The Sands of Africa
It was a forgotten place, an ancient wasteland that must once have been privy to the great maw of battle between Gods and Titans. All was emptiness and heat, bleached bone and boredom. That such a place existed was beyond reason. In fact, it was beyond sanity itself that men would even cross the sandy seas, the desert.
Lucius Metellus Anguis sat atop his black stallion, a dusty hand shielding his eyes from the burning whiteness enveloping him and his men. He thought that he would be able to see more from the top of the dune, better observe the plodding troops as their column struggled up and down the shifting sand. They had lost the road, covered over the previous night by some god’s howling breath. The Romans longed for that wind now, for some relief from the burning world. But it was not to be, for the heavenly orb beat down on them so that not even their sandaled feet were immune to the ashen earth.
The situation was desperate. The men were grumbling and, it seemed to their young officer, waiting for him to make a mistake. His recent promotion to the rank of Tribune had at first excited him; to be given command of four hundred and eighty men as well as a cavalry unit was a huge responsibility, a challenge he welcomed. His ancestors had commanded Rome’s Legions, been conquerors of Crete, Numidia and Macedonia. Hundreds of years later, Lucius Metellus Anguis, descendant of the Equestrian class, now led a routine patrol to ‘discourage nomad activity along the Empire’s southern frontier’, from Alexandria in Aegyptus to the legionary base of Lambaesis in Numidia. Questions rang loud in his head. Was he capable of command? Could he live up to the expectations that weighed so heavily upon him? The Metelli were staring at him from across Death’s black river, and he could feel their gaze.
Lucius looked down at the sleeves of his tunic where they protruded from beneath his leather and bronze cuirass; it was no longer soft and white, but torn and sweat-stained. The thin purple stripe around the hem, a sign of his rank and class, was faint and grimy. His body was caked with salt and sand, he could feel its coarseness everywhere under his clothing, taste it at the back of his throat. Lucius shifted in the saddle and felt his muscles complain. He swung a leg over the stallion’s black neck and a scorpion skittered away from where his boots disturbed the flour-like sand. He removed his helmet, hung it on one of the four saddle horns and drank from a leather water skin, choked by the wetting of his parched throat. When he recovered, he poured some in the palm of his hand and held it up to the stallion.
“Here, Pegasus. It’s not much but it’ll do until we reach the oasis.” The stallion lapped the liquid up quickly and nudged Lucius with his snout. “All right, here’s some more.” Lucius could not help smiling. His horse was in a better mood than any of the men. That was a problem. He pat the muscular neck as the last of the men passed below. “Time to go.” Lucius swung up into the saddle. Several miles to the south, he could see a dust cloud running parallel to his cohort. He adjusted his crimson cloak, gladius and pugio. His eyes searched through the thick, scentless air. “They’re following us,” he muttered. Pegasus stomped a hoof in the sand and Lucius kicked him down the dune’s steep slope to the front of the marching column.
The first time Lucius saw the desert he was in awe of its simplicity, its beauty. A man could think out in the emptiness, sort through the memories of his past. The senses were heightened too, especially one’s hearing, though some said that in the desert, the keenest sense was one that was inexplicable. Strange things happened among the dunes, beneath the sea-blue sky or on nights when the full moon cast its cool blanket over the land. However, as he rode beneath the fiery sun, Lucius could only think of arriving at the next oasis, of cool water and a campaign cot.
He turned in the saddle to see his men; they were exhausted. It was a dangerous time of day, when strength has been sucked from the limbs and minds wander. To be lulled into a false sense of security could get them killed. Lucius looked again to the south, the cloud was still shadowing them. He turned to his first centurion, Alerio Cornelius Kasen. The centurion nodded, having seen it too. Two weeks into a three-month, two-thousand mile patrol, and already they were being followed. But why were they not attacking? Lucius told himself that his men would be ready when it happened. If only they were on solid ground and not the giving sands of Cyrenaica Province.
When the oasis finally came into view, a wave of elation swept through the ranks of legionaries as though to wash away the day’s misery. No matter that it was a mere scattering of trees or that they had yet to make a fortified camp; the sight of that still pool of water was enough reward, the shade that would be offered by the rustling palms, perfect. Lucius was relieved that the old maps he had been given at the outset of his assignment were correct about the location of each oasis thus far.
