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Chapter Fourteen

 

The Men in Black

 

 

 

The conversation of religion died down completely after the optio’s short speech, not because of his words, but because of the Bedouins appearing suddenly in our path.  A thin line of darkly clad nomads sat on each side of the highway, a lone rider, perhaps the leader, positioned in the middle of the road.  They just sat there on their mounts, blocking our passage—still shadows in the sunlight, waiting for our next move.  After reining in our mounts, we studied the dark shapes, whispering fearfully back and forth.  They were horseman, not camel riders.  Unlike the previous nomads atop their beasts, these Bedouins had the advantage of speed and agility we had.  Decimus and Aulus had thought we might reach Raphana late tomorrow, but our recent battle on the dune made that impossible.  We would, Decimus believed, arrive at another oasis soon.  Unfortunately, for the past hour, there had been none in sight.  Here we were again in the middle of nowhere.  Before we reached an oasis to prepare for a possible attack, we were caught once again out in the open.  While we sat pondering our fate, the new band of Bedouins began galloping our way.

As if we didn’t already know, Decimus bellowed, “These are different foes.  They’re mounted warriors, fortunately a smaller band than the first.  Like the last bunch, they want our horses and mules.  Our best bet is ride up the nearest hill, so we can position ourselves.  Those of you with bows move quickly ahead of us to give us as much cover as you can.”

The five men with bows—Ibrim, Abzug, Aulus, Rufus, and Fronto (who handed me his spear) galloped ahead as Caesarius and I led the slower moving mules by their reins up the slope.  I had strapped a lance to my saddle after the last battle, hoping I would not have to use this weapon.  Now, thanks to the big Thracian, I had two of them.

“What am I suppose to do with this?” I turned wide-eyed and terrified to Caesarius. “I can scarcely manage the one I have!”

“Here,” he said, reaching out as we detoured off the road, “gimme one.”

“Maybe they want to parley,” Geta cried out hopefully.

“We’ll soon find out!” shouted Decimus. “You there Thaddeus and Caesarius,” he barked, “take the pack animals down the other side of the hill.  Some of them will yell and scream in order to distract us, as others swoop in and first try to steal our mules.  I’ve seen this tactic before.  The remainder of you, Apollo, Ajax, Geta, and Langullus, must engage these fellows.  They’re not on camels.  I’m sorry.  We won’t be able to flank them this time.  We’ll have to fight them face-to-face.”

“We’re dead men,” Geta groaned.

“You die only once, my friend,” Langullus seemed filled with a strange calm. “The faint-hearted die thousand deaths waiting for the end.… I will kill as many of those jackals as possible before I die.”

Caesarius and I barely had enough time to find cover on the other side of the hill before the Bedouins fell upon us.  As I fumbled with the lance strapped to my mule, Caesarius handed me the reins that had been tied together and charged ahead with his lance.  After a short soul-searching moment I realized that Langullus was right.  We could only die once.  Stealing myself with the Psalmist’s words, I tied the reigns to a sun-bleached acacia bush, retrieved my spear, pulled out my gladius with my free hand, and ran screaming up the hill, “Aaaaaaaaah!  Eeeeeeeeh!” 

