Your brother told you that you would be on campaign during his funeral—turns out he was right. Rome retook Hannibal Barca’s hold on Spain, and your brother didn’t survive the onslaught. You got a letter telling you of your loss, but you decided to burn it.
“Better to forget,” you told yourself. But I don’t want you to. Your brother’s gone, Carth. I know you don’t remember it, but you’re going to have to trust me. I promise I know how you feel hearing this again. It won’t be the last time you get that knot in your stomach. But here’s some consolation: give yourself a few hours and everything will be fine. You’ll forget. You always forget.
Yesterday, you asked a man named Celts where you were. “On the road,” he grunted, which you understood well enough, but you had no idea where you were going. So, you asked that and he told you we were going to Capua. They’ve defected to Carthage after the victory at Cannae.
I’ll wait for you to check your index—those other scrolls in your travel sack—and remember what I’m talking about. All set? Good. Let’s continue:
Barca’s army tramps down the road for miles. Such a great gathering of men, isn’t it? All those people out there with their strange names—the men with the spears three times their height are all named Hoplite. Those black men on horseback are all named Numidian. Maybe there are even other Carths out there. There’s a group of men named Carthaginian—I’ll tell you that much.
You’ve got a long sword at your side. You don’t think you know how to use it, do you? Draw it out of its sheath. Feel that wood-and-bone handle? Feels like a handshake between old friends, right?
Yesterday you tried to run away after seeing a gigantic gray beast that trumpeted loud as a god. You were almost executed for desertion—until one of your friends stepped in to explain.
You’ve got two friends, see: Hoplite and Numidian. Other men named Iberian and Celtiberian dragged you to the commander of House Barca’s army. Hoplite and Numidian were in tow. Look at your legs. See those scratches and scrapes on your legs? They dragged you down the road. That’s how your legs got cut. Carth. Proof to you I’m telling the truth.
“We caught him deserting,” Celtiberian said, “Tried to cross that river, back there.”
Hoplite stepped in, “He can’t remember much. He’s simple, really” He turned to you and spoke slowly, thumbing back to a big gray beast. “That’s called an elephant, Carth. Repeat after me, el-le-phant,” he sounded it out for you. “Give me your scrolls, I’ll write it down.”
Look at your index on those other scrolls. Tell me I’m wrong.
You had to hand this one over to the commander. You’d only written the bit about your brother at the time. But he laughed and said something in a foreign tongue, and the two men named Iberian released you.
“Try not to forget again,” Numidian said as he and Hoplite helped you back to camp. But you will. It’s what you do best.
But you know one thing, don’t you: it hurts when you think. And somebody named Roman was the cause of the pain. That’s your only memory, isn’t it? Shining silver and red cloth and a short sword clattering against your helmet. Then the pain. Then the word Roman.
Roman, Roman, Roman—that’s the only echo you’ve got left in hollow head of yours. And this army is the largest force of men you can remember. It’s going to hammer its way through the men named Roman and you’re all too eager to join them. Do you remember why you’re fighting them? I do—but by the time you read this, you won’t.
But you’ll take up arms against them, anyway, won’t you, Carth? Who knows—maybe victory will make the pain go away.
I know the answer, but you’ll have to find out.
You sacked a village last night, Carth. You’ve got a necklace in your travel sack to keep your scrolls company. But something strange happened after you sacked the city. Before I continue, you should check your blade.
It’s scabbed isn’t it? There’s dried blood on the blade but its inlaid as if it’s part of the metalwork. You can’t even remember how it got there. But I suspect you know blood doesn’t seep into metal.
There’s a story behind that. You were with Hoplite and Numidian as they ate, sharing a fire between the three of you.
There was a forest about a spear’s throw away from the campfire. That’s where you saw the dead man.
Let me paint a picture for you—feel free to check your index as needed: a man, burned and black and lumpy like he was carved out of coal. Even his eyes were black. Like a pool of water in the middle of the night.
“Why are you here?” you shouted to him. You wondered if it was odd to talk to corpses.
Numidian snatched your arm, knuckles white on your bicep and ask you, “What do you think you’re doing?”
“I’m talking,” you said.
“Yes, but to who?” Numidian said.
“I think our friend has finally snapped,” Hoplite said.
The burned man crook a blackened finger at you like a burnt branch. You tore your arm free and said, “I’ll be back,” and walked toward the forest feeling something like a silhouette walking through a nightmare as you vanished into the trees with him.
You asked your question again: “What are you doing here?”
He tapped your temple, leaving a charcoal-smear, and then rubbed the back of his neck. “I’m here because of that blow you took at Cannae,” he said, “That’s why you’re seeing me. Your brain is rattling around in there, back and forth between Real and Unreal.” He might’ve frowned then, but the burns made it difficult to say. There was a shifting in the crisp, black face, like had drawn down the edges of his burnt jaw. “I know it’s complicated. Try not to think about it.”
