They call me Celts, which must be my name—I don’t remember having one before that.
I can remember some things, though. I remember growing up here on a cold island of rocks and goats. I had a Father and Mother—whose names, as far as I can remember, were Father and Mother.
Eventually I sailed to the mainland and found myself in service to an army. This army, I think.
I don’t like to do that too often. It makes my head hurt. A physician told me something called a Roman was the cause of the pain. He also told me he’d been treating me for two weeks.
I guess I didn’t think about that, either, because I have no memory of it.
“You can’t seem to remember anything for longer than a day,” the physician told me. Can you write?” I told him I could, so he brought me some scrolls.
“You must write often,” he warned me. “It’s the only way you’ll remember anything from now on,” he told me as he shooed me away. “Hannibal needs all the men that can be mustered.”
When I exited the tent. A man passed by and I asked him where we were.
“We’re on our way to Capua,” he said, gruffly. “It appears they’ve defected to Carthage after our victory at Cannae.”
I had no idea where or what a Capua or a Cannae was, and that pain that came with thinking had started up so I decided to ask, “And where am I camped?”
He scowled at this. “Celts,” he cursed. “A simple lot, all of you. Go back to your rocks and lie with your goats.” He stormed off, muttering under his breath.
I’d rather not think about what that meant. This, too, brings the pain back. For simplicity’s sake, I’ll assume my name is Celts.
I write this as I rest beside a river whose name I don’t know.
I’ve just learned that I am a soldier in the service of the family of Barca, who’ve come into this place with some gigantic beasts called elephants and a ragtag army of many nations. All my possessions are my scrolls, my cloak, and my gladius, which is apparently short sword sheathed at my side. I’ve kept a separate list of names and definitions on another scroll.
The family of Barca has many soldiers that tramp down the road for miles. I don’t understand why this place called Rome would wage war on such a force. Surely there can be no larger gathering of men.
I wonder why I joined them in the first place. One man more or one man less makes little difference.
I’m told that a man, probably but not assuredly named Scipio Africanus, is approaching us. He’s only kept at bay by something called Numidians. The man who tells me this also says I must start moving soon.
We have just sacked a small town, though I can’t remember why. I can smell smoke in the distance and blood has dried on my gladius. Earlier, there was a dead man walking next to me, burned and black yet refusing to crumble. He looked like he was carved from coal–even his eyes were black. Like calm water in the middle of the night.
“Why are you here?” I asked the dead man.
“Because you sent me to the other side,” he answered. His voice was rough as a march over gravel. “I cannot thank you enough for that.”
“You shouldn’t thank me,” I said. “I killed you.”
“That is so. And I thank you.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Have I asked you to?”
I shrugged. “I suppose there’s no point in arguing. Is there anything I can do for you, since you’ve made this trip to visit me?”
The burned man shrugged, hobbling along beside me. “I’ll be watching you, Celts. Keeping you safe. You’ve done me a great favor and now I shall repay you.” So saying, he took my sword from my scabbard, and in his bloated, blackened fingers the blade glowed. The dried blood crusted and then fell off. The bronze blade glowed orange. He smiled, his white teeth stark against his dark face. “Fire obeys my will, and as I will it, flames will not stand before you Celts. Thank you again.” He bowed, then, and left. I turned around to watch him leave, but all I saw was ashes in the distance.
It is nighttime now. My head still throbs from my wound. I’ve been walking all day and all I wish is to fall. The others talk of the gods, their speech littered with curses. From how they speak of them I assume a god must be powerful indeed.
So what good does it do does to curse them?
I keep to myself, huddled by the fire as I write this. I will go to sleep soon and a fog will cloud my mind and I will forget. But for now the fire warms me, and while it burns I feel strong.
I don’t remember anything that led up to my bath in the river that cut through a new village we’d sacked—I can’t even say how many days have gone by since I last wrote in my scrolls. But I know I was bathing with the others in this ragtag army. I was rolling, splashing—my ears so were full of water that I didn’t hear the trample of horses until the shouting had started.
I was shaking the water out of my ears and my eyes. The men I had shared the river with had exited, reaching for pilums or gladii or spathas before tunics or armor. “Numidians!” I heard one of them shout, “Numidian Cavalry!”
I wondered if they were an enemy. And then stopped wondering when they reined up instead of throwing their javelins.
I was too confused to do anything but stare at the horseman reining up. He was a bare chested man with skin as black as ink. He was reaching for his javelin when I threw myself in front of him. “Stop this!” I shouted. “Lay down your arms!”
The man atop his horse grimaced. “Are you in charge here?”
For all I knew I was, so I told him, “Yes!”
“Then what in the name of Ammon do you think you’re doing?”
I looked down to the river and then back at him. “Taking a bath?” I scrambled up the bank. There were scattered laughs from naked soldiers. Hands were still frozen on their weapons.
