Thanks to his strength of character, his powers of perception and evaluation and his insistence upon needing me, I was permitted to survive the ending of an entire world, and then to begin a new life at an age when other men were lying down to die.
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Now that I am truly old, the fear of leaving that tale untold, and thereby consigning my friend to eternal anonymity, unsung and unrecognized, strengthens me to write. Having found that strength, I have struggled to find a beginning for my tale, the way a boy will search perversely for the centre of an onion, blinding himself with tears as he pursues his folly. There is, I now know, no real beginning. There is only memory, which flows where the terrain takes it.
Caius Cornelius Britannicus was not a good invalid. He resented being confined to bed, but until the hole in his thigh mended there was not a thing he could do about it. Regrettably, as a direct result of that, those first few days were the worst I ever spent in his company. I was grateful to him, but he was hard to take on an empty stomach, and since I spent most of those first days puking up the medicines Mitros was feeding me, my stomach was certainly empty a good deal.
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I would have been happier sharing those quarters with an angry leopard. He did eventually begin to settle down, however, and to accept his enforced inactivity with more characteristic philosophy. From that point on, we talked — rather, he talked and I listened, throwing my occasional copper contribution onto his pile of silver and golden ones. From time to time, the monotony of our confinement would be broken when one or the other of us would have a visitor, but the men who came to visit me were awkward and uncomfortable in the presence of my august host and companion.
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To me, he was my Legate, my companion-in-arms for years, and a trusted friend. To my visitors, he was "Old Eagle Face," their commanding general, and therefore their nemesis and their god. They shuffled and whispered and fidgeted and couldn't wait to get out of there. On one of those occasions, after a very brief visit by two of my subordinate cohort centurions, I turned to Britannicus and found him asleep, flat on his back, his high-ridged nose outlined against the light. The image brought back a surge of memories. Africa, You don't spend two years on active service in Africa without learning to get out of the sun during the hottest part of the day.
I had been sheltered and reasonably comfortable, dozing quietly, when something startled me awake. I lay there motionless, holding my breath, my ears straining, and waited for whatever had made the noise to make it again. Then, somewhere behind me, just on the edge of my hearing range, a camel coughed, and this time the sound brought me to my knees, head down below the tops of the rocks that shaded me, as I tried to isolate the direction it had come from.
A Roman soldier meets few friendly strangers in the desert; none of them ever rides a camel. There were five men, four of them mounted on camels and wearing the long, black, stifling clothes of the nomadic barbarians who infested these desert lands. The fifth man walked between two of the riders, and something in his posture, even at that distance, told me he walked with his hands bound behind him; the fact that he was walking at all made it obvious he was a prisoner.
They were about a mile from me when I first saw them shimmering through the heat haze, and they approached steadily and slowly until the walker fell to his knees, forcing the little procession to stop and wait for him to get back to his feet. Even from almost a mile away I could see that he was one of my own kind, for he wore a short, military-style tunic. I could see, too, that he was just about finished. I flattened myself to my rock, my eyes barely clearing the top of the small hill I was on, and watched the poor swine weaving and staggering as the group drew closer to my hiding place.
They had him strung by the neck with two ropes, each one stretching to one of the riders who flanked him. I had no worries about their finding me. They would pass close by to my left, heading directly to the water hole, the only water around for miles. I had been there at dawn. I had drunk my fill and replenished my water bags, and then I had looked around and chosen this boulder-strewn hill to hide on during the long day.
Here, I was sheltered from the sun and from visitors by high rocks and a strategically hung cloak, and my horse was comfortable and well hidden. I had left no visible tracks for any casual or inquisitive eye to see. I was waiting for nightfall, when I would cross the five leagues of desert between me and the sea coast, and pick up a galley to take me out of Africa, home to Britain along the coasts of Iberia and Gaul. I detest Africa. I loathe it from the bottom of my legionary's soul, and for the best of reasons, which I share with every other grunt who ever humped a military pack across its God-forsaken sands: I went there as a soldier.
To me, it is a country with only two faces, one of which is false. The false face is a harlot's mask, painted to disguise corruption and decay. It is the face of urban Africa, gaudy with gross and exotic luxuries. It is the face most often seen by Rome's diplomats and wealthy, travelling merchants. Away from the flesh-pots and the palaces of its major cities, however, Africa shows its other face, its real face, to Rome's soldiers.
