The cisium wasn't luxurious, and came uncarpeted and not too clean, but it would do fine for the brief time they would spend in it. He could take two guards in back, and two drivers in front, and with Flautus in the cab, he was well protected without attracting undue notice, he knew.
From what he observed already, the local gentry and landed nobles customarily traveled with far more attendants than this, deliberately drawing attention to themselves.
Also, it had no special markings of state on it. It would draw less attention that way, for which Rutilius was thankful. Every spy in that part of Aegyptus would have spotted them immediately if he had kept the Prefect's carriage, instead of using it as a decoy in Alexandrea.
With Flautus in his new clothes seated beside him looking like a fellow patrician and travelling companion, not a servant guard, they would appear to passers-by to be just like many other wealthy Graeco-Roman businessmen on the road, going to some market center or city.
Taken as such, they couldn't be singled out. They were well-nigh unnoticeable!
Keeping the window blinds lowered to make it even more difficult for spies, Rutilius was determined to put as much distance as he could between them and Alexandrea's seething "snake pit".
Perhaps his problems with assassins could thus be outdistanced, the further he traveled into the heart of Aegyptus and its steaming, tropical delta, he thought. If not, at least he wasn't standing still, a most convenient object to shoot arrows at!
Let them catch me if they can! he thought, as he peered out between the blinds out at the rapidly passing fields. There were dark, sun-burnt Delta farmers laboriously pulling out the tall ripe flax by the roots or leading out cattle to draw the plow for a second crop on harvested fields or hauling gathered produce of diverse kinds, fruit and grains both, to market in the nearest big cities in their ox-carts.
If the peasantry were too poor to own or to hire a wagon, they performed the tasks of beasts of burden themselves, with their produce heaped on their backs in huge bundles that were so big the man beneath vanished and only his legs were visible as he moved along down the road.
The seemingly timeless, rural scene was totally unlike that of Italia's stately scenes--the people were generally so small and dark skinned, from long exposure to the merciless, scorching African sun evidently.
They dressed differently too-- men from the fields and villages commonly going about bare as their animals and without a shred of dignity or shame, and often in city streets preferring to wear nothing at all, or, if more modest, a simple, ridiculous loin cloth strip in front tied in front with a string around the waist and left to flutter in the breeze!
Country women displayed themselves with more selection, if not modesty. They wore decent enough robes but their bosums often were left bare for babies held at the hip to suck. Yet despite their immodestly bare breasts, they took much care about their faces! These they hid with long scarves, rather than expose themselves to the sun god's rays.
Rutilius glanced at Flautus from time to time, and as a poet by nature, he could not help wondering how he was taking in this strange, new to him world of Aegyptus and all its outlandish customs and fashions. But he didn't ask him, as it wasn't done, to ask such things of a servant--really a slave for life.
Masters and slaves did not share thoughts and feelings--a gulf stood between their classes, and it had always been so. Could anyone change it? No man yet had ever changed it, or bridged that vast gulf!
Yet he had to try! Though he had made a start of confiding in Flautus back at the clothier's shop, he still had difficulty mastering his own inbred reluctance to treat his servant as he would a fellow patrician.
Just the same he felt he needed to reach a even greater understanding with Flautus as the journey brought them closer to the road south of Pelusium in the delta. Their mutual security behooved that he achieve understanding. Before they started on the great caravan road to Petra, it was necessary, Rutilius thought, to make known his full intentions to Flautus, so that there would be no misunderstanding further on when conditions might demand very quick responses.
After all, the desert wilderness would be quite another thing from civilized Italia, or even Alexandrea. He knew he wasn't accustomed to the great desert regions, and neither was Flautus.
Then soon they would have to find someone who knew the wilderness they would be entering, someone who could be trusted. They might not be able to find such a person, slave or free. What then?
Well, he decided they would just have to press on in their ignorance, which was a dangerous thing to do, inviting disclosure of their identity and capture. But that was better than remaining within the reach of whoever had assaulted him at Alexandrea and had tracked him all the way from Classis!
Since he had given secret word to Firmus to set sail without him, holding the messengers on board in temporary custody to serve as decoys, he could be reasonably assured that his enemies would be misled for a time. That was all he needed to get well away from Alexandrea.
Perhaps his pursuers would even take ship and follow Firmus to Caesarea, or go round by the road to Gaza, thence to Caesarea, and await the ship there. Either way, he wouldn't be landing there for them to attack. He would come by a much more round-about way, all as quietly as he could, without announcing himself to any official. Even this was mere calculation, and might not work, but how else could he have arranged it better?
He was glad he had extensive lines of credit arranged by his estate agents at cities all the way to Antioch, and before leaving Alexandrea had drawn a small fortune for use on the journey, which he divided up for himself and Flautus to carry.
He also had the crown jewels of Queen Immadatha, the Numidian emeralds, as a last resort, in case they might be needed for a special bribe, or payment of a ransom for himself and Flautus if they were captured.
Even in the worst situations, Money, in sufficient amounts, can always change allegiances, he knew. Few men, indeed, could resist the lure of instant wealth--that was the Way of the World.
The excitement of his hurriedly executed but complicated escape from Alexandrea had tired him out, he felt. Once the excitement wore off he felt the heavy, relentless strain of his time in Alexander's City break out like an ache over his whole body.
Was he coming down with something? One of the notorious Aegyptian plagues that carried so many of the natives off in their young ages?
He didn't think so, he was careful of the water, he drank it only with wine, and did not eat the local foods, which Romans all presumed were tainted by the unwashed common people's urine and spittle in retaliation for being servants to them.
As for the contagions of the river and the swamps, well, he hadn't yet been exposed to them. No, he decided, it was just the strain of having to play cat and mouse so long, ever since leaving Classis. This was something new to him.
Before Classis, he had lived a very quiet, sedate, cleanly life without affairs with hired women or other men's wandering wives, dealing with the affairs of the family estates and his various public offices, Governor of Roma, Governor of the Imperial Library and Archives, etc., as they came up and eventually expired.
Now all that life of leisure and routine official business was over--he had crossed over a sea of unknown, unmapped, storm-tossed waters, dark and treacherous waters which might never permit his return to the settled and privileged patrician's life ever again.
The rocking motion of the carriage soon brought his chin down to his chest, and his thoughts returned to the most recent events...
In any case, he will do nothing about the attempt to take my life. He knew that if he let things be--those who pursue me might yet succeed--so that suggests HE is a secret party, a collaborator, with the assassin and whoever commissioned him! False man! I should have this base creature arrested and questioned, but would the Pretorium commander recognize my superior authority? I think not! The Eastern Empire has been acting entirely too independent of Ravenna for quite some time now, knowing our weakness under the last few emperors, and Honorius's faltering leadership for the first years hasn't helped inspire unity either!"
These thoughts prompted Rutilius to do some fast thinking, some quick planning on his next moves, even as he stalked out of the Prefect's palace and got into the Prefect's cisium.