“That should be easy,” you said. “But it doesn’t quite answer my question, I think.”
“Well,” he shrugged, “I’m here you sent me to the other side,” the burned man said with a voice like a march over gravel. He told you he couldn’t thank you enough for sending him there.
“Don’t do that,” you said, “I killed you.”
“That is so. Again, I thank you.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Have I asked you to?”
You shrugged, rubbing the side of his neck. “I suppose there’s no point in arguing. Is there anything I can do for you, since while you’re here?”
You could see your reflection in those eyes of his, so real it couldn’t possibly be imagined. He had to be real—unless I’m lying. For all you know, your sword could have been dyed red in its forging. “I’ll be watching you, Carth,” the burned man told you. “Keeping you safe. You’ve done me a great favor and now I shall repay you.”
So saying, he took your sword from your scabbard. Your long sword glowed orange as a burning leaf in those bloated, blackened fingers. That’s why your blade is scabbed with blood instead of smear—unless I faked that, too.
He smiled, his white teeth stark against his dark face. “Fire obeys my will, and it is my will that flames do not stand before you, Carth. Thank you again.” He bowed and touched his collarbone—probably some form of greeting used by the men named Roman—and then left. Within three steps he was crumbling to ash.
Are you wondering why this is happening to you? I suspect you can’t understand. For once we’ve got something in common, Carth. I don’t know why this is happening to you, either. Maybe we can’t know.
That night, you tried to talk to Numidian as everyone huddled by the cookfires, devouring their rations. You heard others talk of gods in speeches littered with curses. But these were lightning lords they’re cursing! Masters and creators of storms and stones! For such powerful things, you wondered what good it does to curse them. There’s something else we agree on.
You tried to ask Numidian, “Why do we fight the Romans?” But he thrust a scrap of meat in your face, red juice dribbling between his fingers. “Eat,” he said. And you snatched up that strip of meat and wolfed it down. “Good,” Numidian said. “You must eat much, boy. Keep up your strength.”
You asked for more so he gave it to you. Strips of meat thick as bark with patches of crisp burn. It tasted like horse. You’ve probably still got some stuck between your teeth if you’re curious.
Then you slinked off to write this letter to yourself. A man named Celts was about to put out his cookfire when you caught his arm. “I need to write,” you told him and he seemed to nod his assent. Maybe he knew you—not that you’ll know.
You huddled up and scratched out a note. Hoplite had chided you for leaving your berries uneaten, but you’ve got to get ink from somewhere. A thin stick and some berries is enough to give yourself this message.
You hear men in the distance tell their legends of half-gods and heroes. I’ve written a few of them down for you in your index. My favorite is the one where a lightning lord seduces a woman in the form of a cow before traveling across the sea with a woman on his back.
You arrived at Capua yesterday. I’ve made some additions to your other scrolls. You were sent to Beneventum, a city near Capua, after provisions were dispensed. They’ve got corn, corn and more corn, so don’t act surprised.
It turns out you haven’t been reading this as much as you should be. Didn’t I tell you to read this when you wake? I leave two scrolls right next to you every night. How hard is it to read them?
Now read closely Carth: there is talk in Beneventum that you’re now commanded by a man named Hanno—he is kin to Hannibal Barca. There is also talk that Hanno doesn’t want to linger in Beneventum. Most people talk about the likelihood of a siege.
I’ve left you some notes on sieges as well as a few vague scatterings of memory the word retched up for me. I’ll bet you remember them too—frozen in time, without context.
After you received your provisions, Hoplite waved you over to an alley where he and Numidian had sat down to eat.
Hoplite was cleaning his nails with a dagger, stopping every now and then to feed scraps of corn to his dog, or scratch him behind the ear.
He said that it was you who found the dog during that first raid of yours just before you met the burned man. “He was protecting that girl you met.”
Your hand went to the necklace in your travel sack. “A girl? What girl? I don’t remember,” you said.
“I don’t know how you could forget someone like that,” Hoplite derided. He compared her beauty to a few goddesses whose names I’ve left for you. I’ll let you forget some of his choice descriptions. I wish I could.
Your conversation lapsed as he went back to cleaning his nails. To break the silence he mused, “I’ll probably lose a finger one day. Won’t be able to hold a spear after that. Won’t be able to fight.” He scratched his dog behind the ear.
“Why not do it now?” Numidian asked, “Get it over and done with?”
Hoplite grinned. He pet his dog so that its tail thumped against the ground. When he turned to look at Numidian, his grin was gone. “What do I look like to you? A coward?”
That night, you had watched the stars with Numidian and Hoplite. The fire was down to its final embers, but it still burned and you still felt strong, same as before.