That sneering face is twisted with hatred, toxic with hostility. The soldiers who police Africa's lethal wastelands on foot have no illusions about its vastness or its mysteries; to them, Africa is Hades, a miserable, sweltering place of unpleasant duty, unbearable temperatures and unrelieved harshness. They know it to be peopled with alien, violent creatures whose feral natures reflect their environment.
Its people are nomads — grim desert tribesmen whose lives seem wholly dedicated to strife in the form of never-ending local wars and vicious blood feuds.
They call themselves Berbers, and the only common cause they ever seem to make is to war against Rome's soldiers. In consequence, the soldiers of Rome, down through the centuries, have regarded them with a mixture of awe and hatred and sullen respect, treating them as the most implacably savage warriors in the world, and convinced that the word "barbarian" was coined far back in antiquity to describe the Berbers of Africa. These were the men at whom I was peering now.
I felt sorry for their prisoner, but I didn't even consider trying to help him. There were four of those whoresons, and they had two free camels to string me between. I just crouched there, half standing and half leaning, hugging my rock, watching and waiting for them to pass by. The prisoner fell to his knees again at about the closest point of their sweep by me, less than a hundred and fifty paces from where I watched. One of his two captors was not paying attention to him and didn't see him go down, so the rope joining the two of them together became taut and jerked the prisoner flat onto his face in the rock-strewn sand.
I winced, imagining the stinging pain of the gritty impact, but it must have been insignificant beside the pain that followed it, for the rider cursed and slashed a long whip across the shoulders of the prostrate man. It did not provoke as much as a flinch.
The prisoner was either dead or unconscious. With a disgusted curse, the fellow who had wielded the whip brought his camel to its knees and slid to the ground, approaching the prisoner and pulling his face up out of the sand by a handful of hair. The sand-caked mask gave no sign of life, but the man was obviously still alive, because his captor dropped him back to the ground and went to his camel, where he undid the neck of a water bag and splashed some of the liquid onto an end of the cloth that wrapped his head and hung down in front of him.
Then, still clutching the water bag, he went back to the unconscious man, pulled his head up again and roughly wiped the caked sand from his face, so that I saw fair, sun-bronzed skin appear.
It took some time, but the prisoner eventually regained his senses, helped by a generous quantity of water that I knew was offered only because of the plentiful supply nearby. As soon as he seemed capable of standing upright again, the barbarian hauled him to his feet and left him there, swaying, while he climbed back up onto his camel. None of his three companions had either moved or spoken. I heard the guttural "Hut! That look had the effect on me of an unexpected plunge into icy water.
My skin broke out in goose-flesh and my gut stirred in sheer horror. I knew him. And I knew, suddenly, that this time and this place had been preordained, that the whim that had brought me here had had a supernatural origin.
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I am not a superstitious man, and I was far less so then, but I knew that this was my destiny, my fate. I've heard a lot of men say that they relived their entire lives in one flash of time when they thought they were going to die. That wasn't quite what happened to me then, but I have never had a stranger experience than I did at that moment, when smells, sounds, feelings and sights assaulted me without warning from a time four years earlier.
I had been on campaign at the time, on the eastern borders of the Empire, but for all I knew as I struggled awake that day, I could have been anywhere. I was flat on my back, completely disoriented, with no knowledge of what had happened to me. And then a surging memory of battle, of being surrounded by screaming, barbarous faces, brought a swell of panic into my throat, and I started to scramble to my feet. And that's when my mind told me I had been killed, because try as I would, I couldn't move a muscle.
I couldn't even scream — couldn't bite my tongue. The panic inside me rose to choking point, but then I heard my heart thumping like a drum in my ears, assuring me I was alive.
I fought down the panic and willed myself to relax. I lay there for a while, forcing myself to breathe slowly and deeply and to consider the evidence of the senses I had working for me. I could smell, hear and feel, for a fat fly had landed on my cheek and crawled into my open mouth. I tried to spit it out. Terror writhed in me again like a mass of maggots. I was afraid to try to open my eyes in case they were already open and I was blind as well as paralyzed.
The fly flew out of my mouth; one second I could feel it on my tongue, and the next it was gone.
I tried to open my eyes slowly. They were working, at least, but the light was blinding and I felt the muscles of my eyelids rebelling against my efforts. The rest of my body was dead. I could feel absolutely nothing below my mouth. I have no idea how long I lay there, but eventually the bright light against my eyelids seemed to dim and I felt a coolness on my face, and then a solitary raindrop hit the bridge of my nose with a force and a suddenness that snapped my eyes open.
I was lying on my back, my face directly towards a sky that was heavy with banked rain clouds.