romans. There are Arabs, Syrians, Palmyrenes – a whole host of Palmyrenes - Nabateans, Palestinians, Goths, Turks, Ethiops – but no Roman Imperial troops.” Mohammed paused, looking off into the night, towards the bridge over the Baradas.
“If I knew no better, I’d say the city was a mutiny against the Empire waiting to happen, but every man’s voice is raised against Chrosoes of Persia. I spoke with everyone I knew from the times I’ve been here before, and not one of them said that there were any Roman troops in the city. The governor maintains a civil guard, but – and this from my friend Barsames the Glassworker – the two cohorts of the Second Triana that had been stationed in the city were withdrawn to Tyre on the coast almost a month ago.”
Ahmet shook his head in puzzlement. “I don’t understand,” he said, “the quartermaster in Alexandria was quite specific that the Third had been sent to Damascus, along with another Legion.”
Mohammed shrugged. “No matter, my friend, this man you seek is not here now. These Legions may arrive soon – that is a common rumor in the markets – but until then…”
Ahmet stood, his face filled with confusion. He paced around the cairn of rocks.
“I shall go to the coast then,” he said at last, “to Tyre, or wherever the Legions are.”
Mohammed turned a little to keep his friend in view.
“This fellow, you are certain you must find him? Do you owe him so much?”
“Yes,” said Ahmet in a sad voice, “I owe him a great deal. I doubt, no, I am sure that he does not know that I am seeking to find him. But I cannot countenance what was done to him, not and remain an honorable man.”
Mohammed spread his hands questioningly. Ahmet sighed and sat down, his head in his hands.
“Weeks ago, now, I was a priest-teacher at a school in Upper Egypt. A school devoted to teaching the works and philosophies of Hermes Trismegistus and the other ancient savants. This school is moderately well known and many rich families send their sons to learn the techniques and practices of the art of sight and power. I was the youngest master of the school, a teacher.
“Then one day a message came from the father-temple in Alexandria that we had to answer an Imperial levy – a sorcerer of the third order must be sent to the muster of the Legions. The master of the school choose to send Dwyrin MacDonald, one of my students, to fulfill this obligation. I protested this decision, but Dwyrin was sent anyway.”
Mohammed raised an eyebrow, he had guessed bits and pieces of his quiet Egyptian friend’s background from the way that he spoke and how he thought, but he had never realized that he had been travelling in the company of a man that commanded the hidden powers. Inwardly, he chuckled, he could not have chosen a better companion for the road!
“Did this Dwyrin not want to go? What did he think of it?”
Ahmet snorted in disgust. “I am sure that Dwyrin was elated to be so chosen – but, my friend, Dwyrin is, or was, a sorcerer of the third order in only the most flimsy legal sense. He is not even the best of my students! A boy of sixteen - with talent, yes - but nothing of the discipline of a master. Ah, I should have gone in his stead to begin with.”
“You have masters of the art that are sixteen?” Mohammed’s voice was confused.
“No!” exclaimed Ahmet in horror. “When the master of the school received the notice of the levy, he bade me take the boy to the hidden temple and initiate him into the mysteries of the third order – but he has not the training for it, not the discipline, not the patience! He has been opened to a world he cannot properly see, or control. He is still a child – a troublesome child – one that the master of the school felt it best to be rid of, lest he cause more problems, but that is no excuse to offer him up as a sacrifice to the gods of war. He may already be dead.”
Ahmet stared off, into the night, with blank eyes. Mohammed clapped him gently on his shoulder.
“So, you abandoned your position at the school to find him, then? What will you do if you do find him?”
“Take his place, I suppose.” Ahmet’s voice was low and filled with fatigue. “Join him and teach him what I can if they will not release him from his duty to the State. He was, he is, my student. I am responsible for him, for all his cheerful tricks and irreverence. He had promise, my friend, promise to be a fine young man with a good talent. He could have done many worthy things. I am sick to think of him dead in a field, entrails pecked by crows, because the master of the school found it convenient to dispose of a possible political problem without getting his hands dirty.”
Mohammed laughed silently in the darkness. Was that not the way of the world?