My answer was an honest truth, if a little simple. Then again, I’m a little simple so there weren’t many answers I could give.
It would seem that a simple truth can make some men angry. And this man was already angry enough. “Upstream of the watering place!” He fumed, “Do you expect my horses to drink from the same water you lot have been washing your asses in?”
It might be surprising, but being naked and dripping wet in front of a horseman in full raiment with a small retainer does not inspire much dignity. But I clung to what little I could and answered, “Do you know who you’re speaking to?”
Even with my faulty memory, I knew I’d just said something abysmally stupid.
“If I’m to believe you, I’m talking to the one in charge of this company—though I can’t say it shows at the moment.”
“If you’ll give me a moment to dress myself, perhaps I can give a better impression. Could we try this again?”
He rolled his eyes. “Once you put on your armor and your fine regalia, I’ll start calling you sir and give you a proper salute. Until then, call these men off and have them lay down their arms before I decide they’re greater fools than you! Now stop fouling my horses’ drinking water—you’ll make them simple!”
I grinned then, despite my situation, for it suddenly struck me as funny. Perhaps I’d forgotten the context that made the matter serious. “A thousand pardons. I’m fresh from Gaul far north,” I lied. I’d only overheard others mock such people. Apparently there was bad blood amongst them due to something called Alps. “We’ve had baths there and never a problem with the Gaulish turning simple from drinking the bathwater.”
I had begun to laugh. The horseman’s mouth twitched as he tried not to join in. And then he was laughing, too.
His name, as I understand it, is Jugurtha. I expect I’ll be seeing more of him.
We have collected provisions from someplace called Capua. Jugurtha tells me they’ve defected to the Barca family after the latest battle. I’ve apparently learned this before.
I followed him into a place called Beneventum, where the commanders dispensed the provisions they receive from the defected city.
They have an abundance of corn. It’s all I eat. It’s all anyone eats. As I write this, I can see an argument in an alley across the way over the small provision of wine given to a select few. But it has come to blades, and the faster of the two will quickly settle the matter.
Jugurtha tells me that because we are in Beneventum, we are under the command of someone called Hanno–another member of the Barca family. He tells me Hanno wants us to leave soon. He doesn’t want to risk a siege.
From what I’ve overheard of sieges, I wouldn’t want to risk one either.
I forgot who Jurgurtha was. He woke me in the middle of the night after the fog overtook my memory. I drew my gladius, and he, his javelin. Bronze met bronze in a bone-jarring clang. Others were rousing, running for us. Some thought we were under attack.
To his credit, Jugurtha defended himself well, keeping his javelin away from my blade. He was quick to put me on the defensive.
Other men with skin dark as ink came to Jugurtha’s aid. But when they tried to attack he threw himself in front of me. “This is not his fault! You shall not harm him!” He shrieked. One of the men tried to sneak their spearpoint past Jugurtha, who caught it below the head. His knuckles went white around it and he ripped it from the man’s hands.
He caught the man by his throat and dragged him down an alley. “Disperse!” he told the others. He looked at me. “I will return in a moment. After I’ve dealt with this one.”
I sat by a river and watched my reflection, knowing I would forget it by the sunrise. Below the water, I saw a drowned woman, smiling up at me. She rose, and I saw that she had a tangle of wavy green hair, like the weeds at the bottom of the river. A crown of kelp wound about her head. Her skin was gray and her lips were blue—but her eyes with most unsettling of all. They were black as a calm pool in the middle of the night. I seem to have written about such eyes before.
When she spoke, her voice was like the crunch of sea-glass underfoot. “Would you like my assistance, Celts?” Sea-foam retched up her throat and down her chin, though she did not seem to notice.
“Are you a friend of the burned man?” I asked.
“In a sense.”
I thought of the gods that many of the soldiers had cursed. “I know no god but you,” I said. “I will most likely die if there is a siege. But please—give good fortune to Jugurtha. He has been a brother to me. Here is my gladius—it’s all I have. Accept this as my sacrifice.” Then I cast the short sword into the water.
But the drowned woman caught it by the blade, tossed it back and forth from one hand to the other. She laughed and then spoke. “I’m not a god, Celts,” she said, “There’s no such thing.”
She cast the gladius at my feet. “I’ve been watching you, Celts, since the day you killed me. I’ve been ensuring your safety. Why do you think I sent you Jugurtha that day in the river? I like to think you killed me in order to make a friend.”
“Who are you?”
“A woman in the water.” She told me she didn’t have to tell me her name because I’d just forget. She said that since she traveled to the other side, she’s found a home in all rivers, and everything within them obeys her command. “And hopefully you will, too, in time.” she said. “But as of now you have cast your blade into my waters. And I give it to you again, tempered in my river-flood. No metal or minerals forged from my rivers will withstand it.”
