R. Cameron Cooke
Rome: Sword of the Legion
The wind moaned over the sand.
It was an endless wind that scratched the powder from the tops of the dunes to feed the red cloud churning across the desert floor. The roiling wind searched for something to catch it, something that it could make dance or knock down. The wind howled, lifting the malleable earth from one spot to another in its desperate quest, but its piercing breath found nothing, only endless plains and more burning sand. Not a tree, nor a scrap of desert shrub, not even a blade of grass could be sought out in this accursed land.
The wind fought with the sun for mastery of this plain, but together they protected it from all trespassers, greeting the unwelcome with sand-choking thirst and death. For countless millennia, they had guarded these lands, burying the kingdoms of frail men who dared try to usurp them. Bleached bones and buried ruins stood stark still as their trophies – forewarnings to those who might try again.
At last, the wind discovered the newest of these interlopers.
Three camels lay in the midst of the maelstrom, seemingly impervious to the violent sands shifting all around them. Their bulky frames, with legs tucked under, were arranged in a small triangle. Stretched tightly and drawn between the massive beasts, a canvas sheet buffeted as if the next gust would carry it away. Beneath the sheet, three men huddled against the hides of their prostrate mounts. Each man covered his face with the slack of his headdress, for even the air inside the shelter was thick with fine dust. The wind outside had the persistence of a living thing.
“This is what you call a small outing, Roman?” one man uttered before quickly returning the cloth to his wind-burned face.
“I made no promises,” the deep voice of the largest of the three answered. The mail shirt worn beneath the desert cloak was visible at the neckline, along with the massive dimensions of the chest beneath it.
“No promises?” the other said hotly. He had the tan face of an Egyptian, but his features were rounder and softer than the Roman’s. He had the manicured hands of one who spent little time performing manual labor. “Promises are all we have heard from you for nine days. Nothing but promises! You have taken us farther and farther into this infernal desert, and have delivered nothing!”
“Calm yourself, Ganymedes.” This was the third man who spoke now. He sat calmly against the hide of his mount, with elbows on his knees. He too had tan skin, but of a different shade. He could belong to any of several races. “I infinitely prefer the wind to your endless rambling.”
“Watch your tongue, Demetrius,” Ganymedes snapped. “We may be far from the queen’s court, but that does not mean you can relax your respect for my position.”
“My apologies, Your Excellency,” Demetrius replied without much enthusiasm. “I merely meant to say that I believe the centurion knows what he is doing.”
“How can you say that after nine days with no sign of water – nay, no sign of life? This Roman talks of nothing but that which is out of reach. Always tomorrow, or over the next rise, or just up ahead. When will it come? Perhaps the sun has gotten to your head, Demetrius! You forget that this Roman would be better off if he left us in the desert to die!”
“Of course, that is not true. You well know he is bound to us by an oath. And he will never see a single denarii of the reward you have promised him if he does not take us to what we seek. Now, will you calm yourself?”
Centurion Lucius Domitius peered at his companions through the narrow slit in his turban. They were looking back at him, as if to find something in his eyes to confirm Demetrius’s statement. But he did not give them the satisfaction. No, it would be better if they were left guessing. The farther they journeyed into the desert, the more he had the advantage.
Many hours passed before the storm subsided and the fine dust began to once again settle back to the shifting dunes. With few words exchanged between them, Lucius and his companions loaded their camels to continue on their journey. Lucius noticed Demetrius removing a long wooden pole from a bundle of similar poles attached to the back of his mount. Demetrius then firmly planted the pole atop the nearest high dune, where the affixed flag instantly caught the wind and whipped around wildly.
“Have I not told you that is a useless endeavor?” Lucius said. “You have done that every day now for ten days. Those markers will not help us on our return. They are gone in the next gust of wind.”
“You will forgive me, Roman, if I don’t entirely trust your sense of direction.”