First, he had to ditch the cisium and the Prefect's guards. But to a point they would be useful, as they provided some protection for a brief time, though it might not last long, as perhaps they had been instructed to do nothing when the next attack came. Ordering Flautus to be ready to fight at any moment, he waited as the cisium moved toward Canopus Street and its hundreds and thousands of shops, warehouses, emporiums and banks.
With the Prefect's flags and insignia on the cisium, and the uniforms of the guards marking them as well, it wasn't so likely they would be ambushed in so public a place, he thought, as that would precipitate a scandal for the Prefect he might have difficulty explaining to both Ravenna and Nova Roma.
He was right, as the cisium began traveling down Canopus Street, still without incident.
Rutilius sighed with relief, as he saw what an imposing bank it was--with its own guards, and numerous staff. He could see he would be safer there than anywhere else he might choose to be.
It was still so public a place, with hundreds of people in the street, and uncountable carriages, Rutilius knew he had little cause to fear an assassination attempt being staged there. If one had been planned, it would probably take place further down along the street or away from Canopus and then at a point somewhere on the way to the ship, perhaps at the docks where assassins were ten for a denarius.
Wasting no time in the cisium, he bolted for the bank and Flautus protected him from behind, as they moved quickly into the guarded entrance of the bank.
Rutilius announced himself to the guards, and the word was quickly taken to the bank's proprietors, and Banker Lucian himself and his two sons came out to personally conduct him to private chambers.
An hour later, business concluded, Rutilius left with Flautus, but had the bank's cisium brought up, though to a side street, not directly to the front. He arranged it with Lucian and his sons, that the bank's cisium would, however, discreetly follow the Prefect's carriage as they passed on down the main street.
He explained to Lucian that he needed the second carriage to carry things he intended to buy at various shops. He did not add anything to that, as there was no need to tell him anymore of his plan than that.
His next stop was a clothier for the wealthy, noble class.
The bank's cisium was brought up to the clothier's premises, for when he would have need of it.
But before he and Flautus left the cisium, he took the opportunity to have a private word with him.
"Flautus, listen carefully! There is no time to repeat anything. I have to speak quickly, to get it all across to you in a few moments.
We are not returning to the ship! And this carriage is not the one we will be using to leave the city--we will be transferring to the bank's cisium very soon after we leave here, in fact.
Understand? I will count on you to arrange this for me, as I will not be seen speaking to the postillions or the driver. It is best they do not get any good impression about me, or hear anything I say that they can repeat later when questioned."
Flautus's eyes widened, but he nodded at each point. "Yes, I will speak with them, sire, whatever it is you want them to do!"
Rutilius could see that Flautus was not slow of wit and was fully up to whatever task he had to give him, and he was happy to see this--though he could scarcely feel anything at the moment but the great urgency to finish the preparations.
He cut to the chase: "We must evade whoever is pursuing us--either to rob me of the emeralds I am carrying or simply to kill me, to prevent me from carrying out the Emperor Honorius's mission. This is the way we will try to do it. I know this cannot all be understood now, but later we can talk it over, if we should survive to see another day, that is."
He saw Flautus's eyes widen even more at this remark, but he couldn't help it. He had to bring these remarks to a conclusion soon, or the guards would be wondering what was detaining them.
"Now, to continue! This carriage will be ordered to driven to the ship. I will have two hired men be taken in the carriage to the ship, with a particular message, and they will be dressed in our clothes, in order to look like us. They will think that is their purpose in being hired, merely delivering a message, when actually it is something different, which I will explain to you, but which you must not even hint of to them.
"I already left orders with Captain Firmus to sail without us, but he is wait until the messengers arrive, then he is to seize the ones I send, these two fellows who will be conveyed there by the Prefect's postillions and driver. I am sorry they may not like this, but there lives are not at stake, and they will not be harmed, which cannot be said for myself and you!
"Now why are we at the clothier's? We must buy replacements for our clothes, and a second set too, then change into them. Our discarded garments will go to the messengers I will hire, and they will put them on and then board the Prefect's carriage without speaking to the postillions or driver, of course, as they will have orders given them before we leave the shop. It is then going to depart with the two men dressed as us, and we will follow in the bank's cisium with the second change of clothes we shall be buying, but only for a short distance. Then we are to turn and leave Canopus Street and melt into the rest of the city and head to the eastern road to Nilotus connected with the main south road to Porta Berenicea. Along that route they would come to the roadhead for the Coast Road and the Road to Petra, he knew from his itinerarium.
"Now we must go through with it, or face whatever my enemies have planned! And I doubt they will make another mistake, in not sending more than one assassin as they did at the Library! Ready, Flautus?"
Flautus nodded his understanding of all this, and, assured it was now or never, then they left the cisium, with Flautus covering Rutilius as they went into the clothier's shop, which also was a large, well-staffed establishment, acquainted with serving the most wealthy and noble classes of the city.
At the clothing shop of Odysseus Hathorius of Oxyrhynnchus and Alexandrea, Rutilius found a very accommodating owner in the rather dark-skinned, multi-lingual Aegyptian proprietor. A brazier burned incense just like in a temple, emitting jasmine scent and some other musky fragrance mixed with amber. A fountain of scented water flowed from marble fount carved to resemble a leaping satyr with a jug that was losing a continual stream of its contents into a small pool.
Sweetly smiling little maidens sat beside the pool, holding lotuses in their hands and little gold plates of sweet cakes. The proprieter seemed to miss nothing to amuse or gratify his customer's every wish for luxury and attention!
Judging by their lovely forms and sparkling, nearly transparent linen clothing, the whole staff of servants too seemed highly trained and able to satisfy every demand of service put on them by their master, even to playing harps and other musical instruments.
But before they entered the seeming paradise of delights, one of the servants delivered a message from Rutilius out to the postillions and driver waiting with the Prefect's carriage.
They were directed to wait until the Governor and his servant came and boarded, then next go directly to the ship from Ravenna tied up at the Ram's Head dock.
That was all they were told, and no more was needed.
Meanwhile, the clothier brought out clothes for his wealthy patron Rutilius, and as soon as he had picked out two complete sets of clothes, for himself and Flautus, that would be most suitable for travelling in the desert.
Rutilius took care to buy a purse that wrapped around his midriff, that he used to hold the emeralds and his money, and he bought one for Flautus too that would keep a portion of the money as well.
Soon as he and Flautus were wearing the first set of new sandals, robes and cloaks and they were approved by Rutilius, he explained to the bowing clothier that he was needing two young men as messengers, only not drawn from his own servants, but those who could be hired off the street. "Of course, Governor, I will do as you say!"
He slapped his hands together, a servant came up and bowed to both Rutilius and his owner, and then he was sent out to get two such men.
It took only a few moments. Within a few feet of the clothier were hundreds of such fellows lounging in Alexandrea's public markets and shop-lined streets, uneducated fellows of poor prospects, hoping for someone to hire them to run errands for pay, and their most frequent employers were shopkeepers, bankers, traders, shippers and their patrons.
