“Rest assured, my friend, that there were methods to my madness as I climbed the north face of what was then and is now the world’s highest mountain. I had the practical desire to test the limits of the tiny man-made machines flowing through my veins (such knowledge would no doubt come in useful later on in my long life), and, it being late May in the Himalayas, I was well aware that avalanche season would soon be upon me, and I had no desire to spend a month on a mountainside going through a process of altitude adjustment which I was not entirely certain was necessary in my particular case.
“And necessary it was most certainly not. Straight up the mountainside I went, using twin grapples to secure my person and pull myself up sheer walls of ice and ice and rock as I went. At other times, as I trotted over windswept glaciers with the world before me, I felt the exhilaration of having climbed higher than any other human in history, the medibots discernibly buzzing away in my veins to squeeze every last bit of oxygen out of the thinning air and tingling on my skin to fight the bitter cold that even a Sherpa jacket, boots, and leggings could not quite dispel.
“It was in the early afternoon that I reached the summit, and stood a man at the highest point on Earth. I looked away to the East, to where I had spent the last few years in what seemed at the time the most pointless of wanderings; I looked to the West, to my home away from home in time; I looked to the South, to where I would soon be headed.
“And I felt peace.”
“When I reached the base camp once more, as darkness began to fall, I found that my two companions had hedged their bets: they had already fled down the mountainside, but had left my tent intact with plenty of food and water inside. I feasted and rested that night, then broke my half of the camp and left the rest of the food as an offering to the mountain gods before trudging down the remainder of the way to the village below.
“The locals were alarmed by my arrival at their collection of tents that afternoon, and my two erstwhile companions abandoned the flock of sheep they had been tending on the mountainside to flee headlong from my sight. But the clan chieftain greeted me warmly after two others led me to his tent, and he insisted that I stay with his people another night even as he looked at me with frightened eyes.
“I accepted the invitation, sleeping with a sword at my side before rising early the next morning to mount the horse I had left in the care of my hosts. I bid those hosts (my two base camp friends among them) farewell, and rode back alone down the valley through which I had come.
“It was in the month of Julius that the trader from Sikkim fulfilled his promise, and I journeyed southward from Lhasa near the head of a large caravan almost perceptibly groaning under the weight of silk cloth and worked jade. Back along the Brahmaputra we traveled, then southward through alpine valleys and over mountain passes to the Subcontinent below us.
“It was in the town of Darjeeling that I was turned over to yet another caravan, into the hands of a second elderly trader whom the first described as a ‘good friend.’ After the passing of the monsoon season in September, I journeyed east with these men along the subcontinental stretch of the Brahmaputra and southward all the way down to Chittagong.
“Ah yes, my friend, the great Indian port of Chittagong was in operation then much as it is today. The Arabs had not yet discovered the city, and local traders outward bound for Kolamba to the south readily agreed to take me on as a passenger (I paid for my passage with a sale of my second horse as well as the jade trinkets loaned to me on interest in Lhasa by the Sikkimese trader; the principal and interest were delivered back to him by our mutual friend).
“At the beginning of October (as near as I could reckon) we set sail upon the Bay of Bengal, and were in Kolamba off the southern tip of the Subcontinent before the week had transpired. In that port I was handed off to the crew of another trading ship, a handful of Arabs who were paid the right price and who did not ask if I had seen the Spice Islands. These were the men who took me home at last, their lateen sail carrying us all the way back to Aelana and the Roman Empire.
“My friend, perhaps you can imagine the homecoming feelings of a man who had spent more than two years a quarter of a globe away. I thanked the crew after we had docked, paid them a bonus as generous as it was unsolicited, and immediately set forth for my home in Petra.
“My home and harem were in surprising order upon my return, perhaps the result of my having left disguising my intention to never return in a mortal lifetime; fear is a powerful inertial force. I made love to my harem girls, most of whom were still young and supple and all of whom had been kept indoors, out of the sun and the sight of free men. I also ate and slept and waited for whatever new beckoned from over the horizon, telling my concubines that my continued youthfulness was the result of a new spice I had discovered in the Orient. I offered to share the spice with those who bowed to my will, and my household was a model of tranquility for years thereafter.
“Those five years after my return to the Empire, it was the Bar Kokhba rebellion which came over the northern horizon. Hadrian, an Emperor apparently unaware of the explosive potential of religious feeling, had proscribed circumcision among the Judeans, founded a Roman colony in Jerusalem, and, most scandalously to his Jewish subjects, erected a temple to Jupiter over the ruins of the Jewish Temple.