“There is no more difficult path than that of an honorable man,” he said in a portentous voice. “Ahmet, tomorrow we will take the caravan into the city and turn the glasswares and pottery over to the warehouse my wife’s cousin’s brother owns. Then my business will be done for this venture. I think that we should then make inquiries at the citadel to see if the Roman authorities there know the whereabouts of the Third Cyrene. Then you and I, if you will have my companionship on the road, will go and find your student and see about getting your honor back.”
Ahmet glanced up. “A fine offer made to a man that you’ve barely know three weeks. Why would you do such a thing?”
Mohammed sighed, clasping his hands together in front of him.
“You are driven by honor and your duty as a teacher. I am not driven by anything. I have a fine wife and a rich family in my home city. I could while my days away, and I have, in reading and philosophy. I have spent my time in the saddle, too, raiding the oases and villages of the enemies of my tribe. I could play the merchant on the road, journeying to distant lands and cities, and this, too, I have done. My heart is hungry, and I have not found the thing to fill it. I am restless, my friend, and I want to understand all of this.” He waved a hand to encompass the sky, the grove, the ground beneath their feet.
“I miss the comfort of my wife and our household, but something is still missing. So, I will come with you and see something, at least, that I have not seen before. Perhaps I will find what I am looking for! One never knows where he’ll end up, setting out on an unknown road. Truth might lie around the next bend, or over the next hill.”
In peaceful days, the markets of Damascus were filled with a raucous throng of thousands coming and going along the narrow, covered, ways. Now, with tens of thousands of troops camped around, or in, the city it was worse. It took Ahmet three hours of pushing through congested streets filled with bands of armed men, rickety stalls and the citizens of the city to reach the broad square surrounded by mighty temples and buildings of the State that marked the center of the ancient town. Once on the square, Ahmet was able to breathe again and walk at a normal pace. He headed for the imposingly porticoed front of the temple of Zeus, which made it self unmistakable by towering over the entire square and every other building adjoining it.
He mounted the long tier of steps at the front of the temple, passing by fountains set into the broad front that fed a series of shallow ornamental pools at the base of the building. The footsteps of many priests and penitents echoed off the high ceilings as he made his way into the dim recesses at the side of the central nave. There were a number of small offices there, and he walked along them after asking directions of a slave at the front of the temple. At the end, in a rather barren cell, he found the man he wanted to see.
“Master Monimus?” A slight man with only a trace of hair remaining on his head looked up from a low desk. Wooden scroll cases surrounded him like honeycombs, filled with burnished brass handles and well-worn wooden pegs. The priest’s eyes were a merry blue, and his face, though deeply lined with age, seemed open and pleasant.
“I am Monimus,” he said in a clear tenor voice. “Please sit. There is wine, if you are thirsty.”
“Thank you, master. I am Ahmet of the school of Pthames in Egypt. I also serve Hermes Trismegistus.”
Monimus bowed, still sitting, and poured two shallow cups of wine from an ancient red-black amphora. He passed one of the krater to Ahmet and sipped politely from the other. Ahmet sipped as well, then placed the ancient drinking bowl on the edge of the table. Monimus waited with the calm that all of the masters of the order seemed to assume as a matter of course. Ahmet cleared his throat, not sure how to begin, but he thought of how Mohammed would handle this and decided to plunge straight in.
“Master Monimus, I must beg your indulgence and ask two favors of you and your House here. I am on a long journey and I am afraid that I have not pleased the master of my School over much. He did not give me leave to undertake such an absence and he may be most displeased with my hasty departure. Despite this, I feel that I should tell him where I am and where I am going, and why I left in such a precipitous manner.”
Ahmet opened the heavy cloth bag that he had purchased in Gerasa and drew out a letter written on poor papyrus. He placed it on the desk between himself and the master.
“If you could see that this letter reaches Master Nephet of the School of Pthames, near Panopolis in Upper Egypt, I would be grateful. My second favor is more pressing, though you may not know the answer. Has any news of the Imperial Legion called the Third Cyrenaicea reached you? I must find a man who is serving with it, but my last report held that it was coming here, and it has not done so.”
Monimus sat quietly for a little while, his blue eyes considering Ahmet. The young Egyptian began to feel very nervous at the examination, but he remained still and did not fidget. After a time, the Syrian priest sighed and picked up the letter from where it had lain on the desk.