The clothier thought nothing unordinary about this request, and had two such young men fetched immediately to the shop.
Rutilius found they knew no Latin, of course, being Greek-speaking with the uncouth, sloppy, slurring Aegyptian accent of course, but the clothier translated for Rutilius, since precisely classical Attic Greek would be utterly lost on the two who spoke only the bastard dialect of Koine common in Alexandrea's lowest classes.
The clothier handled the entire communication, which Rutilius preferred he do, thinking it best not to let them even hear the sound of his voice, in case later they were seized, tortured and made to tell all they knew about these very events--the standard treament by the authorities for such trash.
A little money was given each of them by the clothier that Rutilius handed him, and the pair were then attired in the fine garments they were given--the clothier explaining that, for the sake of his establishment's honor and name, they would look better in them when delivering an important message for his patron.
The two did not protest, hearing this reasonable explanation for their good fortune at being made to look so well-dressed, and seemed very pleased with the bargain, as their street clothes were poor quality and rather dirty too, and even Flautus's garments were much finer than theirs.
This accomplished, Rutilius had the clothier send the second set of their clothes out to the bank's cisium waiting a little further down the street.
Then it was time to execute the remainder of the plan!
The two messengers went out dressed gentlemanly as Rutilius and Flautus, and without a word, climbed in the carriage as they had been instructed by the clothier.
Another word was sent out to the second carriage to come.
The Prefect's carriage was then driven off. The bank's carriage drew up to the clothier, and the second change of garments was taken out to the carriage, and Rutilius and Flautus, after delivering them with the clothes covering their faces, dove in as swiftly as possible and shut the door.
The carriage continued on, the two carriages traveling a short distance through the thick traffic of pedestrians and other carriages and wagons.
"Flautus, now have the driver turn off and head south and easterly! If he doesn't understand you, just sign to him what direction you want him to go, and he will have to understand well enough, dealing with patrons from all over the world, as he must have done many times before we came along!"
Flautus slid the curtain aside in the window that communicated to the driver, and did as Rutilius ordered.
The driver tried once to glance around into the carriage, but Flautus yanked the curtain back into place.
Would he obey and turn off? Did he understand?
Rutilius then felt the carriage make a sharp turn and then continue away from Canopus Street.
He sank back against the seat cushions, closing his eyes, he was so relieved!
By Jove! It was working! It was working! His plan was working!
As for the two messengers, poor boys, they were in for an unpleasant surprise--an unplanned sea voyage to Caesarea and then back to Alexandrea--but that couldn't be helped. It wouldn't be anything more than a brief interlude to them, they would be returned soon enough to their wretched existences in the city!
Rutilius soon had to open his eyes again! He had to check if they really were heading easterly, and not being taken some other direction or even back to the bank!
But he saw, despite his memory of the itinerarium's map of the city's five districts, Alpha to Delta, that he couldn't make any sense of the incredibly congested city and had lost his sense of direction anyway since coming down to Africa, so he just had to trust that they were going all right.
It didn't take long. They reached the gates of the city and looked out for a big enough market where they could transfer to another cisium, and send the bank's carriage back. Here they would pull up at Flautus's command to the driver. There was no need to let the banker suffer for his escape from Alexandrea, as he well might if they continued out of the city with the his carriage. This way, the banker could say his carriage had been stolen, not loaned, as it was intended only to deliver an important customer to a shop on Canopus Street.
They reached the city gate on the east side without incident, and there was a market and many shops for incoming visitors--where absolutely anything could be bought that travelers desired or needed. Inns, brothels, stables, food and wine and dancing girls, clothing, tents, camels, horses, fragrances-- most importantly, carriages too of different kinds-- they could take their pick.
Rutilius wasted no time in finding and buying what he wanted-- he would soon get rid of it, and take another. It was expensive, but necessary to keep up this up, until they reached the desert at least.
Finally they stopped at the edge of Pelusium, where the city met the desert sands that encroached on the fertile and green Delta.
As Rutilius instructed him, Flautus got out, stretching his legs. He went and examined the inn where they had halted, declared it fit enough, and they took a room there for the night.
Once in bed, with Flautus stretched on a servant's pad of woven palm matting with blankets at the bed's foot, Rutilius was so exhausted he slept soundly--completely forgetting this was a strange inn, with no assurance they might not be attacked in the night.
At the first light of day, the cisium was ready, the horses rested, fed and watered and in their harnesses, and the two drivers ready too.
Without breakfast, Rutilius decided it was best to just wash his face and hair, arms and feet with a pitcher and a shallow tub brought in by a servant from the inn.
Using the towel himself, and after aplly a little fragrant olive oil to keep his skin from drying, he climbed into his travelling clothes and sent money with Flautus to pay the inn-keeper for the lodgings but not divulge where they might be heading.
Flautus, he had discovered early on, wasn't so good at dressing or attending him, but he seemed willing to learn, even if he was a bit rough and awkward for that kind of service--having trained in a gladiatorial school.
That done, instead of continuing down to Porta Berenicea as most would do from this point, he would continue eastward with Flautus.
They could find some solid refreshment on the way another inn, preferably one at the staging ground the itinerarium said they would find at the start of the Road to Aqaba.
Food was important, they must keep their strength up for the long journey! he knew.
They still had some bread and cheese, with wine and water in the cisium Rutilius had bought from venders at the city gate market, so that would serve to keep them until they found something better later on. He had been too excited in his stomach to try it earlier. It would get stale if he left it any longer in the basket.
Now that Aegyptus Proper was going to be left behind, Rutilius found he had lost most all interest in it--and his interest as a tourist was minimal at the onset.
The great man-made mountains of huge, cut stone blocks, the towering Tombs of the Pharaohs, well, Roma had nothing to compare with them but its greatest buildings and aqueducts and bridges, of course, but what good were such tombs anyway? They were useless heaps of stones. They served no practical purpose.
It really seemed a waste of time and sweat and money, building to serve nothing but some dead pharaoh's vanity!
The temple complex he and Flautus had walked through -- that too seemed to embody the lost and useless grandeur of bygone days, when the Ptolemies ruled Aegyptus, losing their throne and even their last royal dynasty when Cleopatra committed suicide.
Those glory days were well over! Aegyptus was the emperor's private domain, governed by a Prefect, not an appointed Governor! Wasn't that a sign how far this former imperial state had fallen--it wasn't a nation, and not even a province. So much for the bygone pharaohs' vainglorious pretensions!
Yet, vanity or not, h couldn't help noticing the colossal temple standing on the desert edge, some moving hills of sand lapping over onto its paved courtyards wherever they overtopped the walls.
The temple was so big in fact, he stood virtually in the shadow that fell into a large stableyard of the inn.
Rather than let the crowd of inn servants and lodgers get a chance to stare at him and speculate about his business being there while he waited for the change of horses and harness, he decided to tour the temple with Flautus to avoid their scrutiny.
