I started this on New Year's Day; I have no idea where all it's going to go, but I think this is a strong start! Please drop a comment and tell me what you think.
EXARCHATE OF AFRICA, 560 AD
“Why in the name of Christ and all his saints are we out here again?” Simon Meridius demanded.
“We’re building a fort to protect this incredibly valuable territory from enemy incursions,” Marcus Philippus replied.
“So we’ve been sent four days’ march from Constantine, the last outpost of civilization, to build a fort in the middle of nowhere, to protect rocks and sand?” the legionary asked in derision.
“Quit whining, you two lagabouts!” snapped Centurion Paulus Caepio. “We are building this fort for one simple reason: because General Belisarius commanded us to do so. And Belisarius commanded it because the Augustus commanded him. So unless you want to take it up with Justinian himself, I’d recommend you shut your traps and get back to mortaring those blocks!”
The two soldiers returned to their labor, shooting venomous looks at the centurion as he walked away to check on the progress of the other workers. Half a cohort of veteran soldiers, four military engineers, and half a hundred slaves had been dispatched from the beautiful city of Constantine, the jewel of the African Exarchate, two weeks earlier, striking south from the verdant plains at the foot of the Atlas mountains and a day’s march into the forbidding desert. They’d carried wagonloads of limestone and tufa, barrels of powdered mortar, and enough provisions for two months’ worth of lean rations. Junius Macro, their military tribune, brought along a closely guarded leather satchel which contained the plans for the fortress they had been ordered to construct.
It was these plans that troubled Meridius. They made no sense. The fort the Byzantine soldiers were building would barely contain a century of men, much less a full cohort. It was being built far from any normal trade route or town – in fact, they had to bring in water from an oasis nearly twenty miles away to drink and to mix mortar with. As for bathing, a quarter of the soldiers were dispatched to the oasis every week for a couple of days to wash up, drink up, rest up, and then return to the task at hand. There was nothing there that needed guarding, and the fort was not well-designed for defense. Oh, the walls were thick enough, he thought, but there was not going to be room atop them for any heavy military equipment. And, most puzzling, the soldiers had been directed to dig two underground chambers, one directly below the other, beneath the commandant’s quarters. The sand of the desert was shallow here, and underneath it lay solid basalt. They had sworn and sweated as they chiseled the stubborn rock away to create the two chambers, and then scratched their heads as they were ordered to build a firm floor of limestone blocks over each of them, leaving only one large square opening into each chamber.
“Do you think it’s a treasure vault?” Meridius asked his friend Brutus Afranius one night over supper.
“Why would the Emperor bury any treasure so far from the capitol of the province?” Afranius replied. “He has palaces and vaults from here to Constantinople! Do you really think old Justinian is going to stow some of Theodora’s jewels out here in this god-forsaken, sand-blasted wilderness?”
“Then why that tiny chamber so far underground? With a slab ready to be mortared into place as soon as the priests get here with whatever it is?” Meridius wondered. “I’ve marched under the eagles for fifteen years and never had a detail like this!”
But their questions remained unanswered as the walls of the fort slowly rose over the mysterious chambers. A hundred and twenty feet on each side it measured, with one massive gate in front and a smaller, postern gate to the rear. The soldiers were crowded into barracks built on the inside of the walls. For six weeks they labored on the project day and night with grim determination, praying that they would be rewarded with some coin and a bit of leave time in the city of Constantine if they did their work well enough.
The fort was finished at the beginning of the seventh week, and despite what many soldiers thought of as a flawed design, they had followed the plans that Tribune Macro dictated down to the last detail. The outer wall, some ten feet thick, towered forty feet above the desert floor. Inside, there was a well in one corner, dug straight down nearly 100 feet until it struck the aquifer beneath the desert. The legionary’s barracks ran along the full length of one wall’s interior and down half of another. There was a small stable, suitable for perhaps a dozen horses, a chapel, and the commandant’s quarters along the other interior walls, and in the center was a large tent filled with benches and tables where the men could eat their meals and play at dice. It was a comfortable enough fort for a force of fifty to a hundred men, but any more than that and it would be cramped, as it was now.