Numidian and Hoplite often argued over clusters of stars, and shapes they formed and what they meant. They called them constellations. I’ve left you a few of their names and how to find them.
The conversation lapsed into silence then, so Numidian filled it, “Do you know what my father told me before I joined this campaign?”
“You told this story,” Hoplite said, “You—”
Numidian smacked him. “I was talking to the boy!” You told him you didn’t remember the story.
“My father said the gods would sing praises of my deeds. And that they would put new stars in the sky with my likeness.”
“I was told something similar,” Hoplite muttered, but you told him to let Numidian finish
“Thank you, Carth,” Numidian said. “You see, if the gods granted me one wish—any wish, I’d wish for that song my father promised they’d sing to me. Forget the stars, I want to hear that song. Because that, my friends, would be the most boring song in all of creation.”
He rolled onto his side, so that his back was facing you and Hoplite. “But at least my father would be happy.”
The next morning, the three of you collected your provisions—corn, corn and more corn once again. You stopped in that same alley where you rejoined Hoplite and Numidian. If you happen to wake up with a taste like ashes in your mouth, you’ll have a small understanding of the ordeal it was to swallow that bile.
“War’s a bitch,” Hoplite said, “What did they do to this food?”
“Might be the seasoning,” you suggested.
Numidian giggled, bits of corn fumbling down his chin. “You think they have the coin to season this shit, boy?”
“Might be someone thought to use a heap of soil,” Hoplite suggested. Yellow filled the gaps between his teeth. “Perhaps they needed a light garnish.”
Then you saw the one-legged boy. He looked like his name would be Roman. Hoplite shouted at him from the alley where you all rested, then kept shouting until the boy hopped over to you.
Hoplite tried to teach him the name of his spear: a sarissa, but the one-legged boy wasn’t understanding. He only held out his hands, saying the same foreign word over and over. Still, it was clear what he wanted. “Food,” he was saying. “Food.”
So Hoplite laughed and dribbled some corn into the boy’s tiny hands. Numidian closed the boy’s dirty fingers over the corn and said something you didn’t understand. Then the boy hopped off in search of others, plucking the corn into his mouth.
You asked Numidian what he said, ignoring Hoplites’ rhythmic chanting of, “One leg…one leg…one leg…” as he stared blankly into space.
“I told him to be careful—made sure he knew not to let anyone see his food—” Numidian stopped to smack the back of Hoplite’s head. “Stop staring!”
“By Hades, that’s a boy with one leg!” Hoplite said. He turned you then, grinning. “Some poor soul forgot to sharpen his blade.”
You decided you’d had enough of Hoplite, and went off to forget him. Numidian and Hoplite bickered as you walked away. There was a river near the city, and you decided to go there. It looked like the best spot to rest for a while.
You sat there and watched your reflection. You put your feet in the river contemplated everything you’d read, your free hand holding that necklace in your travel sack.
But then a black curl sifted through the river, clouding everything beneath. You smelled the stench of him before you thought to turn and look at the burned man sitting next to you, dipping his feet in the water. “Hello, Carth,” he said, and touched his collarbone in that probably-Roman greeting.
But you forgot to keep reading, so you didn’t remember him. So he had to remind you and asked if you wanted his assistance.
Thoughts of a siege rattled through your mind. Your fist closed around that necklace, and you told the dead man, “I know no god but you. If I die here, please give good fortune to Numidian and Hoplite. They have been as brothers to me.” You took out your sword and told him it was all you had left. You offered it as a sacrifice and cast it into the soot-soaked water.
“Is that all you have left, Carth?” the burned man asked, rubbing the back of his neck.
You had forgotten the travel sack and its contents for a moment, and offered that, too.
The burned man laughed and put his arm in the water up to the elbow and took your sword out of the water. Holding it by the blade, he offered you the hilt. When you took it, it was dry; wood, bone, blade and all.
“Do you think me a god, Carth?” the burned man rubbed the side of his neck. “Don’t tell me you believe in such things. Gods? Fate?” He gave a grating laugh. “Comforts.” He reached into the river and produced your travel sack, now empty.
“Do you think this is happening for a reason?” The burned man adorned himself with your necklace. “I’ve been watching you since you killed me. Does this place seem familiar?”
I’ve left you a description of the river. Tell me it doesn’t, Carth. Does that feel like a place you’ve been to before? You asked who the burned man was.
“I am simply the burned one. Nothing more, nothing less.”
“A burned man?”
“Burned one,” the dead person said, “And I’ve given you a gift with this sword: nothing forged of any minerals that can be found in those rivers can hurt this blade. It is tempered in my river flood, and none shall withstand it.”
“I killed you,” you said, “Why do you do this?”
“Do I need a reason?” the burned one asked. “You must go now.”
“The men named Roman are here.” You followed the burned one’s finger. There were swarthy men marching on Beneventum with javelins and long knives in their hands.