He would have changed to another carriage as well by this time if he thought that necessary, but the present one was not so grand that they didn't see others quite like it on the roads leading from Alexandrea, so theirs excited no special attention.
But he had to find at least a change of mounts, that wouldn't be easily identified by color and marking.
Now as the temple, devoted to a crocodile god, it turned out to be so large and monumental, enclosed in a huge square walled yard that enclosed ten or twelve hectares, all four sides of which were inset with numerous chapels to to forgotten gods and adorned with fake entrances and false windows that were never meant for human eyes to peer out of, it seemed all out of scale with humankind.
The whole pile, artistic and contrived to impress mere mortals with the pharaoh's greatness and divinity, left him, a practical Roman, cold.
Rutilius paused only a few moments there, depositing a few coins in the priests' eager hands, and then gratefully returned to the outdoors, where the air was clear of the almost suffocating, murky incense burning on countless braziers and altars throughout the edifice.
That was probably stopped by the Roman administration years before his visit, he knew. Roma generally interfered with no temple practices of any religion, except that they fomented insurrection against Roma's authority.
The only other exception was human sacrifice, which Roma reserved for the public arenas, and that wasn't for any god except the deified Emperor. Of course, the Christian emperors since Constantine I had banned the slaughter of Christians in arenas, while continuing the gladiatorial fights.
Even that wildly popular but brutal sport was now under question, and many men died in the arena for pay and glory, and it was said Honorious was disgusted the last time he sat in Roma's Flavian arena and viewed the gladiators slaying one another for his entertainment. He was so disgusted, in fact, they said he might ban gladiators from the arenas altogether throughout the West, which meant the end of the sport of course. If he did that, the only thing left to amuse the crowds was the use of tigers, hippos, bulls, and elephants fighting one another, together with staged but harmless sea battles in flooded arenas and musical programs and parades.
How Roma had changed from its old, ancestral, bloody ways! It was due primarily to the Christian religion which had won imperial sanction and patronage above all the other religions, such as Magna Mater, and Isis, Apis, and the rest!
Like all the other provinces, "changeless" Aegyptus had been forced to change with her Roman master too, and bow to the Christian religion's chief bishop who resided in Alexandrea and frowned upon all the practices and cults of the native gods.
Yet as he saw himself at close hand, this Crocodile God's temple wasn't going anywhere soon. It was built for eternity, seemingly and would probably stand for centuries to come--with or without priests and ceremonies and the lucrative patronage of the state.
He knew there was no time to go and take a look in the various chapels that were arranged all around the vast courtyard, and anyway he wasn't interested.
He had seen plenty crocodiles and water cows and such in the canals and waterways of the Delta already. What horrible beasts Aegyptus had in abundance! What a savage place Africa was--crawling with all sorts of monsters. He was beginning to be very homesick for Italia--where a man could live a civilized life, without a crocodile popping up in his garden pool, no doubt have roved in from its haunts in a nearby river or canal.
No wonder the Aegyptians walled all their gardens--just to be safe from water serpents and these big-teethed, snapping jawed, slithering night rovers!
The cisium was ready as he came, and waiting as Rutilius and Flautus returned to the inn's stableyard.
Rutilius examined the new horses and their harness, and approved what he saw, and then climbed into the carriage. He had nothing suspicious going on around him the whole stay there, and it was still early morning, but time to be off and away before the mass of the day's traffic flooded all the available roadways, paved or not, and made travel difficult and slow.
With fresh, well-rested horses, they made quick progress southeasterly.
It would be only a day or so before they reached the main roadhead and staging grounds for the caravans.
They all met at the roadhead, and organized there, having sold all their supplies of much desired trade articles before heading back from Aegyptus to Hither Arabia's spiceries, or northerly to Petra of the old Nabataean kingdom, now called Idumaea, or northerly still to Jerash of Syria.
From Jerash they could travel to Palmyra, and thence easterly to Parthia and points so far east they reached the world's edge, the fabled lands of the weavers of brocade and silk.
Silk commanded even a greater price than spices such as pepper, and cost its weight in gold when brought to Roman markets.
Rutilius was pleased how the journey was proceeding so far, and had good reason to commend Flautus, if a servant could be commended for simply obeying instructions!
Flautus was a young man of very few words, Rutilius had already discerned, and that also was a good quality, since he himself did not like talkative servants around him. Usually very busy with his own thoughts and mental work, he did not appreciate distractions made by noisy servants.
But if they were to make a success of the journey and satisfy the waiting emperor who had sent them, he felt he needed to reach more of an understanding with Flautus, laying aside for the time the chief distinctions of their respective classes so that they could work better together, for survival's sake.
Silent and observant, strong and brave, Flautus had proved himself already a very good body-guard, he had found.
The exchanging of carriages and mounts had gone smoothly, and the subterfuge of travelling as regular businessmen went well too--as they seemed to excite no comment or undue attention.
Alas, Mercurius! He had been more experienced than Flautus, and was now left behind in foreign soil, but there was the memory of his honorable service. Flautus had no doubt learned much from him. It was good how Flautus watched out for him like a hawk, just as Mercurius had done, but he couldn't do it all, he had no knowledge of the desert, so they would need help to get safely to Palestina by the land route.
He could see that Flautus kept steady watch while Rutilius spoke to him, so it was not going to endanger them if he spoke to him now, before they stopped again at nightfall at some inn up ahead.
At sea, who knows what the weather might be, and anything can turn a battle one way or the other. We might have had traitors on board too, who could start a disturbance among the oarsmen or light the sail afire, or do anything they could to trick us. A ship is a very small place, and so liable for trouble and disaster.
If it is not safe for you, where can you go? You are trapped. No, it was best to go by land, I realized, where there are many places to hide or vanish into, if need be. But which road was best? The shortest way is the Via that takes the coast up from the Sinai wilderness to Palestina, but that is the most traversed by the spies, as there are more inns, halting stations, cities, and people.
But here on the via to Aqaba and Petra, the caravans are the chief traffic, as the way is said to be very hot and difficult so most people prefer the easier route along the coast.
Rutilius wanted to know if Flautus had ever traveled in desert.
Flautus shook his head. "No, sire, I have no experience of it. But Mercurius did some of his training in Leptis Magna, and he told somet stories about the Guaramani tribes of the desert in that region, and they are truly savage beasts, not civilized men--so I expect the same wherever we are going."
Rutilius agreed the people could be equally savage in the deserts they would be traversing. "Yes, the conditions are harsh, both in Africa and here, so the people will reflect that, whatever tribe they may be here." He paused, then thought about what he had read about a particular desert tribe, called by name, Numidians, East and West, and also the Berberi.
Since whatever he read was imprinted forever in his memory, he quickly reviewed the text on the Berbers.
He told Flautus about them. "I expect we will meet a lot of these people engaged in the caravans. The Berberi are far-ranging tribal people that can be found at all the market cities--but they do not change wherever they choose to roam, they may all share the same customs and ways.