“Of course I will see that this letter reaches your superior in Panopolis. I believe that I know this Nephet from my time at the sanctuary of the Order in Ephesus. He is a stern man, if memory serves, but he does care about his charges, and forgives. Of your second request, I can say nothing, for I know nothing of the matter. Every tongue in the city has the matter of the war against Persia upon it, but I have heard nothing that would indicate that the Imperials are coming here. Are you determined to find this man?”
Ahmet nodded. The older priest picked at the edge of the letter, his face troubled.
“You know of the levy upon the Orders, of course?”
Ahmet nodded again, and something of the anger he felt must have shown through.
“Yes, an evil business,” said Monimus, his voice quieting to a whisper. “Little good can come of it – yet it is a desperate necessity. You may not feel the tremors and echoes in far Egypt, but here, so close to the border, we feel the workings of the Persian mobehedan often – almost daily in the last months. The walls between our world and the others are strained and pinched. We tremble at the approach of each darkness of the moon, for then it is worse. They are desperate for victory. They are paying a terrible cost for strength to bring against Rome.
“If you go north or east, tread lightly, there are foul powers on the hunt in those lands.”
Ahmet nodded again. He had been feeling a growing unease the further north he had come with the caravan. The air seemed brittle and thin, the sun dimmer than usual. In his othersight, odd flickerings and half-heard voices filled the empty spaces of the desert. Lines of unexpected tension and force were gathering in the unseen world.
“Master, I will be careful in my travels.” Ahmet bowed, his head almost touching the tiled floor. Monimus made the sign of the god and watched the young man go. The sense of unease did not leave him. He turned back to the rolls of the temple and the order for timbers to begin construction of a new lodging house behind the main building.
Mohammed was waiting in the shade of the great entrance hallway to the sanctuary of the temple of Zeus, staring up at the giant marble figure of the god of storms. The Zeus reclined on poorly carved clouds, but his body was well cut, standing forth from the rock. One arm supported the god against the clouds and held a cluster of bronze thunderbolts, the other raised a torch of stone. Oil-fire gleamed on that sconce, casting flickering light on the ceiling of the temple. Under the wavering light, the skin tones and painted hair of the statue seemed close to life. Ahmet coughed, politely.
Mohammed shook his head and looked around at his friend. Though his face was properly solemn for such a place, Ahmet could see that a huge grin was threatening to break out under the brushy black mustaches.
“Come,” whispered the merchant in a voice quiet as a shout, “I’ve done well this morning!”
Outside, Mohammed fairly bounced down the steps. Ahmet lengthened his stride to keep up. The merchant bustled across the square, stopping only to purchase a wooden skewer with roasted meat on it. Chewing, he began talking to Ahmet.
“There will be a council of the chieftains and princes tonight, my friend, in the Roman citadel. All of the lords that were summoned have arrived as of last night, and the governor has called this meeting to lay out the plans of campaign. There is no better way to find out where the Third is stationed, and where it is going to be stationed, than at this meeting. Everyone will be there, even the princes of Nabatea and Palmyra.”
“And how,” asked Ahmet with asperity, “are we going to get into this conclave of the great?”
“Ah, my friend, that is the beauty of the thing. You are travelling with me, so these things are possible! As luck would have it, one of the bands of lancers that have been hired by the Palmyrenes are cousins of my wife’s brother’s wife’s uncle. I convinced their war-captain – an old rascal named Amr ibn’Adi of the Tanukh – that we should ride with them, and just by the by, attend the conference tonight as his aides.”
“Oh,” said Ahmet. “Do you usually get your friends into this much trouble?”
Mohammed laughed aloud at that. “Nay! All of my friends take great joy in my company – all of them say that I am the most interesting of men to be around! Besides, Amr ibn’Adi does not speak Latin or Greek – so you and I will have to translate for him.”
Night in the streets of the city was almost as bright as day. Thousands of lanterns hung from the entrances of the market stalls, and over the doorways of the houses. Torches ornamented the walls that enclosed private gardens. Parties of men, led by link-boys with burning wicks, moved through the streets, slowly converging upon the gates of the Roman camp that lay near the northernmost of the eight gates of the city. The light glowed off of low clouds that had gathered over the city in the late afternoon, bringing a cool rain to wash the streets.