At a sweeping glance, almost exactly as Decimus had promised, I saw more than half of the nomads attacking the mounted Romans, veterans, and auxilia, while a smaller number galloped over the hill in hopes of snatching away Vesto and Enrod’s horses and the pack mules.  Expertly, as before, Abzug brought down the first warrior with an arrow in the chest, and Ibrim placed an arrow in the second Arab’s throat.  These shots, done on horseback, were impressive feats, but the most stunning exploit was accomplished by our leader Decimus.  At a great disadvantage with his small stabbing sword and compact shield, he raced toward one of the nomads who, swinging his curved sword, was ready to lop off Langullus’ exposed head.  The old veteran was barely able to manage his sword, shield, and mount, as he galloped into the fray.  Decimus, who was able to manage this feat, charged the back of the nomad, ran him threw, and ordered Langullus to leave the hill.  Langullus, however, seeing a spear on the ground, tossed his shield and gladius aside, climbed off his mule (a foolish act) and brandished it at an advancing Bedouin, who, knocking the lance aside, reached down and ran him through.  Following this tragic event, was a close call for Aulus, whose arm was nearly hacked off by one of the blades.  Almost unmanned by the saber swinging horseman, Aulus regained his courage and retreating to a safe distance, pulled out his bow, set an arrow in place, aimed, shot and missed the nomad, an action that slowed the man down enough for Apollo to come alongside of him, with a captured sword, and strike him down.  Sheathing his gladius and pulling the saber out of the man’s hand before he fell off his horse, Decimus charged one of the horsemen who were swinging his curved sword menacingly at Geta, catching him squarely on the head.  Barely escaping death, Geta drew back his reins in horror as the attacker fell mortally wounded onto the ground.  By now it was evident to me as I watched this contest that using the large, curved blade was difficult even for the Bedouin while in the saddle and, conversely, using the Roman gladius proved to be almost suicidal against such a sword.  Decimus was only able to hit his target from behind, and Geta’s effort to use shield and short sword almost cost him his life.

At this point, I watched Rufus ride suddenly into the fray.  I don’t know where he had been up until now.  He had been acting strangely since his brothers’ death.  Now, bereft of his senses, he fired his bow as Aulus had from his mount with little more success.  After one arrow, then another flew over a Bedouin’s head, he threw down his bow, climbed off his horse, and, following Fronto’s example, ran ahead waving one of the dead nomad’s swords.  Bringing the mighty saber down upon a unhorsed nomad’s head, he split his skull almost in two then confronted a horseman with a spear found lying on the ground, who immediately galloped away.  Of all the soldiers on the hill, the Thracian giant was the most fierce-looking warrior.  A fourth and fifth nomad, who saw him racing toward them to protect Rufus’ back, also fled.  Meanwhile, the remaining ten Arabs circled Decimus, Aulus, Ajax, Apollo, and Geta, thrusting their spears menacingly at the men. Though the spear points were deflected by their shields, this action was wearing down their quarry.  Abzug and Ibrim continued to fire off arrows at the Arabs, rarely hitting the moving targets.  Soon, at this rate, our archers would be out of missiles.  While Abzug emptied his quiver, Ibrim boldly ran around retrieving arrows spent in the sand.  Completely vulnerable on the ground, Ibrim climbed back on his mount and rode away a safe distance to Abzug’s firing line.   Rufus and Fronto remounted, brandishing lances and swords in each hand.

Until then Caesarius, like me, had been a bystander.  Since it had been demonstrated that a Roman gladius and shield was no match for the Arab’s slashing sword, Caesarius began doing what Rufus, Fronto, Ajax, and Apollo were doing and rode around the engaged fighters nipping at their backs, staying just out of range of the deadly swords.  This action turned several of the lancers away from the encircled men.  One of the Arabs had a wound on the cheek but managed to escape.  Because of the inequality in weaponry, Geta was nearly a casualty himself during the antics of the Arabs, until, jumping off his horse and stumbling on the ground, he picked up discarded spear and, without a second thought, tossed it at one of the attackers.  To my surprise, the normally cowardly veteran’s aim was true.  The target, rode away, with the lance protruding on each side of his arm.  Ajax finished off another rider unhorsed by Ibrim’s arrow, with a stabbing thrust.  I expected the huge Thracian and most of the others to comport themselves well, but I could scarcely believe how Fronto tossed his spear, picked up the dead man’s fallen weapon and, still on foot, went to engage a mounted Arab, who reared up his horse, that kicked threateningly at his face, then galloped away.  Three of the Bedouins who appeared to flee earlier now rode back waving their deadly blades.  Geta, dazed and weaponless, clipped by a slashing saber, staggered away to collapse on the ground.  Geta, like Langullus and Enrod earlier, had not been up to such a mle.  Seriously wounded now, he tried rising to his feet and was finished off by a horseman’s lance.  Looking back numbly as I sat on my mule, I watched another trio of mounted nomads struggling to untie the reins I tied to the bush.  Little did they know, Jesus had taught my brothers and I how to tie Gordian knots, which were almost impossible to unfasten.  It was difficult for the nomads’ large, unwieldy weapons to slash the knot fastened to the branches.  To help facilitate their efforts, they climbed off their horses and tackled the job in earnest. 