“The Jews returned the favors: they stormed the local Roman colony (much like the Iceni had in Britannia the previous century), and also wiped out the Twenty-Second Deiotariana after it advanced north from Egypt. The Jewish leader Simon Bar Kokhba took the title of ‘Nasi’ or ‘Prince’ after being declared the Messiah by the Jews’ greatest rabbi, and he struck coins with the legend ‘Year One of the liberty of Jerusalem.’
“It was the destruction of the Twenty-Second Legion which most alarmed me, for the Jews now threatened to cut off Arabia Petraea with advances into either the Sinai or the Syrian Desert, or to take our province itself if they desired to bestride a crossroads of the Middle East trading routes. I, a prominent citizen of Petra, took matters into my own hands and stood upon a table in the marketplace, asking in Aramaic the Arabs surrounding me if they wished to trade with Romans or with Jews, if they wished to be ruled by Romans or by Jews.
“My play on the Arabs’ anti-Semitism (not to mention my play on that universal fear of change) worked brilliantly, and more than one hundred locals and foreign traders spoiling for action, complete with personal mounts, joined me on the outskirts of the city the very next morning, before the sun had broken with the horizon. The local centurion, bound by duty, strategy, and perhaps fear to keep his cohort at Petra, made no attempt to either hinder or aid us as we collected and divvied provisions, then rode north towards the city of Philadelphia.
“Towards Philadelphia, but not to it, for I steered my followers towards the shores of the Dead Sea once the nights turned moonless, and set them and myself upon a Jewish village in a darkness broken only by the torches we lit on the village’s perimeter.
“I deliberately ensured that my followers were ruthless and rapacious, partly by setting my own example. A score of men on horseback torched all the huts of this village, the largest we could find without defensive walls, and a second score arrowed any male villager who did not immediately flee for the village’s far side. Myself and the majority of my men were waiting on that far side, and we set upon the villagers with swords to the light of spear-torches rammed into the Earth.
“Each member of my force was allowed to take one female and bind her for the ride back to our own territory, together with as many valuables as could be carried on horseback in addition to a prisoner. Those villagers who were not young women and girls were thus put to the sword, and each and every dwelling was allowed to burn to the ground once it had been hurriedly searched.
“It was our speed on horseback which had allowed us to surprise our victims, and it was our speed on horseback which allowed us to flee back into the night and all the way back to Petra. We were not pursued (as I had secretly hoped we would be), and thus we were not able to draw enemy defenders away from the Roman army which was ponderously advancing north towards Jerusalem. I spent a night in my own bed making love to my new slave girl, a young and frightened creature whom I left in the care of her fellow harem members when I departed the next morning, at the head of a force of men swollen in numbers and daring by tall tales founded on our successful destruction of an undefended village.
“Once we were out of sight of Petra, I turned the nose of my horse to the west, across the Negev, and led my two hundred followers to find the Roman legions marching on Jerusalem. The men, especially the new ones, grumbled, but they all followed, and after a day and a half of riding we encountered a Roman cavalry detachment which escorted our unit to the Roman camp and myself to the commanding Roman general’s tent.
“General Julius Severus, the commander at that moment of tens of thousands of Roman legionaries and auxiliaries, was using a sandal to rub out lines in the sand beneath his tent when I was bidden to enter his presence. He stood with a stick in hand and twelve legates surrounding him; I realized that he had been plotting the advance of a full twelve legions upon the Jewish capital.
“‘So you are the Petraean raider,’ Severus observed without a smile.
“‘I am,’ I confirmed, without knowing what more I should add.
“‘What are the Jewish defenses like beyond the Salt Sea?’ asked one of the legates standing directly beside the commander.
“I looked at Severus, saw that I had permission to answer, then answered with, ‘I do not know, since we did not encounter any defenders. We rode in and out on horseback on a moonless night.’
“‘What of the men in the village then?’ asked a second legionary commander, this one behind a shoulder of Severus. ‘Were fighting men there, or had they left to join the Jewish army?’
“‘I do not know,’ was the something I replied with hastily. ‘We killed what men there were.’ I knew the medibots could not hide my flush, my friend, even in the cool shade of the tent, for I had been shamed into acknowledging that the village I had raped and destroyed had contained no men entirely worthy of the name.