“Make camp!” Lucius ordered, his six centurions echoing the command to each of their units. A roar of approval went up and the favourite bawdy songs emerged from the men’s mouths. They shifted heaps of sand and drove their wooden stakes to form the fortifications of their camp around planned avenues which the engineers had quickly laid out. It was routine, and within two hours the fortifications were set. The sand was not ideal terrain for a marching camp but it was essential, especially with their distant travelling companions.
Lucius finished tying off the last peg of his command tent at the centre of camp. The tanned leather was thin and needed stitching in places, but it was his. He unloaded the two chests from the pack horse that carried his things and placed them inside. The first room was for meeting with his officers and beyond that, behind a small partition, was his private area. The first thing he unpacked was always the small stone altar which he placed on a mound of packed sand next to his cot. Next to the altar, he placed a miniature statue of Apollo, his family’s patron god for hundreds of years.
“Tribune?” The voice startled Lucius momentarily but he quickly recognized the hesitant manner of one of his centurions.
“Antanelis. How goes it?”
The young man saluted, then relaxed. “Just wanted to let you know that the sentries have been posted every ten paces and the cavalry auxiliaries sent out on patrol, as you ordered. The rest of the men are eating now.”
“Good. They need the rest.”
“I’ve also brushed down and fed Pegasus for you. He’s just outside your tent.”
“You know, Antanelis, you don’t need to do that for me.” One of the reasons Lucius did not have a slave with him, as was his right as a tribune, was because he did not want someone fussing over him all the time. He preferred to enjoy what few quiet moments he had for himself.
“I know. I just enjoy it…makes me feel normal.” The scar across his forehead reddened and creased in thought as he looked down; it had healed well since Parthia. Lucius thought that if only he had been quicker to pull Antanelis out of the way of that Parthian battle axe, his face would still be youthful, flawless. On the other hand, his friend was alive, and scars suited soldiers, especially silent, tough ones like Antanelis. Ever since that day, the young man had gone out of his way to pay Lucius back for saving his life.
“You’re right. We all need some measure of normalcy in our lives.” Lucius looked at a small cedar box that contained his precious scrolls. “Those are what keep me sane.” He put his hand on the centurion’s shoulder. “Go. Get yourself something to eat. I want all six of you here in three hours.”
“Yes, Tribune!” Antanelis saluted again before leaving.
When he was alone again and had eaten a small meal of dried meat, cheese and dates, Lucius took a piece of incense from a small pouch among his things and lit it on the altar. The camp was quieting down as men washed and drank and nodded into restful oblivion beneath a sleepy pink and orange sky.
Lucius set about his own ritual, removed his armour and weapons, brushed away the dust, polished them. With a folded piece of doeskin dipped in oil, he revived his breastplate, crimson-crested helmet and greaves, paying special attention to the images of embossed dragons on the chest and cheek guards.
“Anguis,” he whispered the word in reverence, dragon. This armour was a Metellus family heirloom, his charge. The images upon it had haunted and mystified him from the day they were placed in his care. The name he bore, signifying his vague branch of the Metelli, had weighed on him from a young age when he and his tutor, Diodoros, had walked the streets of Rome in lesson, until now, in his twenty-fourth year, when battle-hardened veterans spoke the name with superstitious caution or avoided saying that part of his name altogether. By caring for this armour nightly, he was reminded of who he was, and it brought him a sense of pride but also dread.
When the treasured pieces were gleaming, he hung them on a wooden stand in the corner of his tent and began to sharpen and oil his gladius, pugio and spatha, the two former also having seen service in the hands of Metelli warriors. They never left his side.
A bowl of cool water and a sponge had been brought in for him. Lucius removed his tunic and breeches and began to wash the filth from his body. He hated the way he smelled, how his dark hair matted around his scalp, stiff and itchy. They were a long way from the baths of Alexandria.
Alexandria… He passed the sponge over the scar on his arm and memories flooded back, of pain. What was supposed to be a civilized polis had proved to be as barbaric and unendurable as the seediest Cilician port. Each scar on his body held a memory, but this was one he pushed away.