So saying, she sank back beneath the waves. I took up my gladius, taking a fistful of my cloak to dry the blade. But it was already dry as if it had been left in the summer sun. So I sheathed it, and waited for the enemy to come.
I don’t have to wait long. I should stop writing now. For down in the valley, I see swarthy men with javelins and long knives coming toward Beneventum. It is time to use the river-blessed gladius. None will withstand me.
It is nighttime, and a fog has overtaken my memory. I assume we did battle with the swarthy men, for my gladius is bloody and I can hear distant screams. Jugurtha sits opposite me, a fire between us and his javelin bloodied “You’ve forgotten again, haven’t you?”
“The Romans retook Beneventum. They armed their own thrice-damned slaves to battle us! Hanno Barca has led us and what few survive.”
“Who has? And to where?”
He laughed. “It doesn’t matter. Though I wish you could remember how you fought.”
“What a sight! What a sight it was, Celts! You were a wave breaking over the Romans. I’ve never seen a man fight with such ferocity. None could withstand you.”
I now know that what I’ve been writing must be true. I must be a soldier. That’s the only way I could learn that I killed someone yet feel such nothing inside me.
I marched beside a dead boy today. He had black eyes like the drowned woman and the burned man. He told me they three were friends. “They sent me to look after you. We’re far from her rivers and his fires,” he said. He did not seem to notice the cut along his throat or the blood weeping down his neck and over the metal plate on his chest.
“Will you tell me your name?” I asked.
“You’d forget it,” he said. “But I want to make sure you’re safe. Like my friends. I’ve wanted that since you killed me.”
“How long ago was this?” I asked the dead boy.
“I’m not sure,” he said, “I remember following the banner of an eagle, and then nothing. There’s no time on my side of the world.”
“Why do you want to ensure my safety?” I asked.
“Because you put me on this side of the world.” I didn’t know how to answer that so I didn’t. At length, he said, “You’re tired, aren’t you?”
I hadn’t felt my legs trembling until he said it, but he was right. “And you can help?”
He smiled, exposing missing teeth. “I can carry you.”
And carry me he did, until our next stop, where we merged with a larger gathering of men. Then he said his goodbyes and went on his way. His skin grayed and crumbled until he was nothing but dust and earth.
Jugurtha tells me I’m strange. Not only because I’m simple, but because I told him about my conversation with the dead boy. I don’t understand why he bristled at this.
“I am not carried by the dead,” he said. “My people worship our ancestors as gods, yet you tell me that the wraiths of our enemies carry you?” He snorted. “You? That cannot be so.”
He spoke as if our enemies’ dead are vile things. Yet they seem perfectly agreeable to me.
I must have forgotten to write as of late, for I awoke this morning in the woods, next to a woman. And she awoke to an even more unpleasant surprise.
I put my short sword to her throat. “Who are you? What are you doing here?”
“I–I am your war-prize,” she croaked. “Please don’t hurt me.”
I heard a man rousing and looked over my shoulder to see a black man staring at me. His lips parted into a crescent of white teeth. And then laughter. “Who are you?” I asked. “What’s so funny?”
He stood, dressing himself, and said, “Let the woman go, Celts. She’s a friend.”
“How do I know that? How do you know that?”
The black man raised his eyebrows. “You don’t remember me either, do you? Does the name Jugurtha stir your memories?”
“Put the blade down.” He crouched and picked up the scrolls that I write on now. I know now, looking back, that I truly wrote them. They match my handwriting well enough. Jugurtha, if I am to believe my own account, is like a brother to me.
So I let the girl go and I told her to leave; Jugurtha was laughing all the while. “It’s a shame you don’t remember last night,” he chuckled. “I envy your time with this woman. And to think! You’re just going to send her away.”
“I can’t keep her,” I said. “I’ll fall into the same trap I did today. The fog will cloud my mind and I’ll forget her.”
He grinned. “Every time you lie with a woman will be your first time. That seems a blessing and a curse,” he laughed. “It’s a shame we had this talk before you sent her away. Write it down, will you? In case you find yourself another woman to take to bed during our time here.”
I promised him I would, and we paused to collect our things and begin our march.
“It’s odd,” Jugurtha said. “I’ve read your scrolls. You have an impeccable memory–when you can remember, that is.”
I’m not sure of the truth to that. What sort of man remembers burned men, dead boys and drowned women talking to them? Jugurtha does not seem to believe me, and I have no reason to suspect he would lie that such things are unnatural.
I suspect this will be my last entry. If I begin to doubt my own mind, what do I have left?
I just asked Jugurtha that question. I didn’t expect him to laugh.
“What do you have left when you doubt your own mind?” He echoed, “For you? The next day.”