After playing the coward this hour, I saw my chance.  There was no time to dally.  The pack animals must not be taken.  I must stop them before they steal our precious mules.  Hefting my spear, raising it up carefully, and throwing it with all my strength, I watched it pierce a nomad’s back, emerging halfway through the other side.  After this it was a blur of motion.  I had only a gladius in my hand afterwards, and yet I caught the second man squarely in the skull dropping him at once.  The first and second members of the trio had fallen dead, but I was forced now to fight an dismounted warrior face to face, my small weapon against his great sword.  Waving it wildly in the air as I clutched my shield, I prayed and swore several oaths, frantically dodging the slicing blade.  I was almost certain that I would be struck down, but remembered Langullus words, “you can only die once,” so I made my stand.  When, after receiving a glancing blow on my shield and nearly being unhorsed, I rode up and down the hill to avoid a deathblow, feeling that strange calm I had experience back on the dune.  “Lord God, protect me!” I cried out.  What brought down the rider, however, was the arrival and quick thinking action of Decimus, one of my human protectors, who with a captured sword engaged the warrior in a spectacular duel.

By now the battle on the hill was over.  The surviving Bedouins escaped to fight another day.  The remnant of our band sat on their mounts watching the action on the slope.  They hadn’t seen me throw my spear and hit the first horse thief nor did they see my crack the second man’s skull.  All they saw as they galloped down the hill was the optio’s coming to my rescue, but the aftermath must have appeared obvious to them.  There were two dead men lying in the immediate vicinity, as Decimus dueled the third man.  I gathered my wits, reached down to cut the branch holding the reins, and, gripping the Gordian knot holding the reins together, led the mules and two horses a safe distance away.  Looking back at the valiant Roman, I said another prayer.  The two large blades clanked against each other repeatedly until Ibrim took it upon himself to bring Decimus’ adversary down.  Falling off his horse and onto the soft dirt, he rolled over, the arrow protruding from his stomach, and was given a deathblow by Decimus’ sword.  Setting the unfamiliar weapon aside, he exchanged it for his gladius, which he quickly sheathed, then, fastening his helmet to his saddle, wearily handed over to me the reins to his horse.  The Romans, like the auxilia, in fact, followed his example, dismounted, and walked around stabbing and hacking with lances and swords the Arabs lying on the hill to make sure they were dead, but also to vent their anger for their fallen friends.  Fronto, Abzug and Ibrim were just angry that the two veterans had fallen and kicked, poked, and stabbed a few, but the Egyptian, Greek, and Gaul went about the task with malicious glee.  Disgusted with this anticlimax after such brave action by the men, Decimus and Aulus demanded that they stop defiling the dead. 

“Ah, Decimus,” cried Apollo, “you fought fight like the Reaper!”  

Raising up a decapitated head, he threw it down with a thud, and then, as if it was a ball, kicked it across the ground.  Not to be outdone, Rufus, still enraged by his brother’s death, tossed the head he had cut off high into the air, swatting it playfully with his sword as it fell to earth.  This excess sickened the Romans and me.  Noting the others actions, Fronto and Ibrim withdrew their weapons sheepishly and returned them to their sheathes.  While the Egyptian and Gaul stood by the road with bloody swords, Ajax raised, not one, but two bloody trophies up by their hair, exclaiming dementedly, “Look at these two rogues—they don’t look so fierce now.” 

“Yes, well done—all of us,” Apollo cried.  “Decimus, you split his head almost in two.  I prefer cutting off the blackhearts’ heads.” “Phitt-phitt,” he cackled madly, waving the Bedouin blade in the air, “they cut clean and quickly.  They make fine swords!”

Rufus threw up another severed head and kicked it this time in mid-flight. 

“You men stop this at once!” barked Aulus. “Now we have to clean up another mess.”