When he was clean and had donned a cleaner tunic over his pteruges, the armoured leather skirt that hung to just above his knees, Lucius knelt in the sand before the smoke-engulfed altar.
“Apollo, guide me…”
Nox in Desertis
‘Night in the Desert’
Lucius was at a stool in the meeting area of his tent, reading a scroll detailing Alexander the Great’s campaigns in the East, when the first of the centurions arrived. He had put his breastplate back on for the meeting as well as his gladius and pugio. He stood tall to greet them, golden-eyed Alerio with his horizontally-crested centurion’s helmet tucked neatly under his arm, solid Antanelis, and the dark, silent Maren.
“The others are on their way,” Alerio offered.
“Good. Have some wine. It’s the last of it until we can replenish our supplies in Cyrene.”
Maren and Alerio helped themselves. Antanelis declined for the moment. The four of them then moved to face the leather map of the southern Empire that hung loosely from the tent frame.
“Don’t bother looking at that thing!” a voice cut into the tent from the entrance. It was Garai, followed by his twin brother, Eligius. “We just started this march. If we start looking at how far we have to go we’ll just have to turn around and go back to Alexandria.”
“Then you’ll miss bathing in Cyrene.” Lucius replied flatly, pointing to the wine and cups. “Eligius, best keep your brother close or else he’ll end up back in the arms of that Alexandrian man he mistook for a woman.”
“That wasn’t my fault!” Garai cut back. Argus recommended that place.” A chuckle went around the group.
“Of course I recommended it! Just for you, Garai.” Argus filled the tent’s entrance, the torches outside holding him in silhouette. Lucius poured a cup of wine and handed it to his boyhood friend.
“About time you arrived.”
“Thanks. Knew you wouldn’t start without me. Besides, I was laying a few lashes on one of my men for having a dull blade. Bastard was going to get himself killed if he fought with that thing. When he heals, he’ll have the keenest edge around.” Argus slapped Lucius on the back and sat on the stool next to the table.
Ever since Argus’ parents had been killed and he had come to stay with the Metelli as one of their own, Lucius had always perceived him as gruff, unrefined and indignant of command. He was also tough as nails and a great asset in any battle. Even so, there were times when Lucius wished his adoptive brother had stayed in Rome all those years ago. He grew tired of worrying about Argus, weary of his jealousies. But, he had ever been there when needed and Lucius wanted to return the favour.
They had all risen through the ranks together and thanks to Lucius, the six others were made centurions when he was given permission to choose officers for his cohort. Each had his strengths and weaknesses but Lucius knew that they worked well together. What did not work well for them was their assignment; each questioned the validity of sending their force, young, tough and seasoned from battle on the plains of Parthia, on a simple patrol against a few desert nomads along a frontier that for all the war on the edges of the Roman Empire, was quiet. Whenever questioned about this matter, Lucius reiterated that Emperor Severus was making changes to the army, changes that were meant to strengthen Rome’s Legions in the aftermath of the civil war. As a result, his cohort was being sent to joint up with the veteran III Augustan Legion, in Numidia.
As the wine was consumed, conversation deteriorated and the seven friends were soon bellowing with raucous laughter.
“All right, all right,” Lucius interrupted another one of Garai’s jokes. “Let’s get down to down business.”
“You mean our friendly desert shadow?” Alerio asked.
“Yes.” Lucius noticed the others nod in agreement, was pleased that the nomad force had not escaped any of them.
“What are we going to do about it, Lucius?” Argus demanded. “We were hunting those camel turd bastards for days and then all of a sudden, they’re following us. We need to engage them!”
“Absolutely,” Eligius chimed in. “Before they take us in the rear.”
“I thought you liked it in the rear.”
“Lucius is trying to tell us something, Argus.” Antanelis stepped up, Argus faced him.
“Stop kissing his ass, Antanelis, or I’ll slap you like a Babylonian whore.”
Lucius jumped in quickly and pushed both men apart. They stepped back; Lucius was taller than both, stronger, but to break up a full-blown fight between them would be no easy thing. The desert was getting to everyone, he could tell.