Ahmet and Mohammed were amongst those that approached the gates, in the party of the desert chieftain Amr ibn’Adi. The sheykh was a villainous rogue with long curling mustaches and a salt-and-pepper beard who affected a ragged cloak and hood over his rich garments. His three bodyguards – the most allowed by the Governor – held no such flimsy disguise. They were stout men with broad shoulders, plain weatherworn cloaks and well-used armor and weapons. Mohammed, in turn, was dressed in a subdued red shirt, dark pants and long cloak of white and green stripes. Ahmet, who did not account himself one for fashion, thought that his friend looked rather dashing in the outfit – obviously his best, carried in a small trunk for just such an occasion. Ahmet owned no pretense such as this; he had cleaned his simple white tunic and robe before entering the city. He had his staff and the leather book-bag that he habitually wore at his waist. He had tied back his long raven-black hair with two braids and a silver clasp.
The residence of the Roman governor was no more than a fortified Legion camp carved out of the buildings of the northwest corner of the city. Stout wooden and iron gates barred the way into the camp, watched by a band of slightly overweight men in ill-fitting armor. Ibn’Adi’s party was halted by their commander, an elderly man with close-cropped white hair and a scarred face. The retired legionnaire searched them, even Ahmet’s bag and staff, before waving them through into the camp.
Ahmet looked around curiously at the fired brick buildings, arranged in neat rows, with paved streets between them. Though there was every sign of the regular presence of a strong garrison in the city, it was obvious that all of these residences had been carefully closed up, their owners departed. Mohammed was looking around too, with a slightly puzzled look on his face. The broad street that led down the middle of the camp was busy, though, with parties of chieftains and their retainers in a broad array of desert robes, silks, linens and partially hidden armor.
“Why have all these chiefs come to fight for Rome?” asked the Egyptian as he and Mohammed trailed along after ibn’Adi’s ruffians. “Most seem to be bandits, or vagabonds. I thought that the men of the frontier were at odds with the Empire.”
Mohammed nodded, his face creasing in a sharp smile.
“Few here love Rome, if any do, my friend. But near every man here knows that Persia is not better and perhaps worse. Under Roman rule, or Roman ‘protection’, there is law of a sort. Under this king of kings, this Chrosoes, there is no law. These chiefs are here to protect the rights and usages that they own today. With Rome, the way that things are done has not changed in hundreds of years. If Persia conquers these lands, everything will be different.”
Ahmet nodded at this, then said “so none of them see an opportunity to better themselves by siding with Persia? To my mind, that would seem a good way to dispose of rivals and make oneself stronger at their expense.”
The southerner laughed, but softly, for one of the guards with ibn’Adi had turned a little, trying to catch their conversation while they walked into the inner camp. They passed through another vaulted gate, but these walls were of worked stone. Four towering men in mail shirts and boiled-leather pteruges stood in the shadows of the passage. They were red-haired and taller by two hands than any man that passed between them. Long swords were hung at their belts and they wore many rings and bracelets on their arms. Ahmet returned the steely gaze of the nearest one as he passed. Germanii, he thought to himself as they entered the Governor’s camp.
“The men that have made that calculation, my friend, and have chosen to side with the King of Kings, are not at this meeting tonight. No, they have already ridden north to Antioch, to join the army of the great prince Shahin.” Mohammed’s voice was low and clear. He had drifted a little behind Ahmet, though he walked close by.
“These are men that have made themselves and their tribes strong under the tutelage of the Empire. If it is driven out, they will suffer by it. These are the men that have ruined their enemies by naming them traitors, or heretics, or taxless. Chiefs like these, whose families have held power for generations under the eye of Rome, are the creatures of the Empire. They use that patronage to control the best trade routes, and to drive out the smaller clans, or break them to their will.”
Ahmet glanced back; Mohammed’s voice was verging into bitter anger.
“Do you hate Rome, then? Have these things happened to your family?”
Mohammed blinked, apparently unaware of his tone.
“Hate Rome? No, I do not hate the Empire. It is as it is. I hate those that oppress the weak, those that drive out the less favored, but the Empire is like a boulder on a mountainside. If it is urged to motion, it cares not what it crushes in passing. The nature of a boulder is to ignore the things that are insignificant to it. A man like you, or I, is immaterial to the boulder. We are too small to harm it. But, I do not love Rome either. How can I? It does not love me.”