After inspecting the completed building from top to bottom, Tribune Macro called the men together for a quick meeting.
“First of all, I want to thank you for completing this fort in such a prompt and thorough manner,” he said. “As you may know, the order to build this outpost came straight from the Emperor himself, therefore it shall bear the name Fort Justinian now that it is completed!’
The men gave the obligatory cheer at the mention of the Emperor’s name. Justinian Augustus had ruled over the vast Byzantine Empire – well, call it what you will, Meridius thought, they were still Romans, even if the capitol wasn’t in Rome anymore. They were the proud descendants of Caesar’s legions, and Emperor Justinian still bore the title Princeps, just as Augustus and Trajan had centuries before. The legionary wondered what the ancient pagan rulers of Rome would make of the Christian empire that Constantine had created, and Justinian had expanded so greatly. But Macro was speaking again, and Meridius put the thought aside.
“I know that many of you have wondered what purpose such a small outpost, in such a remote corner of the Empire, could possibly serve. I must confess I do not know the whole of the story myself, save that the Emperor has ordered something to be buried here, sealed deep under the desert, and guarded with ceaseless vigilance from this day forward. But that guard duty will be for other soldiers, not you. Once the Emperor’s orders are complete, you will return to Constantine for some well-earned rest and relaxation, with full purses and the sincere thanks of Justinian the Great!”
The cheers were louder and more sincere this time, as the soldiers whispered among themselves about what they would do with their bonuses – the vast majority of those plans involving liquor and women. Pagan or Christian, Meridius thought, the ways of soldiers would never change.
“But our task is not complete until the Emperor’s special cargo arrives, and we seal it away securely. The wagon is due to arrive in three days. Therefore, I am going to send half of you at a time to St. Jude’s Oasis, to bathe and rest and return, so that we shall be clean, rested, and ready to receive His Excellency’s emissaries. Centurion Caepio, you will take your men first thing in the morning. I expect you to return no later than noon the next day. When he gets back, Centurion Maxentius will take his legionaries to the Oasis in turn. I will expect you and your men to be back here before noon on the third day. After that, we shall seal the Emperor’s special cargo in its resting place, and then go enjoy our furlough!”
With the end of their desert project in sight, the legionaries’ spirits lifted, and at sunset on the third day, the three hundred soldiers were drawn up in parade ground formation to welcome the wagon train that came rolling across the rocky desert towards the fortress. The wagon was large, black-painted, with golden crosses on each side, and a white cloth emblazoned with the sign of the cross covering its top. Six priests drove the wagon or rode alongside, and the oldest of them, a hoary old bishop named Alexander, rode forth to greet the men.
“Legionaries,” he said, “I bring you a special message of gratitude from Caesar himself! The Emperor Justinian is pleased with the speed and efficiency of your labors and promises that your services will be well rewarded. While I cannot tell you the details of the crisis that necessitated your work here, rest assured that your work will save countless lives from a terrible fate! However, that salvation is only assured by your ability to keep a secret. So, each of you will swear upon the holy relic I bear, and by Christ and all his saints, that you will never speak again of the work you have done here, or of what you may see before leaving this place, on pain of death and eternal torment. Am I clear?”
The legionaries looked at each other in puzzlement and shock. What treasure or secret could be so important as to be protected by such a terrible oath? But Justinian had been Emperor for longer than most of them had been alive, and their reverence for him was right up there with their fear of God (or the gods, as some of the men still practiced the old ways). So, after exchanging glances, they began nodding, and several voiced their agreement with loud cries.
“Very good,” Bishop Alexander said. “The work that remains will not take long, and then I have been authorized to personally accompany you to the fair city of Constantine, where your bonuses will be paid. Now, I require the services of four strong men to assist us with unloading the first portion of our cargo. Who volunteers?”