“Enough!” The Tribune pounded his fist on the table and the men fell silent. Argus stood staring, arms crossed. He hated when Lucius pulled rank. “Listen, all of you!” Alerio stood beside Lucius. “I agree we should engage them. But! There are at least a hundred of them on horse. We’ll never catch them on foot. We have to make use of the cavalry auxiliaries to round them up and drive them against our shield wall.”
“In the open desert, that’s suicide.”
“Maybe Antanelis, but until we reach the populated plains around Cyrene, we can be picked off anyway.” Lucius turned to Alerio. “Has the cavalry reported seeing anything on their patrol?”
“Nothing. Their commander, Brutus, said that they patrolled as far out as ten miles and didn’t see a thing. Maybe the nomads have given up and gone south?”
“Maybe. But I don’t want us to get comfortable. Keep the sentries fresh and torches lighting the edges of camp.”
“So what then? We just sit and wait?”
“That’s right, Argus, at least until we can engage them smartly. I’m not going to take these men off into the deep desert, blind and vulnerable.”
“But what about-”
“Those are your orders.” Lucius turned his back to point to a spot on the map. “We just need to get to Cyrene.” He was silent for a moment.
“We’ll get there,” Alerio said. “And we can replenish supplies, bathe and whore all we want!” He slapped Eligius and Garai on the shoulders. Alerio was always good at lightening the mood when needed.
“Sounds good,” Garai said.
“I’ll see you all in the morning.” Lucius saw them out and each man went back to his century. For a few moments, he stood still in the sand outside his tent, the night sky twinkling fervently; a beautiful night after a day in Hades.
He felt warm breath on the back of his neck where Pegasus had moved to nudge him and Lucius stroked the smooth mane, scratched his ears. He had known he wanted to purchase Pegasus from the first time he saw him in the markets of Alexandria and when he received his promotion and orders, the first thing he did was buy the animal. It cost him much of his savings but, since then, the two of them were inseparable.
Something made Lucius stop for a moment. He stepped onto the main avenue and listened, the glow of dying cooking fires from neighbouring tents lit his face. He could see the dark outline of the oasis palms against the night sky, hear their rustling. But that was all. Still, something ate at him. He spun and went back into his tent. He grabbed a black woollen cloak from a chest and strode out of the tent and down the sandy avenue.
“I’m going on inspection,” he notified the nearest sentry before disappearing into the shadows. The guard saluted, wondered why the Tribune was not abed.
Lucius stopped once he reached the southern edge of camp, stared into the darkness from beneath the hood of his cloak. The two gate sentries had been startled when he appeared from behind them with silent footfalls. They watched now as he strode past the palisade, into the open.
The moon was nearly full, drew him like a heavenly siren humming in the absolute stillness. Lucius felt his breastplate and the image of the dragon, cool to his touch.
“What is it I am supposed to do?” His mouth moved but his voice barely escaped. The desert seemed idyllic in that moment, the peace of it moved Lucius so that his mind sailed through myriad memories, of home, but also of something else, something elusive. “Gods of my ancestors, I will trust your judgment, your guidance.”
He bent over to pick up a handful of cool sand, let it spill through his fingers before picking up another handful and releasing it again.
“Are you well, Tribune?” one of the sentries asked from Lucius’ left, concern in his voice.
Lucius turned to him. “I’m fine, Otho.” The trooper looked surprised that he should remember his name. “Nights like this are rare, aren’t they?”
“Not sure I follow, sir.” Otho planted his rectangular scutum and his pilum in the sand.
“What are you thinking about while at your post? Besides keeping the watch.”
“I suppose I’m thinking of home. Yes, mostly home.”
“What about home?” Lucius smiled.
“The smell of my mother’s honey cakes…and…bringing in the grape harvest.”
“Hmm. Sounds good.” Lucius turned to look out again at the desert. “It’s strange.”
“What’s that, sir?”
“Earlier today, I hated the desert, everything about it. But now, it seems perfect.”
“I suppose I can see what you mean.”
Lucius realised he must have sounded mad to the trooper. “The Gods speak to us out here, Otho. It’s as though the peace allows us to hear them more.”
“The Gods speak to you?” Otho stiffened.
“No, no. That’s not what I meant. What I mean is that you can feel their presence more here, in this place. Does that make sense to you?”