They are strictly nomads as their ancestors were, and shelter themselves in those black goats' hair tents you see here and there. They style themselves the most ancient of the inhabitants, coming before even the Aegyptians and Nubians. Believe that or not, they do seem to be such--there is an air of great antiquity about this people. They also do some caravaneering, though that is not chiefly to their taste. Why? They are free spirits, and they feel that caravaneering confines them too much to certain routes, so they leave this occupation mainly to the Arabs, while serving as mounted guides. From what I have read, if any people know the desert's deepest secrets, it is the Berberi. I expect we will find quite a number gathered at the caravan staging ground."
Tents, camels, donkeys, horses, goats and sheep, exotic animals of all type, for the Roman circuses and arenas--tigers, elephants, leopards abounded-- it was a sea of humanity and animals big and small, and amidst this chaos they had to find a caravan run by reasonably honest men of the desert that would best suit them!
Rutilius decided to let the cisium go, with the driver. He could sell the cisium and horses, and let the driver walk, but instead he let the driver retain the carriage and horses too-- a gift for getting them safely to the roadhead!
The driver was absolutely dumbfounded, of course, at the munificence of such an unexpected gift. But Rutilius thought nothing of the coast and wanted to melt as quickly and seamlessly as possible into the anonymous, virtually trackless desert--and so the cisium that plainly marked him a Roman or Greek businessman had to go!
Best tell them nothing too! Let any spies or pursuers follow the cisium and then find he wasn't in it!
So he climbed down, and ordered the driver to return, giving him some money for food and lodging, warning him in good measure not to talk to anyone, and he and Flautus then started looking for a Roman trader who might guide them to the right caravan, for a certain sum of course--as everything had to bought, or otherwise you would have to go without in a most unforgiving, harsh landscape.
As certain authors had warned him, Rutilius knew the Desert was a fragment of hell for those who lacked the necessities, and eternally green and watered Aegyptus, with all its abundance of good things, thanks to the eternally-flowing River Nilotus, did not begin to prepare a traveller from the West for the Desert's rigors.
It was like trying to find a needle in a stack of wheat sheaves!
Romans were numerous enough in Eastern markets, but where were they here? Evidently, they were vastly outnumbered by the orientals. Letting chance help them, they finally turned in at the tent of a Ishmaelite trader in sundry goods, hoping for some information at least.
The goddess Fortuna must have smiled on him, Rutilius thought, for the moment they were escorted into the trader's tent. Immediately the courtesies of a most valued guest were extended to them with the trader's servants bringing them refreshments, chairs to sit on, and even washed and dried their feet!
Soon Rutilius found out more than he hoped from the more than helpful trader, whose name was Haboosh el Nabi.
Who was this personage? He declared to them he was a noble son of most noble Ishmael, he insisted most vehemently, spitting aside whenever he happened to mention the race of Arabs who were a perpetual curse to his own noble race and lineage.
What was the difference between the Arab and this fellow? Rutilius wondered. Weren't they both rambling balls of dust and camel hair that you find often rolling across the wilderness?
But he was beginning to learn that the Arabs were divided into many tribes, each fiercely protective of its different customs and gods, and the Berberi too had their tribes, and their various individual customs and gods and ways.
It might do him some good, if he learned a bit more about these two species of rambling hairballs! Rutilius thought.
Yet, sheikh or not, Haboosh seemed knowledgeable and shrewd, and could serve as a good source of information about the staging grounds' composition, and where he might find his fellow Romans and what each part of the vast array had to offer a man of parts who had a considerable amount of capital means to venture.
"We have wonderfully rich caravans started out from here, sire," Haboosh told him with eloquent gestures.
"I have a splendid caravan too, maybe not so rich and graced with camels as some, but I make a good, honest return by it, though of course, as a nobleman, I do not need the income. It is merely for some idle amusement, that I engage in this common enterprise, where there is so much stinking dirt in the air and flying in my face from the camels' feet!"
"Of course, Sheikh Haboosh al Nabi," said Rutilius "But what do you deal in chiefly?"
"Oh, some spices from the south-lands of Sheba and Seba, sire, and certain ointments, balm and unguents from Gilead, that wretched north country of Idumea and Arabia Petraea, and pistaschios, face paints, fancy arm ornaments for women..."
Rutilius broke in, "You are going by Petra, you say?" "Yes, sire. Despite it has suffered some grievous quakings of the earth in the past and much of its splendor has not been restored to its former glory, still some of the main part of the city is standing and has some business opportunities for me.
The priests of Dushara, and even the Christian bishop there, they buy my precious unguents and sacred incense. The common rabble too, the Nabataeans who are the original people, will buy some, though it is of high price of course, as such things are luxuries.
If they buy my goods, I know they have stolen from the Romans soldiers of the garrison, who have money even if the Nabataeans are impoverished due to the quakes and also because most caravans to the East have shifted to Palmyra in the north.
Oh, those Nabataeans! They sell their own daughters and wives to the Romans for money, and once they were the masters of this whole desert stretching all the way to Palmyra.
Now I can spit on their lords if I wish! No, let my camels spit on them! My spit is too good for them! They can do me no harm, with the Romans so close by to keep them in their place!"
"What price do you want if we two Romans accompany you, Sheikh?"
Haboosh seemed a little surprised, for his eyebrows lifted.
He stroked his wispy beard for a few moments. His tone, when he spoke, was most ingratiating, unprovocative, and humble, but now he was even more to be watched, Rutilius knew from experience with similarly devious men in business.
"I am a most reasonable man, Exalted Plenipotentiary of the West! I could take you and provide the camels for your noble mounts and Zumbah the Numidian and a couple other worthy attendants for watering them and bedding them at night, and so on, for only 100 Roman denarii of silver. Is that not most reasonable, Exalted One?
But he thought quickly: This man is as honest as he could be among these crafty caravaneers, no doubt, which means he is a scamp at times, but maybe no murderer and cutthroat if he can operate so openly here with a tent of his own, even if he styles himself a sheikh.
"He is probably robbing me like this just because I am a Roman and a foreigner in these parts," Rutilius thought, "but for the price he will do anyway. I needn't pass my my name and my particulars around to the whole camp, it can remain here.
Just the same, I must not take his offer too lightly or generously, or he will grow suspicious and want to know why. He may wonder about my reasons to get with haste away from Aegyptus by way of the desert rather than by going by the easter sea route or coastal highway.
: No, I must try to make it a little harder for him to rob me if I am to gain his respect."
So he said, putting on an expression to suit his words: "This is an outrage, the robbery of shameless thieves! You would rob a Roman and despoil my sacred ancestry of all its honor and wealth? You would spit on my mother as a whore! Never, you low dog! I would rather turn my aged parents into the filthy street with the dogs, with my children, to beg their bread and mine first, then pay the wage of a low dog and thief for so little service! Fifty denarii of silver!"
The ordinarly dark, glum, deeply lined eyes of Haboosh brightened at the insults. It was as if he relished the insults of this foreigner, the young Roman with the fine manners and proud bearing. Insults were the stock in trade in bargaining sessions among the Arabs and nomads.
