The fly had been pestering the Greek all morning. As if the furnace-like heat of the desert wasn’t enough, and the forced marches, and the stale rations, now he had this added torment. He cursed the gods and landed a heavy blow on his cheek, dislodging a shower of sweat droplets, but missing the insect by some way.
“Damned flies!” he spat.
“Ignore them,” said his companion.
“I can’t ignore them. They’re driving me mad! If I didn’t know better I’d think our enemies had sent them.”
His companion shrugged. “Maybe they have. They say the Ammonians have strange powers. I heard they can turn themselves into wild beasts. Jackals and lions and suchlike.”
“They can turn themselves into anything they want,” growled the Greek. “When I get my hands on them I’ll make them pay for this damned march. Four weeks we’ve been out here! Four weeks!”
He swung his water-skin from his shoulder and drank from it, grimacing at its hot, oily contents.
What he’d give for a cup of cool, fresh water from the hill springs of Naxos; water that didn’t taste as if fifty pox-ridden whores had just bathed in it!
“I’m giving up this mercenary business,” he grunted. “This campaign’s the last.”
“You say that every time.”
“This time I mean it. I’m going back to Naxos to find a wife and a nice bit of land. Olive trees—there’s money in that, you know.”
“You’d never stick it.”
“I will,” said the Greek, taking another vain swat at the fly. “I will, you know. This time it’s different.”
And this time it was different. For twenty years he’d been fighting other people’s wars. It was too long, and he knew it. He couldn’t stand these marches any more. And the pain from the old arrow wound had been getting worse this year. Now he could barely lift his shield arm up above the level of his chest. One more expedition and that was the end of it. He was going back to grow olive trees on the island of his birth.
“So who are these Ammonians anyway?” he asked, taking another gulp of water.
“No idea,” his companion replied. “They’ve got some temple Cambyses wants destroyed. There’s an oracle there, apparently. That’s about all I know.”
The Greek grunted, but didn’t pursue the conversation. In truth he wasn’t much interested in those he fought against. Libyans, Egyptians, Carians, Hebrews, even his fellow Greeks—it was all the same to him. You turned up, killed who you had to kill and then joined another expedition, as often as not against the very people who’d just paid you. Today his master was Cambyses of Persia. Yet not so long ago he’d fought against that same Cambyses in the army of Egypt. That’s how it was in this business.
He took another swig of water, allowing his mind to drift back to Thebes, to his last day there before they’d set out across the desert. He and a friend, Phaedis of Macedon, had taken a skin of beer and crossed Iteru, the great river, to the valley they called the Gates of the Dead, where it was said many great kings were buried. They’d spent the afternoon drinking and exploring, discovering a narrow shaft at the foot of a steep slope of rubble into which, as a dare, they’d both crawled. Inside the walls and ceiling had been covered in painted images and the Greek, pulling out his knife, had begun carving his name into the soft plaster: ÄYMMAXOÓ O MENENÄOY NAÎIOÓ TAYTA TA ÈAYMAÓTA EIÄON AYPION TOIÓ THI AMMONIÄI EÄPAI ENOIKOYÓIN EÐIÓTPATEYÓÙ EIÃAP . . . “I, Dymmachus, son of Menendes of Naxos, saw these wonders. Tomorrow I march against the Ammonians. May . . .”
But before he could finish, poor old Phaedis had knelt on a scorpion, letting out an almighty scream and scrabbling out of the shaft like a frightened cat. How he’d laughed!
The joke had been on him, however, for Phaedis’s leg had swelled to the size of a log and he’d been unable to march with the army the next day, thus missing four weeks of torment in the desert. Poor old Phaedis? Lucky old Phaedis more like! He chuckled at the memory.
He was dragged from his reverie by the voice of his companion.
“Dymmachus! Hey, Dymmachus!”
“Look at that, you dolt. Up ahead.”
The Greek lifted his eyes and stared forward along the line of marching troops. They were passing through a broad valley between high dunes and there ahead, its outline warped by the fierce glare of the midday sun, rose a huge, pyramid-shaped rock, its sides so uniform they seemed to have been deliberately carved into that shape. There was something faintly menacing about it, standing silent and alone in the otherwise featureless landscape, and the Greek involuntarily raised his hand to the Isis amulet at his neck, muttering a swift prayer to ward off evil spirits.
They marched on for another half-hour before a halt was called for the midday meal, by which time the Greek’s company was almost alongside the rock. He staggered towards it and slumped down in the sliver of shade at its foot.
“How much further?” he groaned. “Oh Zeus, how much further?”
Boys came round with bread and figs and the men ate and drank. Afterwards some fell to scoring their names into the surface of the rock. The Greek leaned back and closed his eyes, enjoying the sudden breeze that had come up. He felt the tickle of a fly as it landed on his cheek, the same one, he was sure, as had been tormenting him all morning. This time he made no attempt to swat it, allowing it to wander back and forth across his lips and eyelids. It took off and landed again, took off and landed, testing his resolve. Still he didn’t move and the insect, lulled into a false sense of security, finally settled on his forehead. With infinite care the Greek raised his hand, held it for a moment six inches from his face, then slammed it violently against his temple.