“Can’t say that it does, sir. I’ve never been one to understand the ways of the Gods myself. All’s I do is make what offerings I can, whenever I can.”
Lucius nodded. “That is enough, I’m sure.” He stepped forward. Thought he saw something near one of the tall palms. “Did you see that?”
The sharp hissing was immediately followed by an impact and then gasping. Lucius spun to see Otho clawing where a black arrow had pierced through both sides of his neck. His eyes were wide in horror as he stumbled backward. Two more arrows whizzed by Lucius before he grabbed Otho’s shield and spear. Another arrow ricocheted off the shield boss.
“ATTACK! ATTACK!” he yelled back to the camp. A horn began to sound and the other gate sentry was running with two others to where Lucius straddled the fallen man’s body, shield up.
The attackers were everywhere, it seemed, their wraith-like shadows flying sporadically like frenzied flies upon a fresh kill. Lucius peered over the rim of the scutum and cursed himself for not having worn his helmet. Black horses sped around the entire camp. He looked back to the three men.
“Shields on me! Form up! Where’s the damned cavalry?”
“I sent a man to wake them, sir!” The first man replied as the four men locked shields and backed toward the camp. Then, three horseman formed up and charged the small group.
“Here they come! Ready pila… Iacite!” Lucius gave the order and all four spears were sent flying. Two of the riders were impaled but the third persisted. “Kneel! Swords up!” As the horseman came to the shield wall, the men crouched behind their shields and sliced upward. The horse screamed as it soared over them and tumbled in the sand. Lucius leaped away from the group and disembowelled the rider before he could get his bearings. “Quickly, back to camp!”
By that time, Argus had formed up his century in front of the gate to which Lucius and the others were driving.
“Lucius!” Argus called. “Who is it?”
“Nomads. Stay here, they’re everywhere.”
“No buts, centurion! Hold them off here! Don’t go out in the open.” Argus slammed his vinerod into his hand. Lucius looked about. “Where’s the damn cavalry?”
“Right here, Tribune.” Brutus, the cavalry captain, appeared at the gate with a squad.
Lucius strode up to him. “I want you to drive them against us and the palisade. Go!” the man hesitated. “That’s an order, swine!” Lucius smacked the man’s horse’s rump and the cavalry disappeared. He looked back to see men lined up between the camp’s sharpened stakes, shields up and pila ready between the torches. Lucius stood with Argus at the front of the century.
Arrows continued to fly and hiss in the darkness. A few distant screams could be heard above the neighing of horses on the other side of camp.
“What’s going on?” Argus stepped out from the line. The night turned silent again.
“Where’d they go? Damn auxiliaries let them get away!” Lucius peered out into the stillness, beyond where Otho’s body lay in the sand. The attackers were gone. “They’ve bloody vanished.”
“Impossible.” Argus stood next to him. “We should’ve gone after them.”
“Not now, Argus,” Lucius muttered through clenched teeth. “Maybe the cavalry is pursuing them. Stay here, stay alert!” Lucius ordered before taking two men to retrieve their comrade’s body.
There were no other attacks that night. After an hour, the Egyptian cavalry captain named Brutus, returned with his men. Lucius questioned him immediately. Apparently, they had ridden hard in pursuit of the nomad force, deep into the desert.
“And?” Lucius asked. “Where did they go? How many were there? How many did you kill?”
Brutus stared back, his dark round head making no effort to hide the smugness with which he viewed the young tribune and his equally young centurions. He never wanted this assignment in the first place.
“I don’t know where they went, Tribune. There weren’t that many of them.”
“Then it should have been easy for you and your men to round the bastards up,” Lucius answered. His anger was evident. He hated being taken by surprise. If they had not built a camp they would have been massacred where they slept. Something inside told him to be wary of the man before him.
Argus stepped up to Brutus. “The Tribune asked you a question, camel fucker.”
Lucius put his hand on Argus’ shoulder, subtly pulled him back. “Well, Brutus? Where are they?”
“We only captured one, sir.”
“Where is he? Bring him in here so we can question him.”
Brutus smirked, turned to one of his men, signalled for him to bring the prisoner in. A moment later, two auxiliaries returned carrying a black-robed man between them. They approached Lucius and the centurions and dropped their burden into the sand.