Ahead of them, ibn’Adi and his men stopped at the bottom of a set of steps that led up to a broad veranda. Guardsmen stood in the shadows between pools of warm light cast by lanterns hung from iron sconces bolted to the wall. The sheykh turned and motioned to Mohammed, who moved forward and made a small half-bow. Ahmet leaned closer as well.
“Remember, my new friends, that I speak none of these barbarian tongues favored by our hosts.” Ibn’Adi’s voice was deep and very strong, like a high wind on the desert. Ahmet could understand him well, though Aramaic was not his best language. “Al’Quraysh, you will speak for me, while your Egyptian friend will translate what others say. Speak softly, priest; I hear well and I know that others of the chieftains will not have this small advantage that the Lord of the Sky has given me. Let us not give away rams for free, eh? Also, keep your weapons handy. There are those that may cause trouble and if such comes, we must be ready. But do not draw steel unless I command it!”
Mohammed and Ahmet both bowed. The sheykh looked them over, lingering a long time on Mohammed, who assumed a pleasant and inoffensive expression. The old man smiled at last and turned to go inside. As he mounted the steps, he seemed to shrink, one leg seemingly weaker than the other and he leaned more heavily on his staff. Mohammed caught Ahmet’s eye and winked.
Within the wooden house was a high vaulted room with wooden beams supporting a roof of slate tiles. Fifty or sixty men had already gathered in the room, where many couches and divans had been arranged in a rough circle. Tables had been pushed back against the walls, clearing this space. At the far end of the room from the door, a raised dais stood, with an altar of light colored stone upon it. Behind it, on the wall, was the cast image of a bull in corroded greenish bronze. Two rows of fluted wooden columns ran the length of the room. The old chieftain, rather than pushing forward through the men clustered at the center of the room, moved through the crowd to the right, taking up position in front of one of the pillars with Mohammed just in front of him and Ahmet to his left. The three guards settled in behind the pillar.
Lanterns were hung along the beams overhead and there were tapers in copper holders on the pillars. The vaulted space above the beams was already filling with dim smoke, but high above, Ahmet saw that there were openings covered with latticework to let the smoke out. Men continued to enter the chamber, and now noise rose from the center of the room as men jostled for position amongst the couches. Ahmet remained still, for the sheykh was apparently at complete ease leaning against the pillar. Mohammed, too, was content with his view.
Between the men standing in front of him, Ahmet could make out that at the end of the circle of couches away from the door, three divans – more ornate than the rest – were still unoccupied. He was about to ask Mohammed who the assembly was waiting for when there was a commotion at the door. Men’s heads turned and they fell silent.
A party of men in very dark red clothing entered – long capes with deep hoods and glittering silver bracelets and necklaces. Four such men, with narrow, hawk-like faces, entered in a wedge and the desert chieftains and their retainers parted before them like the tide off of a rocky shore. Between them walked a man of middling height with dark olive skin and a neatly trimmed beard. His cheekbones were sharp and he wore very little jewelry, only a ring of gold on each hand and a thin circlet of fine silver metal. He wore a simple tunic of pale rose-colored silk, bound with a black belt. As they passed, Ahmet felt a wave of controlled power roll over him like a soft breeze. A sorcerer, he thought, his other senses pricking fully awake for the first time in many days.
He centered and allowed his vision to expand slightly. The four men in the hoods smoldered with purple-black flame, like the fire that danced at the edge of a hot forge. Ahmet shuddered a little, realizing that each man – obviously the servants of the man in rose – had a spirit bound to it, some hellish imp drawn from the cracks and crevices that sometimes disgorged tormented and dreadful beings into the realm of man. At the center, the man in rose gleamed with concealed strength, like a strong light beheld through a colored glass, or through ice. He turned at the couch on the left of the three and took his ease there. The four hooded men arranged themselves behind him, making no sound. Ahmet wondered if they could sense him, as well.
“This is Aretas, the Ninth of his noble line,” said ibn’Adi from behind the Egyptian in a quiet voice, “he is the prince of the city of Petra in the south. He styles himself the King of the Nabateans, though they are more rightly the subjects of the governor of the Roman province of Arabia Minimis. He is a vain and dangerous man.”
The Petran had seated himself, and accepted a cut crystal cup of wine, when the doors to the room opened again and all of the men turned again to see who had entered. Beside the restrained menace of the Nabatean and his minions, the man who entered struck Ahmet as an inoffensive clerk late to a business meeting of his master. He was tall and thin, balding, with a hooked nose, and his white tunic – though richly hemmed – hung from his frame like a sheet. Four of the red-haired guardsmen flanked him, however, and when he took the center couch, Ahmet knew that he must be the governor of the province of Phoenicia.