You looked into those black eyes, staring at your own reflection. The last thing the burned one said was, “Don’t you wish you could remember me,” before crumbling to dust.
You rushed back to Numidian and Hoplite, who were scattered about the camp. Hoplite had shouted your name, seizing you by the cloak. “I thought we’d lost you. Where did you go?”
There was no time to answer, for black men atop horses were racing through the camp, shouting orders in a foreign tongue. “What is it?” you asked, “Is it the men named—”
“It’s my folk, boy. I sent them out to scout ahead.” Numidian said, as a group of horse lords came riding through the streets, all with the same ink-black skin as our friend.
There were scattered shouts a language that you didn’t know. Your Numidian shouted back in the same tongue. He approached one of the horsemen from the side, petting the horse’s mane. Once the beast was at ease, he exchanged a few words with the other man named Numidian, atop the horse.
Even you could understand there was an urgency in his voice. He pivoted to face you and Hoplite, “The Romans are coming upon Beneventum. They’ve taken to arming their damned slaves.”
Hoplite hefted his spear. “Draw your sword, Carth,” he urged. “It’s time to kill some men named Roman, as you say.”
Numidian turned and said a few more words in the alien language to the other man named Numidian, who nodded assent, gathered the rest and rode off.
“Ready your weapons,” Hoplite was shouting. “Numidians will be attacking the flanks. Hoplites, with me! Form phalanx!”
A man named Carthaginian shouted orders from atop the city walls. He was blind in one eye and held a bent sword in one hand—a falcata. “Bowmen, stay atop the hill. Shoot the center of the Roman lines! Do not shoot the flanks!”
Hoplite shoved you forward. “Move, Carth!” he said. “Let’s go!”
And you did. You fought the Romans. That’s whose blood was smeared on your sword. And you’re using red ink—or has it dried to brown by now? Has it taken you this long to realize you didn’t hang on to any spare berries last night? All you need is a thing stick to write with. Crude, yes, but it gets the job done.
I know you won’t remember much from yesterday’s battle. But I do. Let me tell you, for I want us to remember this, together. These are memories we cannot let go:
Men with skin like black ink and men astride horses and men with great swords were all on your side. The hammer falling down on the men named Roman we discussed? This was what I meant when I said that. We fought against the swarthy men and pale men in silver and red.
The leaders of Barca’s armies fought like something out the legends we’ve overheard at our campfires. They seemed to have the strength of half-gods and heroes as they slung spears down on the enemy.
Their movements were taut; bronzed biceps growing as they hefted their weapons—and when they threw them, they did not seem concerned with the javelins hurtling toward us. They seemed almost lazy—after all, they were our leaders, and had made it this far. They seemed to know they wouldn’t die here.
The same could not be said of soldiers unnumbered, too young or unpracticed, or infirm. The ones could not raise their shields in time, pierced by javelins or swords and littering the fields with eyes like their leaders—like half-gods and heroes. Eyes that did not seem to see.
We lost the battle all the same. You fled with Hoplite and Numidian, gathering with what men could retreat under Hanno’s command.
Numidian was all curses as he led his cavalry off the field. He explained to you that the Romans retook Beneventum. “They armed their thrice damned slaves to do it!” He muttered a string of curses after that.
He told you of how you fought. He said you were like a wave breaking over the men named Roman. That can’t be a coincidence, can it? Your sword must be blessed, truly. Unless I’m lying. Or Numidian was.
But now you know you’re a soldier, don’t you? Only a soldier could hear that he had killed so many and not even bristle. You feel it don’t you? I feel it to. The nothing inside you when learning this news. That’s why you’re a soldier. That’s how you survive.
You were ambushed, yesterday, Carth. It was only a small skirmish, but there’s more that I want us to remember. Though I can’t give you much—do you think anyone truly remembers fights clearly? Or do only you and I suffer from this affliction?
There are some things I’ll let you remember:
I’ll let you remember Hoplite dragging a twin away from his brother’s limp body, leaving the corpse on the road for the carrion crows.
I’ll let you remember how you saw Numidian spearing an injured horse—and the cavalryman whose leg it had crushed. He looked at you, then. Even through your fog of shattered memories, you knew what that look meant. And you know it now as you read this.
You and I both know how these men felt. I suspect we all know. We’ve all learned the guilt that comes with being alive.
Let’s remember these things, too:
A field of grass bowing under your progression and rising again after you passed.
A village of wattle-and-daub huts.
White-knuckled hands wrapped around short swords.
The glint of iron against the sun.
Your hand, red and wet and holding a long sword plunged up to the hilt in a wide-eyed boy named Roman.
Hoplite saying, “You did what you had to—couldn’t be helped. There’s no shame in it.”
Hoplite saying, “Right?”
Hoplite saying, “Talk to me.”