“What’s this?” Lucius demanded.
“Your prisoner, sir.”
“He’s dead. How in Hades can we question him now?”
“That’s your decision, sir.”
Brutus had no time to react as Argus landed a crushing blow into his stomach with his vinerod, winding him to his knees.
“Centurion!” Lucius pushed Argus away. Alerio noted the look of satisfaction on Argus’ face. “Get him out of here!” Lucius ordered the two cavalrymen to take Brutus back to his tent, leaving himself and the other centurions staring at the nomad corpse. He looked at the others. “How many men have we lost?”
Antanelis spoke. “Three, Tribune. Otho and two others.”
“Could have been worse,” Maren added.
Lucius looked at him. “Could have been better.” He knelt down to look at the corpse, pull back the black face coverings. “Mars plays with me.” For a moment, Lucius hesitated. All the attackers had been dressed the same, true, but for an instant it seemed to him that the wounds on this one were similar to the ones he had inflicted on the horseman who had charged them. He dismissed the thought; sword and kill techniques with a gladius were common to every trooper because of their training. Any man in the cohort might have inflicted a similar wound. He stood up. “We’ll hold funeral rites for the three dead men at sun up. Make sure the pyres are set.”
The centurions saluted and left to see that order and discipline had been re-established in their units. Few men slept the remainder of the night. Their boring routine patrol had turned nightmarish.
Several days later, when the night attack had faded into the memory of odd and forgotten occurrences of so many army careers, the cohort finally neared civilization and the fertile plains of Cyrene.
They were to camp outside the city for two nights, in which time two centuries at a time were to be given leave to go within the walls to enjoy the pleasures that awaited them, whether bathing, drinking, gambling or whoring. Each man, tired and stinking, had his own idea as to what form his relaxation would take and envisioned it in minute detail from the time those heavenly grain fields and olive groves waved in the distance.
Cyrenaica and Africa Proconsularis were rich, as befits the granaries of an empire. The cohort marched on over the lush flat lands with ease. All that could be seen for miles and miles now were golden fields and row after row of silver-leaved groves. Though the fruit was not yet ready for harvest, some men could not resist plucking plump olives from the branches as they passed to suck on their bitterness. Soon enough, the fruit would be pressed into oil to be sent to all corners of the Roman world.
Lucius closed his eyes for a moment and felt a faint breeze on his face, hinting at the distant sea. Instead of the harsh feeling of dry, gritty air, their lungs now heaved with delight as the strong scent of the local presses that still lingered reached their nostrils. The Gods seemed to be smiling once again.
At Lucius’ orders, they made camp on a plateau of over thirty hectares that provided a defensive position and a decent view of the surrounding area. Immediately, the tribune sent out cavalry scouts. He did not want any surprises this time.
When his tent was secured and with a little spare time to himself that afternoon while Garai and Eligius’ centuries went into town, Lucius settled to read passages from his scrolls. He sought inspiration to reinforce the commander he knew dwelt within. Whether he read from Virgil, Caesar’s diaries, or Arrian’s account of Alexander’s campaigns, every time he unrolled the papyrus scrolls and considered the words therein, he felt enriched, better-armed to deal with the next day.
It was not until he was at peace, alone, that Lucius Metellus Anguis realised the great responsibility that he now faced. He was not commanding legions but, he was, in a more intimate way, charged with the lives of close to five hundred men. He knew many of them too. Like an eagle with her hatchlings on some far-flung eyrie, it was within his power to either push the men into a dark, craggy void or to rouse their courage to fly into the heavens, uncaring of what lay below. Their lives were in his hands. He hoped, and in some way feared, that they trusted him implicitly. Men were often sent to die on the fields of foreign lands and, only too often, had he seen the actions of arrogant generals and cowards cost lives. For Lucius, when he boarded the black boat for the Otherworld, he did not want throngs of dead and vengeful warriors he had led awaiting him on the sad shore. The thought was too terrifying for any man of arms.
As evening swirled the sky in colours of plum and pomegranate, Lucius found himself walking amid the olive trees at the bottom of the plateau. He had finished his inspection of the camp and took the opportunity to walk alone for a while, away from the camp’s noise.
