One Last Battle
For several miles in the relentless desert heat, our small band moved slowly and steadily north. Intermittent grumbling by some of the men, followed by gloomy silence then sudden angry outbursts was the pattern. We were thirsty, hungry, and tired, but we couldn’t stop. Our immediate goal, which was ill defined, was Raphana. Few of us had even heard of it, let along visited this desert town. Finally, in the distance, we could see the foothills of mountains, which, Decimus found encouraging. It meant, or so he believed, that there could be trees and water there. Since Raphana was further than expected, we might even stop there for the night, if we could find water and shade. We spotted nomads in the far distance, but they were moving away not toward us. It now seemed that they were the least of our concerns. By the time we reached the foothills, the tight legionary formation of two-by-two had degenerated into a straggling line of sweating, half-delirious men, strung out over a wide stretch of the road. In spite of our predicament, Decimus and Aulus attempted unsuccessfully several times to tighten up the procession and force us back into formation, but the long hours of shepherding this motley band then watching over us as we slept had taken its toll on them. Practically leaderless, as the optio and his lieutenant wilted in their saddles, we drifted northward like tumbleweeds, guided by the rider in front toward the distant hills.
Had we been attacked then we would have been annihilated. We could have been picked off by archers one-by-one and no one would have the wiser. In spite of our predicament, I found the strength a few times to check on our pack animals. Caesarius once told me that they were a hardier breed than horses, and yet I feared that both the pack animals and our poor mounts were ready to collapse. Aulus had the presence of mind, after my last inspection, to grab my reins and bring me forward, after I succumbed to the heat and began straggling far behind the line of riders. Finally, as one of those rippling mirage tricking the eyes, it appeared: the hills at the edge of the desert. Ibrim, who believed in the jinns, had explained this phenomenon to us earlier, and distrusted what he saw.
“It...could...be...a...trap,” he rasped, “...a sand devil...careful, my friends.”
No one paid much attention to the little Arab. In their last gasp of energy, they whipped their horses and raced toward the trees. On my plodding mount, I could barely keep up. I hadn’t the heart to whip my poor mule. Turning back that moment, I gasped at the sight of the pack animals trailing pitifully behind.
“The mules,” I gasped, “we must tend to the mules.”
“You tend to them!” Apollo cried.
“There’s a well,” Ajax screamed, out of breath, “...It’s there in the trees!”
“Slow down men,” Aulus cautioned, “your horses are worn out too.”
We could scarcely believe our good luck. Once again, we found a Roman well. The men acted like children. Even Aulus lost his head. Through it all, though, soon after we drank our fill, Decimus and I struggled with the bucket after it was detached from its rope, and, moving back and forth from the well, watered each of the horses and mules. No one had the energy to dig a water trench this time. I volunteered again to find the animals forage. There was wild wheat growing in the meadow near the rocky foothills. We led the beasts into the meadow and tethered them to bushes so they might graze, while the men drank their fill and lounged limply around the well. What little food we had left was doled out by Decimus. After waking up Aulus and shoving a moldy hunk of bread into his hand, he ordered him to join him on the first watch. I asked the optio if I could stay with the horses and mules. I could barely keep awake, yet I managed a prayer of thankfulness that the poor beasts would eat their fill. Sitting with my back against a rock, I tried to focus on the horses and mules, but found my head drooping lower and lower, until I slipped once again into that dark place called sleep. I slept for an indeterminate period of time, a shadowy dreamscape playing in my head. Into the darkness came a shrill voice sounding the alarm: “Rise, prepare yourself. When they come, keep your head. You will be tested sorely, Jude, but the Lord is with you. Wake up—they’re here!”