Demetrius appeared nonchalant over the whole affair, but Lucius knew that he was holding something back. Unlike the other two, Lucius did not lend a voice to his own suspicions.
Demetrius approached him and asked in an almost indifferent manner, “I was right, wasn’t I, Centurion? You are leading us there. I would be sorely distressed if I learned that your story about the priest was not completely truthful.” He rested one hand on the hilt of his sword. Demetrius was not a small man, and, like Lucius, he was a warrior by trade. Still, Lucius laughed out loud at the gesture.
“You have never tried me, Demetrius. You know little about me. But perhaps someday we will dance the dance of death together, eh? I am ready to accommodate you at anytime.”
Demetrius smiled guardedly. “I know enough about you to know that I would not prefer that. I would prefer we remained comrades in this endeavor. But you would do well not to discount my abilities, either!”
“Must I die of thirst while the two of you posture,” the paunchy Ganymedes called from his mount. “That Roman promised me an oasis. It is up ahead, or he is a liar! Oh, and don’t bother threatening me, Roman. I am already beyond caring. Give me drink, or give me your gladius that I may throw myself upon it. Let us go!”
As they rode, Demetrius kept a wary eye on the Roman. He reached down and patted the unstrung bow strapped to his saddle, happy that it was there in the event that he had to use it. It had been a wise precaution, especially since he had good reason to believe that the centurion was his superior at sword play.
Riding up ahead, Lucius knew that the Egyptian’s eyes were on him, as they had been from the moment the three men had started on this journey, and he considered what an unlikely turn of events had resulted in him crossing a desert he had never seen before, guiding two men whom he did not trust, nor they him.
They rode hour upon hour, their mounts leaving fresh tracks in the virgin sand while the sun baked them without mercy. The sky was devoid of even a single cloud to give them a moment’s reprieve. The heat and the endless repetitive gait of the long-legged desert beasts set Lucius’s thoughts adrift. Had it been only two weeks, or had it been years, since he was in Alexandria at the head of his century? Had it been only two weeks since he led them into battle? It seemed unbelievable, but it was not a mere trick of his sun-scorched mind. Yes, he had been there, in Alexandria, embroiled in another of Caesar’s perilous battles, fighting against a people with whom he had no quarrel other than their defiance of the blessed consul’s wishes. Now, his century were all slain, and he was far from Caesar and his Roman comrades. The ornate palaces and temples of Alexandria were hundreds of leagues from the accursed sands now stirred by his camel’s hooves.
His mind drifted back and began to play the events over again in his head.
Alexandria – the city of enlightenment, of the great library, of the great philosophers, of countless religious cults, where East met West, where merchants of a thousand kingdoms lighted, beckoned like a siren by the towering lighthouse, where goods and knowledge held equal value – this renowned place had become Caesar’s next battlefield.
The situation in Alexandria had been precarious, almost complete lunacy, one might conclude. Fresh from defeating the forces of Pompey the Great in the heart of the Greek lands, the consul Julius Caesar had arrived in Egypt with two understrength legions, the Sixth and the Twenty-Eighth. The men were all Pompeian troops, defeated in battle and now sworn in loyalty to Caesar – all except for a few dozen centurions, like Lucius, pilfered from Caesar’s own legions and assigned to lead their former enemies.
From the start, Caesar found himself in a hazardous position. Upon arriving in Egypt, he was immediately caught up in the inner turmoil between the squabbling heirs of the deceased pharaoh. Through the enchantment of the Egyptian princess Cleopatra, Caesar declared for her, and committed both himself and his men to her cause. This, of course, incensed Cleopatra’s rivals – her siblings – and the Romans immediately fell under siege by the more numerous Alexandrian army.
Lucius had only seen the fabled princess once or twice during the siege, and she had not particularly struck him as anything to bare his sword for. She was short, hook-nosed, with curves a bit too abrupt for his liking. She must have had a devilry in her tongue, however, because she had thoroughly conquered the great Caesar. The f ...