“The Roman, Lucius Ulpius Sulpicius, as dry a man as ever birthed by the loins of the Roman wolf. Though his seat of rule is at Tyre on the coast, Damascus is his responsibility.” Ibn’Adi’s voice was tinged with wry respect for the gawky man that now settled, uncomfortably, onto the center couch. His Germans cleared a broad space around him, pushing aside some of the Arabs that had been edging closer to where Aretas was sitting.
Lucius cleared his throat, and then rapped on the arm of his couch with a bony hand.
“Friends, our company is gathered, all but one, but it already grows late and there is much to discuss, so we will begin. I will be brief and blunt – the Empire thanks you for your friendship, shown so well by coming here today, and gathering those men that you command to the standard. It will be rewarded and the Empire will mark those who came when called and who did not.”
Mohammed turned the slightest bit, and whispered to Ahmet; “Ah, Constantinople will remember those that came to lick its hands and kiss its boot when called, like dogs…” Ibn’Adi stilled the younger man with a fierce scowl. Ahmet finished his translation of the governor’s Latin and ibn’Adi nodded.
“An invasion is upon us,” continued the governor, “one that will bring sure disaster to us all if it is not stopped, and stopped well short of Damascus or Tyre. The enemy is strong, the latest report from the north counts his number at nearly sixty thousand men.”
A current of whispering rushed around the room, and Ahmet saw that many of the men around him were startled by the size of the Persian army. He wondered how many lances the chieftains in this room commanded. The sheykh did not seem concerned, however, when Ahmet related this to him. Rather the old man seemed to be more interested in the reactions of the other captains and warlords.
“Do not be alarmed,” said the governor, pressing on through the murmur of his audience, “the count of our own army is equal to that, or greater. Within three days the rest of our forces will have completed the muster here and we shall march north across the mountains to Emesa to meet the invaders. Our will is strong and we will defeat the Persians, driving them back beyond the Euphrates.”
“With what?” One of the chiefs, dressed in a heavy brocade robe and bare-headed, stood from his couch. He sported a thick dark beard that had been carefully braided at the ends, with small jewels bound into it. “I see many brave men here, but the forces we can put to the field are lancers and bowmen on horseback. I hear fine words from Constantinople, but I see no Roman soldiers here. Where are the legions? My men and I rode six days from Gerasa and I saw none upon the road. My cousins tell me that the legion camps at Bostra and Lejjun are empty. I see no Legions here, either. Where is Rome? Where is the Emperor of the East?”
Lucius remained seated, his face calm. “The Legions have been sent to the coast, to Tyre, to receive reinforcements from Egypt and the Western Empire. They will meet us at Emesa, having marched up the coastal road. Three legions – the III Cyrenaicea, the II Triana and the VI Ferrata – will join us there. With those men, and the auxillia they command, our army will number no less than eighty thousand men to stand against the Persians.”
“I do not believe you!” shouted the Gerasan chief, his face reddening with anger. “When the Iron Hats come at us, there will be no Romans there, only us, with our light mail and bows to stop them. This is a bootless venture! Any man that goes north,” the Gerasan turned about, his gaze challenging the crowd, “will be a dead man.”
“This is not so!” Lucius stood at last, his pale face dark with rage, “Rome will not abandon you. The honor of the Empire stands with you, as will its soldiers on the field!”
“Lies!” shouted back the Gerasan, shaking his fist at the governor. “Rome whores us like it does its daughters on the steps of the Forum!” His men began shouting too, and the German guardsmen rushed forward to stand between the southerners and their patron. The room filled with noise, and the men in front of Ahmet pressed forward to see if there would be a fight. Ahmet stepped back, out of the way, and hurriedly related the lurid insults that the Gerasan was defaming the governor with. The edge of ibn’Adi’s lip twitched a little, almost into a smile. His guardsmen closed up, hands on their weapons.
It was impossible to see over the heads of the shouting and gesticulating men in front of them and Ahmet stepped back, running into someone standing behind him. He turned, an apology on his lips and stopped, unable to speak.
(end, page 367, text resumes)