Standing up, with sword drawn and jaw set, I scanned the meadow for marauders. Though I could see nothing, I heard a great commotion in the center of the forest: shouts, screams, and the clatter of swords—unmistakable sounds of battle. From everything I had heard about the desert people, I knew they probably wanted to steal our horses and mules. Feeling great responsibility for our animals, my first concern was protecting them from the thieving horseman raiding our camp. I stood my ground, waiting for them to get past Decimus and his men. As the first horseman galloped into the meadow, lance held shoulder level, ready to throw it when he got in range, it seemed it might be over quickly for me. The voice had promised me that I would survive, but it had said nothing about the others. The appearance of the warrior seemed to signal the slaughter of my comrades. It would take another miracle to save me from this man, let alone my friends. Vaulting over the rock I had rested against, I barely escaped the first thrust of his lance. Without a bow or spear myself, I had to think fast. This wasn’t easy in my present condition and state of mind. When he raced toward me again, a thought came to me in pure desperation: I would take his weapon. There was nothing else I could do. Dodging the next thrust after switching to the other side of the rock, I grabbed the shaft and held on to it with all my strength. He swore at me as I hung on it, and rode around in circles in an effort to dislodge me from the lance. To my dismay, some of the animals panicked during the commotion and broke their tethers. A second and third rider entered the meadow as I wrestled the lance out of his hands. As the first man rode away before I had a chance to throw his lance, the second and third man immediately went after the horses and mules. This was what they wanted in the first place. Their one-tracked minds helped save my life. What also helped, as a fourth horseman galloped into the meadow, rushing toward me with bow raised and arrow notched, was Abzug’s marksmanship. Though he had shown cowardice on our last ride, his aim was precise. The Bedouin rolled back over the rump of his horse, an arrow in his chest, his sword falling to the ground. Hefting the curved sword, I ran over to the men attempting to untie our animals and swung it wildly. They thought my action humorous at first. Instead of killing me outright with a lance or sword swipe, they rode around me in circles taunting me, as a fifth rider, chased by Fronto, also swinging one of the nomads swords, swooped up the jointly tied reins of several of the beasts and began to ride away. Whooping crazily, my antagonists followed behind the first horse thief, deftly cutting the Gordian knot to divvy out the reins. I struck one warrior in the leg as I held the big sword in both hands yet was unable to unhorse him. The next close call for me followed as I staggered around looking for the gladius I had foolishly dropped on the ground. The curved blade was too big and unwieldy for me. I was angry that our horses and mules were being stolen and my inability to do anything but act like a buffoon. To my delight, Fronto brought down one of the horse thieves with the first horseman’s discarded spear, while the others continued unimpeded to lead the animals away. Picking his sword back up afterwards, Fronto joined Apollo and Ajax, who stood back to back swinging and slicing at a trio circling horsemen, who thrust at them viciously, until finally one of them hit Ajax squarely in the heart. Abzug and Ibrim, who had been busily firing off arrows at the horseman, many of which whistled past their marks, paused with looks of shock. Apollo gave a wounded cry. Tossing aside the unwieldy weapon, the Egyptian showed a streak of bravery not yet seen. Grabbing the very lance that had just stabbed his arm, he pulled the rider from his horse by his weapon and, pulling out his dagger, slit the man’s throat. From there, he found another man nearly unhorsed that I had wounded with my sword, pulled him off his mount and slit his throat too. Meanwhile, Rufus had also acted courageously by vaulting forward and physically pulling one man from his horse after he tossed his lance. Instead of using his knife as Apollo, however, he raised up a curved sword and cut off the man’s screaming head. The horror surrounding me had numbed my fears. Another man thundered into the meadow that moment, galloping toward Fronto to spike his back. Fortunately for the Thracian, however, one of Ibrim’s arrows hit its target. Unable to find my own gladius in the wheat, I ran over, pulled Ajax’s sword from its sheath and went on the attack. Mostly, I just made a lot of noise, as I ran around waving the blade. The mêlée had moved quickly to the meadow when it became apparent to the others as it had to me, that they wanted the horses and mules. This wasn’t a “Roman-killing” mission by angry nomads as our other encounters had been. Until Ajax’s death, most of my friends had still been alive, now Apollo had been wounded, and to my dismay Decimus had been wounded too. With his arm slung over Aulus’ shoulder he was being ushered to safety by his faithful friend. Wordlessly, it had been understood that we could not lose our mounts and pack animals. This far from the nearest city with more hostiles in the vicinity, might prove to be a death sentence for us, and it was evident to all of us that this band of nomads had been on a raid to capture our horses and mules. Unlike the men in black and the men in white, as we nicknamed them, these fellows were dressed in colorful tunics and pants that were probably taken from the dead men they had robbed. They were mounted and we were on foot and outnumbered us at least two to one. Now many of them were angry with us for killing their tribesmen and paused to do battle with us as we attempted to keep our horses and mules.