Thus, Haboosh's eyes rolled upwards in mock-shock.
"But O Munificent One, I am but a wretched poor man, I am struggling at the end of my strength, to the drying up of my loins, just to keep paying the Roman taxes that crush us, the dregs of Roma daily like donkey droppings beneath thy noble sandal! I cannot take you for such a pittance as 50 denarii of silver! Two platters of pig trotters are bought at that price. I would starve myself and my poor wives, Suddrillah and Milkaska-oomah, and my ten tender-faced little nursing babes too would cry without their milk, if I let you come with me at that price!
By the mercies of Allah, eighty denarii, of silver, sire! The great shining moon that sheds his beneficent rays over all the desert and its peoples--may his name Allah and his milk-bosumed consort be adored forever!-- grant me a fair wage from you, Great Master from illustrious Roma.
Have mercy on a poor man, though a nobleman among my people. Render a crust of bread and a little sweet milk of the nursing she-camel into the mouths of my crying children!
"What can I say? Am I cruel man to snatch bread from your children and your wives? May it not be said of me. Forty denarii of silver, ten of bronze!"
When he said that, the sheikh, instead of being overjoyed, seemed to go into a convulsion, he rolled his eyes, his head rolled about, he nearly pulled his beard out by the roots, and he seemed about to perish on the spot.
Rutilius was alarmed at the sight and stepped forward to keep the sheikh from toppling on his face.
"All right, you have conquered the pitiless Roman with the iron-shod boot! Forty two denarii of silver, twenty five of bronze!" he whispered into the sheikh's ear as he lay back in the arms of his sons who had rushed to help him.
The moment Rutilius gave his final offer, the sheikh's face suddenly ceased twitching, and his eyes slowly opened. A smile appeared on his face, and as a drink of fresh camel milk was raised to his lips he sipped a little and revived.
"I accept your most kind offer, most noble Roman!" he croaked.
In a short time, he was his old self, and was helped back to his feet, and then he bowed low to Rutilius.
"I am your servant, Great One!
Be pleased to accompany your humble servant! May the gods attend us in all our ways and goings, and protect us every step of the way against all perils and biting serpents!"
His hands raised reverently toward the carved, wooden image of Allah he kept in a little box-like shrine, the sheikh acknowledged his god.
But there was one more matter for Rutilius.
He brought out his necklace and held it out. The sheikh eyes bulged in their sockets, he seemed to lose all the color in his face. He gasped, then got his voice back and turned to his sons.
"Summon all our armed servants here at once!" he cried.
His three sons rushed out.
The sheikh pulled at his turban and threw a cloth over the emeralds.
He fixed his eyes on Rutilius's. "What are these, sire?" "Royal jewels from Roma," he said, amazed at the sheikh's reaction. "But why does your countenance grow so pale? Is there something wrong with them?"
The sheikh lifted the cloth a bit, then turned away. He then faced Rutilius again, stepping close to him, his voice lowered almost to a whisper.
"I knew in an instant what they were, sire, though I am a son of Ishmael. I have known many Numidians in the course of my travels, and Zumbah, one of my servants, is one of them. He has spoken of them to me several times. I never forgot them, not for a moment! He said to me they have tales about them every child of his people knows--how the Romans stole them from them long ago, robbing and slaying their queen of the desert! But I say this in no disrespect to your people, sire! It is the old tale of Zumbah's people, which they imbibe with their mother's milk. They have many ancient tales, and I do not doubt these jewels are the ones once belonging to the desert queen. I can make no mistake about it, as they answer perfectly to the description and also the number he gave me."
"Which desert queen was she, Sheikh?"
"Immadatha!" Haboosh whispered. "May the gods not strike me for giving you, an infidel Roman, her sacred name! She was the queen that your forebears put to death when she appealed to you for mercy for her husband the king, and her city!"
Rutilius was thunderstruck. These desert people all had a long, long memory! Even without written and official Annals such as Roma's, they had these tales passed from one generation to the next, and remembered everything that happened in detail, including names.
He had to sit down. This was almost too much.
The tent suddenly filled with the sheikh's armed servants, and the sheikh seemed to grow suddenly more assured of himself, bigger, even taller, and certainly less apprehensive.
He explained to his Roman guest who wondered what all this show of force was all about.
"Once the word spreads in the camp, sire, we would have a hundred men assault my poor, little tent to get the jewels from us! They would gladly slit our throats for them! They would then hire dancing girls, and bring in much wine, and have a great celebration, while their dogs lapped our blood! But there shall be no throat slitting here! Now we are prepared and can fight manfully if we must! Haboosh will make them pay a pretty price, indeed! But we must fly away from here, just the same! We cannot stay a moment more! We cannot take on an entire camp at the roadhead--they'll all want these grand jewels of yours, and all our lives will be forfeit!" He started rapidly spitting out orders right and left to his caravaneers and family alike."
Harboosh suddenly sprang to life as the major authority in the encampment--or at least his own portion of it.
"Hie, hie, hie!" he cried, clapping his hands, and the caravaneers rushed out, glad to quit the stifling, crowded camp and head back to the freedom of the great open desert.
There was a terrific commotion around the tent, as camels pulled at their tethers, bawled at being pulled to their feet, and donkeys kicked the men loading them. But the sheikh was of a mind to get clear of the roadhead no matter what.
He pushed the emeralds back against Rutilius, fondling them as he did so and covering them with a lover's sweet endearments as he did so.
"You must guard them with your life, sire! I thank God they aren't mine! I wish for no assassin to disturb my sleep at night with a dagger between my ribs! Even my sons-- tender and milk-faced like maidens-- they might murder me in my bed for such treasures! I trust no one, not even my closest blood, nor should you! Keep them very close! I cannot buy them--their value is too great for my small purse. If you wish to sell them, then perhaps in in the great markets of Palmyra or Antioch--where the markets are so big and so many different people and strangers mingle together it is far safer for business than here, where thieves and spies abound like flies on spoiled dates!
But we must go! But tell no one about them.
Even my caravaneers would mutiny and slay me and you and run away into the desert with your jems.
Once they know whose they were, that they graced the queen our people reverence, they would have all the more reason to seize them from you--thinking they are doing our people a favor by slaying the foreigner who dared steal our queen's crown jewels. Ha! What donkey heads they are!
What good did they do her? Eh? What good? They brought doom, nothing but evil upon her poor, lovely head, did they not? No, it is best you keep them out of sight and sell them far away from here!
Are you ready to hie away from here, sire? Go to your mount, whatever you wish among the horses and camels. Please go at once and take you pick, sire, they are waiting for you! But where is Zumbah?"
Rutilius looked up and eyed the face and eyes of the nomad, to take the measure of the man, and Zumbah stared right back like an equal, without a trace of what he was thinking about this foreigner, this Roman nobleman from the West, to whom he would now play man-servant.