The silvery leaves reminded him of summers at his family’s Etrurian estate. As a child he would play among the trees along the stream on hot days, sometimes alone or with Argus, other times with his sister. Alene… He had not written to her since Alexandria, forgot how much he missed her. The years had flown.
He stopped abruptly, froze. A serpent was coiling its way around his ankle. It slithered and stopped, as though feeling Lucius’ eyes on it. He thought of reaching for his sword but knew that could frighten it into attack. Besides, he was in a land where snakes were highly sacred. Sacrilege was not something he wanted hanging over his head. He breathed calmly and watched as the creature moved on, like quicksilver through hot sand. Lucius smiled to himself.
“Stay still, Lucius!” Argus’ blade ripped through the silent air to sever the serpent’s body. It shuddered several times and then was still, its blood clotting the dusty ground.
“Why did you do that?” Lucius turned on Argus, his reverie broken.
Argus protested, shocked by his friend’s reaction. “What do you mean? I just saved your life!”
“It was moving on.” Lucius looked down at the pathetic remnants, ants already crawling on the bloody bits. “Those are sacred here, Argus.”
“Oh get over it! You can’t believe that! The last thing I want is to watch you spasm and foam at the mouth before I have to carry your dead body the rest of the way to Lambaesis. Good thing I came down here when I did.”
Lucius just shook his head, unable to comprehend his friend’s actions at times, his disregard. He did not want to argue. “What was it you wanted anyway?”
Argus frowned. He knew that Lucius would not agree with him this time. “Just letting you know that Eligius and Garai are back. I think something happened in the town.”
“Perfect.” Lucius rubbed his tightening jaw, turned and walked back up the plateau embankment. As he went, he heard several hollow thumps and knew that Argus was cutting up the rest of the mangled serpent in frustration.
When Eligius and Garai entered the command tent, Lucius was standing, arms crossed, staring absently at the map on the wall. The two men stopped and looked at each other before speaking.
“What happened?” Lucius spoke first.
“It wasn’t that bad, Lucius, I mean, Tribune.” Garai forgot there were others just outside the tent. They were supposed to address Lucius formally around the men.
Eligius continued. “Apparently, two of our men were gambling at one of the taverns. They say that two of the local auxiliaries cheated and when they called them on it a fight broke out. You know how these things work; one man throws a punch and then the whole bloody place is in an uproar.”
Lucius’ face was stern, thoughtful. “We’re trying to keep the honest people of this region warm to us. We’re here to help them against the nomads who raid their farms. But how are we going to do this, how are we going to nurture the people’s trust in us, in Rome, if we start brawls in their home?”
“We won’t.” Garai continued. “There were several witnesses who said that the local guys started the brawl. I paid the tavern keeper and made a show of reprimanding our men, even though they are innocent.”
“Doesn’t matter if they are innocent or not. Discipline them. Put them on latrine duty for the next six days, digging and filling the pits.”
“Isn’t that a bit harsh?”
“No. Listen to me, both of you. We need to maintain our discipline, that’s what makes this army. Do it.”
“Fine. Yes Tribune.” The two men saluted.
“One more thing,” Lucius remembered. “Did you stop by the offices of the city Prefect to tell him I would be by tomorrow?”
“Yes we did.” Eligius answered. “His name’s Cassius Meladoros. Another fat-assed merchant turned frontier administrator. We told him that you would be by after you visited the baths. He’s expecting you.”
“Good. Thanks to you both.” Lucius smiled half-heartedly to them, knew that they thought he was overreacting. He tried not to let it anger him.
By the time the sun had risen over the plains to set alight the new day, Lucius was riding along the road to Cyrene with Argus, Antanelis, their two centuries and a small contingent of cavalry, including Brutus.
The young tribune had been eager to see the city. While Carthage had always been the wealthiest and most prosperous city of Africa Proconsularis, the other large cities of the neighbouring provinces, especially Cyrene, had begun to rival the might of the former Punic capital. To protect their wealthy populace from attacks, the cities were fortified with stone walls. Each city built monuments to display its wealth: bath complexes, theatres, libraries and temples to the Gods. Lucius looked forward to walking the civilized streets and experiencing all of the stimuli that he had missed in the desert.