In retrospect, I think the Romans and auxilia should have given up much sooner before retreating to a hillside cave. Aulus and the seriously injured optio were already there. My mistake was standing on the slope to watch them finally capture my frightened mule. “Goodbye Gladius,” I called out, as Rufus tried tugging at my arm. For me the delay proved to be even more serious as I lagged first behind the Gaul and then the Thracian, who, scratched up badly himself, assisted the limping Apollo, as Abzug and Ibrim gave them cover by firing their remaining arrows over our heads. This time the missiles flew wildly, clattering on the rocks at horseman attempted the climb. Fortunately, for the fleeing men, the attackers’ horses couldn’t navigate the slope. Unfortunately for me, I had waited too long to escape the pursuit. Suddenly from a distance, a loop of rope, which was called a laquerari by the Romans, was thrown around my shoulders, quickly tightening around my arms so that the horsemen below was able to drag me mercilessly down the hill. To my added misfortune, our two archers finally ran out of arrows. With impunity, as his friends cheered him below, the horseman pulled me in like a fish. That moment, I didn’t care what the voice in the desert had told me. Either God had abandoned me or my luck had just run out. Scraped and bruised, I tried holding onto small boulders or the bushes growing on the slope but to no avail. Then, for a brief moment, help was again on the way. Of all the people to come to my aid during this crisis, Abzug dropped his useless bow and, pulling out his dagger, scrambled down the rock-strewn hill in an effort to cut the line. I glanced back that moment to see Apollo, Fronto, Rufus, and Ibrim look on in shock as a lancer struck him down and the rider pull me free of a bush. Abzug lie dying with a spear in his stomach, bringing the death toll on our journey to seven. Now I was being captured by desert people, which left only five men left in the cave.
Swooping over with a net now, they threw it over me, and then, swiftly and expertly, wrapped the rope around both me and the netting, picked me up rudely, and fastened me facedown on one of the stolen mules. Light-headed and hysterical, I realized it was, in fact, my mule. Perhaps it was my imagination but it seemed as if he realized it was me slung over his back. His frightened whinnying immediately ceased, he turned his head, and nudged my side. That strange calm came over me as it had before during a crisis. I couldn’t see my comrades with my face pressed against the back of my mule, but I could imagine their sorrow. Some of them had tried to save me. One of them had paid with his life. Vesto, Enrod, Geta, Langullus, Caesarius, Ajax, and now Abzug were dead. Decimus and Apollo had been wounded, and the six survivors were now stranded without food or mounts. I managed short prayers for their safety and that the optio and Egyptian wouldn’t die too. After the voice’s last two messages, it remained silent now. I understood, from listening to my friends, what my capture meant. Like the horses and mules stolen, I was a victim of the desert peoples’ raid. The animals, of course, were more fortunate than me. The mules would probably be used as beasts of burden for the Bedouins and the horses likely sold to a caravan passing through. Their lives couldn’t be any worse than before, but what was happening to me those moments seemed worse than death. If they didn’t take me somewhere and torture me to death, they would haul me back to their camp, brand me, then sell me at a slave auction in some far off place.
I yearned for the voice once heard in my despair. Both times it had give me ominous warnings, but its promise had been true: at least I was alive. As the nomads carted me into the desert, my ribcage ached and legs and arms burned from the cuts and lacerations received during my capture, but the worst wounds were in my mind. I felt completely cutoff and alone. Blind fate or my own stupidity must have led me to this end. Now, as I began that more terrible journey, I felt abandoned by God. Perhaps, I had just run out of luck.