“My loss of face was not lost on me, and I sensed that I was seen in a different light in the eyes of these men. ‘We could use you and your men as mounted infantry,’ Severus said simply, looking down as the tip of his stick returned to the sand at his feet. ‘You and your men are to be attached to the Tenth Legion as an equite legion,’ he informed me. ‘Your men are to be given the rank of immune, and you yourself will be made an optio. You’ll report to an assigned centurion. That will be all.’
“I bowed silently, and allowed myself to be led out of the tent and away by a tribune who enacted Severus’s orders.”
“Northward as an army we marched upon Jerusalem, through Beersheba and into Judea. This war was a war of attrition and annihilation, and we as soldiers performed both tasks well. Village after village and town after town was razed, those inhabitants who did not flee to Jerusalem or fight to the death being sold into slavery, often en masse on the spot to the slave traders following closely on the heels of the generals.
“By the spring of the Roman year Eight Eight Eight, we were besieging Jerusalem, and that summer we took the city by storm. This completed the slaughter, for the defenders and innocents alike had nowhere else to flee and it was the Emperor’s wish for the Jews to be wiped off the map literally as well as cartographically.
“Myself and my men were given the dubious honor of being the first cohort sent through the hole punched by a battering ram in Jerusalem’s outermost earthen mound wall (the city’s stone walls had been razed after the first rebellion two generations before). Our mounts proved useless within moments, for they were cut from beneath us by archers atop a second, inner wall once we were past the first, and I found myself fighting alone hand-to-hand in a shadow of the Earth the Jews had gathered to defend themselves.
“But my slaughtered friends and neighbors were not the only cohort sent into Jerusalem that day, and soon I was surrounded by legionaries remarking upon my longevity even as they cut short the lives of Jews all around us. After more days of fighting (yes, days, my friend), the Upper City fell, and many days after that I found myself and the surviving handful of my comrades from Petra helping to storm the quarter of the city which had once been Herod’s Palace. The fighting in that last bastion of the capital’s resistance was street-to-street, house-to-house, room-to-room, the determination of the defenders matched only by the grimness of their knowledge that the Emperor had decided to exterminate them. That same pool where I had once watched Pontius Pilatus wash his feet a century before was now filled with the blood of the wounded, Roman and Jew alike, who crawled there for one last drink of water.
“And exterminate those defenders of that last corner of the Holy City the Emperor did. Myself and my few remaining men were denied the honor of helping to storm the fortress of Betar southwest of the city, an honor which would have included witness of the murder of Bar Kokhba himself and the last of his followers. But denied we were not our share of the spoils, and I made sure to send those seven men back to Petra with a slave girl each (plucked from the captured hordes) and several months’ back pay coaxed out of one of the legion’s surviving signifiers.
“I also made sure to send back tidings of my health and good fortune, for I had determined from the beginning to establish a permanent residence in Palestine, or as permanent a residence as this wanderer could create. Land was cheap, slaves even cheaper, and I obtained a quiet farm in the Judean hills south of Jerusalem, a city which Hadrian had banned to Jews thereafter along with the rest of their homeland.
“And ‘rest’ is what I did in this new homeland of my own, retreating from the trading and the fighting which I had seen far too much of and instead enjoying the fruits of such labors and horrors. I read the Latin and Greek writers, everyone from Apuleius to Virgil and Aristophanes to Xenophon, I maintained correspondence with Londinium, Segontium, Venetia, and Petra under the guises of various fictional descendants of mine, and I waited.
“And the waiting ended eventually, with the accession of the co-emperors Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus to the Imperial throne in the year Nine Fourteen. Aurelius sought in his adoptive brother a second generalissimo who was already an Emperor and therefore would not rebel, but he also found the beginning of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, my friend, for this was the division of what was not meant to be divided, the Imperial throne. The Parthian Empire took note, for the Parthians invaded Syria and wiped out a legion in Cappadocia along the way.
“I was in no particular mood to remain in the path of a foreign invader, and took the opportunity to take my leave of Syria Palestina (which was the new name of Judea) without raising undue notice. I booked passage on a ship out of Caesarea for a dear price, sailed for Rome, then rode for the north of Italy on the Adriatic coast, where I purchased final passage across the Venetian lagoon from local fishermen.
“The villa which I had not seen in over half a century was more empty than a shambles, but good measures of both. I had lost contact with the grandson of the man I had entrusted with the long-term safekeeping of my property, and I was only surprised that ‘Cartaphilus’s tomb’ remained unmolested.