Zumbah, as quickly as he came, slipped back out of the tent.
"Zumbah will attend you, sire," Haboosh said. "You can trust him. Oh, he steals, they all steal in his tribe, but he won't take anything really valuable, just trifles now and then that amuse him. That's their right, to steal, they think.
If you object to that, they think you are denying them honest wages. For me he works for nothing, you see. Oh, I give him his food and drink. He is not a slave, nor is he my paid hireling and servant for me to command, except that he renders me favors of various kinds now and then, in exchange for a place in my caravan as a hunter and guard. However he earns his wage from that, is his own business. I expect he steals some little part of my trade goods and sells them to traders, but I will look the other way, as he is excellent at what he does. You will find this is true what I tell you. So I advise you, sire, take him. He will be a good man for you on this journey.
Not wanting to ride a horse all the way, as he knew a horse was not equal to the desert, Rutilius let Flautus have a horse, and he was helped up onto a camel! It was his first experience on one, and he soon regretted it, as the rolling gait of the camel was one to make his stomach sick even though he was used to the rolling motion aboard ships.
He held on, as the camel threw him forwards and backwards on his saddle blankets, and gritted his teeth like a true Roman and bore his misery until the caravan stopped for the night. By then he was exhausted and aching in every bone and muscle of his body. He slid off the camel as soon as it was made to kneel.
He staggered a few feet, and his knees buckled, letting him fall to the ground with a groan. The caravaneers saw him and laughed. They could tell this mighty Roman was new at this business of caravaneering. He didn't look so mighty now, unable to keep his feet after only one day's travel!
But Flautus stood over his master, his hand on his weapons, and they saw this and ceased laughing and went back to minding their own business as Rutilius recovered his strength.
Flautus helped him to his feet, and he then made it on his own to the new camp, while the caravaneers scarcely gave him a glance, though a couple imitated his gait with their fingers stuck trembling in the sand.
Being an educated man among the ignorant, he was conscious of the chance to learn something new, and he lingered there a few moments, trying to decipher the inscriptions on the stone walls.
Zumbah's eyes said, "Come at once, crazy Roman!" Flautus, with more respect and reserve, bowed and said, "They are going to leave us, sire, if we don't go now!"
"Yes, yes, I know! But Zumbah, you've seen this place before, haven't you? Who carved these wonderful stones and set them perfectly in place, so strongly the quaking of the earth did not disturb this chamber? Do you know who inscribed these inscriptions too?"
Zumbah slapped his forehead as if he were being asked to humor a stupid, stupid child. Then he slipped into the chamber, and Rutilius and Flautus followed him. They saw him take a rock and strike a certain stone in the wall twice, then once more after a pause.
Nothing seemed to happen, then Rutilius and Flautus nearly fell over on their backs as the huge chamber filled with echoing sound!
They couldn't understand the language, not one word. But the inscriptions, one by one, lighted up as if the voice were reading them!
Rutilius could not grasp what was going on.
Nothing like this had ever been shown to him before. It was beyond the arts and sciences, all the craft and cunning devices of Greece and Roma!
Rutilius smiled. Unknown to Zumbah, he had been studying Zumbah's speech, and already could understand many words, though he did not let Zumbah know of this, so that he could learn more Berberi without being discovered.
"Oh, yes," he thought, "you are one of those wild, proud, impudent Numidian savages I heard so much about from Haboosh the Ishmaelite. You think you are so superior to newcomers to the desert like myself, and think you will outlast us too, so you dare to throw sand in a Roman's face! Well, we'll see if you can get the best of a Roman!"
But Zumbah was emphatic, and started to walk away.
Intrigued as he was, Rutilius knew Zumbah wasn't going to wait a moment longer, and so he knew he had to tear himself away from this chamber of talking inscriptions. He had no choice but to go now, before he could investigate further and try to find out who had fashioned these clever stones and imparted the chamber with a thundering voice that could speak everything that as written by the ancients.
Off they hurried to the camp, and it was too late, it had vanished with only the ashes of its fire pit left to tell of it along with some hoofprints in the sand that the wind would soon cover with blowing sand.
Zumbah leading, following the tracks as fast as they could.
What a welcome sight it was too, but the caravaneers looked at them with scowls of contempt, for coming to them like this on foot!
Rutilius, feeling all the while he had lost all Roman dignity, had never run so long and hard as this, and he scarcely could climb aboard the donkey--a mere little donkey!--as it was nigh impossible to make his camel stop and kneel down once it had been started on its day journey. He had to stuff his own mantle under himself as a saddle blanket, for none came with the donkey.
As for the horse he had been given in the agreement with Haboosh to convey Flautus, it was now loaded with trade goods, so poor Flautus had to make do on foot! He too would be very footsore at the end of that day!
But was the price they paid for not being on time to leave when the Sheikh gave the order, and even a Roman couldn't countermand the Sheikh in the operation of his caravan.
As for Zumbah--he didn't mind walking! His dog with him, he hunted hares along the way, and bagged enough for a small banquet when they made the next camp.
Zumbah, if he wasn't standing watch duty, slept soundly with his dog leaning up against him. The saluki was better than a blanket, for his heat kept Zumbah warm.
Once Rutilius passed too close, after leaving the camp for a nature call, and the dog snarled at him, and he had to move quickly away. A few feet closer and the saluki might have charge him, he sensed. The saluki was a wonderful animal, but ferociously protective of his master. He would die for Zumbah, no doubt!
Zumbah had to use the whip to keep the camel from biting him as it lunged at him. But Zumbah was so fleet-footed, finally the camel gave up, and resigned to its fate, allowed Zumbah to lead it to Rutilius, kneel and be mounted without a single groan or spitting of its horrible, stinking green phlegm.
It seemed hopeless, but Haboosh's men were well trained. Each leaped down with his weapons, pulling the animals to the center so they could have some protection that way, and they fought back with all their might.
Swords, arrows, daggers, they used everything they had, and the attackers fell back momentarily, leaving about six of their number lying dead.
In the respite, Zumbah pushed Rutilius to run for it. He pointed toward a distant rock. Rutilius understood, and Zumbah ran out, making a big noise as he taunted the Arabs and shook his curving sword to distract them while Rutilius dashed off for the distant rock.
With blood-curdling shrieks and shouts the Arabs all dashed forward against Haboosh's men, but Rutilius got away safely to the sheltering rock, and there he looked back as he gasped for breath.
From the bodies of the Arabs that soon fell on the sands, he saw Sheikh Haboosh was not going to go easily, and when the enemy pulled back a bit, that was his opportunity. Haboosh led a retreat to the rocks on one side, and there they were able to better fend off their attackers in the next attack which surely was coming.
The animals, meanwhile, were fogotten by both sides and milled about. Some lay down under their heavy packs. A camel or two wandered off, and one, without a load on it, came close to Rutilius where he hid.