“All of you,” Decimus called hoarsely, “catch your breath, drink, eat a handful of dates to gain your strength, then dig a long trench beside the hill, as you did before, to bury these men. We must be on the road and settled at our next stop soon!”

“Aulus,” I heard the optio mutter discreetly, “those men may or may not be back with reinforcements, but there could be others ahead.  We have to hurry.  Out of no sense of reverence, we must, as we did before, bury these bodies to hide the evidence, especially those headless men, but if it looks like its going to take too long, we’ll have to stop and get back on the road.”

On foot now, while I was left to watch their horses along with the mules, they pulled their shovels from their saddles and, after Decimus used a lance to probe for the softest soil, the difficult task began at a likely spot.  I stood there in the sunlight, sweating, weary to the marrow of my bones, wondering how I had managed to kill those two men.  It must have been the will of God that spared my life and lessened the mortality of our men.  It had to be Him, I thought, looking up at the sky.  So it must be true as Jesus said: I have a mission.  Could it be that Jesus believed my decision to join the legion and become a scribe was God’s plan?  However strange that was, the Lord was with me.  Because of me, though we lost Vesto, Enrod, Langullus, and Geta, it still seemed like a miracle.  Once again, against fierce desert nomads, we hadn’t been massacred.

While everyone else was digging the trench, they cast Apollo and Ajax looks of disdain and contempt.  Rufus, who was not himself, had only our pity.  Fronto and Ibrim frowned at me, too, as I seemed to dawdle, concerned that I wasn’t doing my share.

            “Someone had to watch the animals,” the optio clipped. “He’s done enough.” “That’s right men,” he called out, “like the last time—just enough depth for a row of bodies.  We’ll pile rocks on it afterwards like before.  We’ll bury Geta and Langullus when we stop for the night.”   

“Where were you Thaddeus?” Ajax asked me accusingly as I stood wrapped in my thoughts, “you weren’t on the hill. Why didn’t you help us out?”

“I did,” I said in a small voice.

“Oh, how so?” Ibrim frowned

“He guarded our mules.  That was his job,” Caesarius announced in my defense.

“But he was sitting on his horse,” Apollo observed. “I saw him ride away.  We needed his sword!”

“No,” Aulus shook his head, “he didn’t run; he did as he was told.”

“He did more than that,” Decimus said, raising his fist to his chest. “Before you men caught sight of it, it was over.  I salute him.  He killed two of these black robed fiends while guarding the mules, one with a lance, the other with his sword.  I saw it with my own eyes.”

“Thaddeus, you rascal,” Fronto cried, “was it the spear I gave you?”

“I’m not sure,” I answered, scratching my head, “it all happened so fast.”

The men murmured with awe and disbelief amongst themselves.  The Greek and Egyptian stood in the background, as Caesarius, Fronto, Abzug, Ibrim, and Rufus dropped their shovels, rushed forward, patted my shoulder, gripped my forearm, and rustled my hair.  Decimus and Aulus stood back, with arms folded, smiling at me with satisfaction.  Indeed, with my new name and the skills taught me by my protectors, they had helped keep me alive.  Though he was an eyewitness, the optio could scarcely believe I had killed two more men.  Aulus laughed heartily as the big Thracian lifted me up into the air.  Eventually, not to look small-minded amongst the group, Ajax and Apollo congratulated me, the Egyptian complimenting me on my mastery of the lance. 

It appeared on the surface, at least, that I had won them all.  In good humor, Decimus asked the men to finish the trench and bury the Bedouins.  After we climbed aboard our mounts, we resumed our journey in search of the next oasis, keeping a wary eye in all directions for the men in black.  Concerned about our safety but also about our thirsty horses and mules, Decimus rode up and down the procession, urging us to make haste to our next stop.  Perhaps because they were as exhausted as me or were worried about being ambushed by more nomads, no one spoke until we reached our next stop.  It was the first time our group had been so quiet.  I was almost convinced of my feeling that God was watching over me.  I had, with His guidance, helped save the men at Ecdippa, and here in the Syrian Desert I saved our mules and horses from being stolen and killed two more men.  God must have a purpose for me, but I was still not sure what it was.

 

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