“Got you, you bastard!” he cried, staring down at the remains of the fly smeared across his palm. “At last!”
His triumph was short-lived, however, for at that moment a faint murmur of alarm came drifting forward from the rear of the column.
“What is it?” he asked, wiping away the fly and standing, hand on sword. “An attack?”
“I don’t know,” said the man beside him. “There’s something going on behind us.”
The hubbub was growing. Four camels thundered past, their packs trailing in their wake, froth dripping from their mouths. Screams could be heard and muffled shouting. The breeze, too, was getting stronger, buffeting into his face, making his hair flicker and dance.
The Greek shielded his eyes and stared southwards along the valley. There seemed to be a sort of darkness coming up behind them. A cavalry charge, he thought at first. Then a sudden furious gust of wind smacked into his face and he heard clearly what had until now been just a garbled cry.
“Oh Isis,” he whispered.
“What?” said his companion.
The Greek turned to him. There was fear in his eyes. “Sandstorm.”
Nobody moved or spoke. They’d all heard of the sandstorms of the western desert, the way they came out of nowhere and swallowed everything in their path. Whole cities had been devoured by them, it was said, entire civilizations lost.
“If you meet a sandstorm there’s only one thing to do,” one of the Libyan guides had told them.
“What?” they had asked him.
“Die,” he had replied.
“Save us!” someone croaked. “May the gods protect us!”
And then, suddenly, everyone was running and shouting.
“Save us!” they screamed. “Have mercy on us!”
Some threw aside their packs and charged madly up the valley. Others laboured up the side of the dune, or fell to their knees, or crouched down in the shelter of the pyramid rock. One man fell face forward into the sand, weeping. Another was trampled by a horse as he struggled to mount it.
The Greek alone held his ground. He neither moved nor spoke, just stood leaden-limbed as the wall of darkness rolled inexorably towards him, seeming to gather speed as it came. More pack animals thundered past and men too, their weapons discarded, faces twisted in terror.
“Run!” they screamed. “It’s already taken half the army! Run or you’ll be lost!”
The wind was raging now, whipping sheets of sand about his legs and waist. There was a roar, too, as of a surging cataract. The sun dimmed.
“Come on, Dymmachus, let’s get out of here,” cried his companion. “If we stay we’ll be buried alive.”
Still the Greek didn’t move. A faint smile twisted his mouth. Of all the deaths he had imagined, and there had been many, this one had never crossed his mind. And this his last campaign, too! It was so cruel it was laughable. His smile broadened and despite himself he began to chuckle.
“Dymmachus you fool! What’s wrong with you?”
“Go,” said the Greek, shouting to be heard above the rising bellow of the storm. “Run if you want! It makes no difference. For myself, I shall die where I stand.”
He drew his sword and held it in front of him, gazing at the image of a coiling serpent inscribed onto its gleaming blade, the jaws levering open around the sword’s tip. He had won it over twenty years ago in his first campaign, against the Lydians, and had carried it with him ever since, his lucky mascot. He ran his thumb along the blade, testing it. His companion took to his heels.
“You’re mad!” he screamed over his shoulder. “You filthy mad fool.”
The Greek ignored him. He gripped his weapon and stared at the great darkness looming ever closer. Soon it would be upon him. He flexed his muscles.
“Come on then,” he whispered. “Let’s see what you’re made of.”
He felt suddenly light-headed. It was always like this in battle: the initial fear, the leaden limbs, and then the sudden surge of battle joy. Perhaps growing olive trees wasn’t for him after all. He was a machimos. Fighting was in his blood. Perhaps this was for the best. He began to chant, an old Egyptian charm to ward off the evil eye:
“Sakhmet’s arrow is in you! The magic of Thoth is in your body! Isis curses you! Nephthys punishes you! The lance of Horus is in your head!”
And then the storm hit, pulsing against him with the force of a thousand chariots. The wind nearly swept him off his feet and the sand blinded him, ripping at his tunic, tearing at his flesh. Shadowy forms loomed through the darkness, arms flailing, their screams drowned by the deafening roar. One of the army’s standards, torn from its mounting, flew against his legs and clung there for a moment before being snatched away again and disappearing into the maelstrom.
The Greek slashed at the wind with his sword, but it was too strong for him. It pushed him backwards and to the side, and eventually forced him down onto his knees. A fist of sand punched into his mouth, choking him. Somehow he struggled onto his feet again, but was knocked down almost immediately and this time didn’t get up. A wave of sand swept over him.
For a few moments he bucked and struggled, and then lay still. He felt, suddenly, very weary and very calm, as if he was floating underwater. Images drifted slowly through his mind—Naxos, where he had been born and raised; the tomb in Thebes; Phaedis and the scorpion; his first campaign all those many years ago, against the fierce Lydians, when he had won his sword. With a final supreme effort of will he lifted the weapon high in the air above him, so that even when the rest of him had been buried its thick blade still protruded above the surface of the sands, the inscribed serpent coiling around it, marking the spot where he had fallen.