Zumbah and Flautus were pinned down in the rocks with Haboosh and his surviving caravaneers. It was only a matter of time, of course, before they were worn down and overcome by superior numbers. With so many in their force, the Arabs could take their time, for they knew heat and thirst would do their work to weaken the beseiged men. Seeing that the activity was dying down and becoming a siege, Rutilius knew it was now or never.
Before he could be stopped, Rutilius caught the reins of the the camel nearest him, led it to the road, climbed the rock and then mounted the camel and set off for help from the nearby Petra garrison.
How much longer would the camel go before it dropped beneath him in protest? He had to kick and whip it, to keep up the pace, for every moment counted, as Flautus and Zumbah battled for their lives against dozens of caravan raiders.
The city was bigger than he had expected from Harboosh's contemptuous description. Roma had spent a lot of money and effort to grace the city with an aqueduct, arena, amphitheater, baths, theaters, shops, arcades, squares, and fountains.
The city was an oasis compared to the surrounding desert, which was so parched that not even thorn-bushes would grow.
Passing through crowded markets and streets, he at last found some soldiers at a guard post, and halted the camel and slipped down to the ground. He staggered over to the men.
Take me to your commander at once!" he told them. "I am Governor Numantianus from Roma and Ravenna."
The men stared at him for a moment, looked him up and down, then one broke away, and glanced toward a prefectural palace further up the street. "The Prefect resides there. You can find it now without our help."
Rutilius could not believe such insolence.
"My men are were ambushed on the road south of here, and you dare delay me like this? Get him here at once! Tell him I will hold him responsible if my men perish because of this delay."
The soldiers seemed to stiffen up, and one made off for the palace as fast as he could.
A mounted man came quickly back, and he sat in the saddle, an annoyed look on his face. "Who did you say you are?" he challenged Rutilius. "Who dares give commands to my men?"
"Numantianius Secundus, Governor of Roma, Prefect of the City! My own men are under attack five miles south of the city! Two dozen Arab tribesmen at least set upon our caravan. Send a detachment at once, mounted, or they will never reach them in time."
The commander shook his head. "Sir, I doubt I can spare that many right now. This is an unruly city, full of factions and violence. But I will go out with you, and take a few of these guards you see here. Usually at the sight of us, these Arab dogs turn tail and run off immediately, they have little stomach for fighting Roman legionaries."
Rutilius walked up to the horse, and looked up into the commander's eyes. "You will do as I ordered, Commander! I require a full detachment, and no less! I won't have my men slain for want of soldiers! Not when you have so many standing idle here with time on their hands! And this city seems peaceful enough at the moment and can probably spare your presence for a short time!"
The commander colored, his hands clenched on his reins, and he seemed about to say something, but he instead turned to a sergeant and barked an order.
The man dashed off to the barracks.
The commander looked down at Rutilius. "Show us where to go, Governor. This desert is a big place. Caravans sometimes get lost in it."
Rutilius wasted no time replying to the insolent commander. He extended his hand, and the commander took his meaning, and pulled him up on his own mount.
Behind them, Rutilius heard hoofbeats of a whole detachment rushing toward them.
The commander wheeled the horse around, and they were off!
Instead they fought back like cornered savage beasts, and taking to the rocks it was a very difficult and dangerous job for the soldiers to ferret them out and finish them off, one by one. At last the job was done, and the commander, Florus Prudentius Varrus by name, rejoined Rutilius where he left him, wiping sweat and blood from his forehead.
"Sir, something I can't explain. I've never seen them put up such a militant fight like this before!" the commander exclaimed. "Whatever poppy drug or venom of asps got into them? They seem to have gone stark mad and fought like the wild bears and lions in the hills would fight!"
He glanced toward the caravan's men and the pack animals, which Sheikh Haboosh was now trying to assemble in some fragment of decent order for the trip back into Petra bearing the casualties.
"What is it these caravaneers are carrying, that's so valuable the Arabs had to have it so badly they risked fighting us bitterly to the death for it?"
Rutilius kept silent. He did not dare mention the emeralds--if that was the cause-- and seemingly it was.
The commander glanced at Rutilius again, paused, then sheathed his sword, disdaining to clean it himself, bloody as it was, and climbed tiredly up on his horse. The commander finished giving commands, and his soldiers rounded up the Arabs' horses from where they had been tethered.
Meanwhile, Rutilius feared the worst. He had seen nothing of either Flautus or Zumbah, though he had given the commander their descriptions and where they had been hiding.
They were just turning to go when a shout stopped them. The men had been sighted. Rutilius was overjoyed. They were slowly coming out of the rocks further on down, but Zumbah was limping, with his beloved dog in his arms.
Flautus looked up at Rutilius when they reached him. "Sir, it was the nomad youth's dog that saved us, at the last when the Arabs found us! He fought so bravely and savagely, they kept away from us just long enough so we could slip away and get into a new hiding place.
It was there we eluded them, until you arrived with the soldiers."
Zumbah's grief was evident, as he held the saluki in his arms and wouldn't set him down to bury him there.
"Leave him alone," Rutilius said. "Give Zumbah a mount. Let us go, when he is ready."
Rutilius and Varrus led the way back to Petra, and the caravan and the soldiers followed slowly behind. Rutilius could hear the groaning of wounded caravaneers and some of the badly injured soldiers too as they lay lay across the pack animals and horses.
They reached the city, and passed through the Siq, and then into the city and to the barracks, where doctors could tend the wounded, those that still were alive, that is.
Haboosh had no desire to spend the night with the soldiers at the barracks, so he led what remained of his men to a big market, and there they camped with their animals for the night under their tents, with guards posted of course against the city's numerous thieves.
Rutilius turned down the commander's invitation. He wanted no quarrel with Varrus, who had lost several men in the day's fight. That was punishment enough for his insolence, he thought. Besides, he wanted to see that everything was done for Zumbah that could be done. And Flautus, too--who was not wounded but had fought long and hard that day.
Haboosh surprised him when he came to his tent. He threw Rutilius's money down on the tent floor.
"Take it all back!" he hissed. "You and your wicked jems have brought misfortune upon my poor gray hairs! I lost three good men, maybe four, for your sake. How shall I replace them? They are my own blood, my fair children, my sweet little ones, with downy cheeks like the breasts of turtledoves! O! O by the gods! I am robbed, I am beaten, I am cast out into the pits of black slime! And what have I done? What did I do to deserve this from your hands?
"So you blame me for your losses, Sheikh?"
"What other cause could there be, Sire? I have not been attacked so close to this donkey's rump of a city before, as before they would not have dared! But they seemed to be driven to utmost extremity by devils of the desert, the exceeding cruel and crooked ones that hide in the old tombs of rich men who robbed my poor, good people of their wealth, these mad Arabs and dwellers of the sea of sands who are become their living spawn! Such men do not value their own lives!"
He turned and spat.
Then he wheeled about and vanished out the tent door.
Flautus looked up from his bed at Rutilius, who shook his head.
"I guess that means we are on our own, Flautus. Or maybe he will change his mind by morning, when he misses so many denarii in his money-purse."