Meridius stepped forward immediately, and his companions Marcus, Brutus, and Quintus jumped up alongside him. The old bishop smiled, a rather sad and wistful smile, Meridius thought, and gestured for them to follow him to the wagon. The other priests had dismounted and were rolling back the linen cover, revealing four chests in the bed of the wagon. Three were fairly small and ornate, made of deeply polished teakwood. But the fourth – it was large, about three feet tall and four feet in length, with a domed lid and leather handles on either end, and on the sides. It was wrapped in a heavy chain that glistened when the desert sun hit it, reflecting the light in starlike brilliance.
“Is that chain . . .?” Meridius wondered aloud.
“Solid silver?” the priest asked. “Yes, it is, and each link engraved with the sign of the cross. Now, very carefully, lift it out of the wagon and carry it to the commandant’s quarters. The other chests can keep for now.”
Meridius and Marcus grabbed either end, and Quintus and Brutus got the straps on the long sides. They all heaved at once; and realized as they did that the chest was not as heavy as they had thought. It came up easily, and they were able to walk it out the back of the wagon with little difficulty. As they marched towards the commandant’s quarters, Meridius felt the chest’s center of balance constantly shift, as if there was something moving inside. He also noticed a faint aroma if he got his head too close to the lid – a scent that was sweet and foul at the same time, as if a rose garden had bloomed over a charnel pit. What on earth were they carrying? he wondered.
Once they were inside the commandant’s quarters, the priest walked over to the hole in the center of the floor and looked at the chamber that was carved below. Each underground chamber had a hole in its roof, but the openings were off-center from each other, so that the box could be lowered first into one room, then down into the next.
“Splendid!” the priest said. “Exactly according to my design. Now, if you legionaries would go fetch some stout ropes, we can begin lowering this accursed vessel to its final resting place!”
Meridius told the others to wait, and dashed over to the quartermaster’s shed, and got two long, strong ropes that were coiled and hung on the wall. On impulse, he also grabbed a pulley and some tackle that they could use to lower the chest through the two openings. Moments later, he’d returned to the commandant’s quarters with the gear.
“Excellent!” the bishop said. “Since the openings are deliberately off-center from each other, we will be able to lower the chest into the upper chamber first, then climb down ourselves, and lower it through the ceiling of the second chamber. Once that is done, I will attend my last duties before we cement the slab into place, sealing the chest underground. Then we will pour a thin layer of concrete over the floor of the second chamber, to disguise the blocks altogether and make sure that no one ever suspects there is another chamber below it.”
Meridius thought this was an awful lot of trouble to bury a single chest, no matter what was in it, but he kept his mouth shut and set up the block and tackle. In a few moments, his companions had lifted the chest off the ground, got the ropes under it to form a sling, and then slowly pushed it until it was suspended over the hole in the floor. Brutus and Quintus climbed down the wooden ladder into the next chamber, while Marcus and Meridius slowly lowered the box to the floor below. The chest seemed heavier than it had when they carried it from the wagon, and the rope felt as if it could slip from his grasp at any moment. But in a few minutes, the task was done, and Meridius grabbed the block and tackle and handed them down through the opening to his waiting comrades. Then he and Marcus climbed down, followed by the bishop and the tribune. Below ground level now, the murmurs and mutterings of the soldiers outside the commandant’s quarters faded away, and the underground chamber seemed unnervingly quiet.
“Good work, men,” the Tribune said. “Now we do it all one more time, and the job will be nearly done!
Meridius quickly set up the block and tackle, and once more his friends scrambled down the ladder to guide the chest down. He and Marcus slid it, still in its cradle of ropes, until it hung free over the hole in the floor. As the ropes drew taut from its weight, Meridius grunted in shock – it was much heavier this time! The box seemed to have doubled in weight. Marcus was feeling it too; sweat popped out on his brow as he struggled to keep from dropping the chest, which was now swinging back and forth wildly as they tried to lower it.
“Steady lads!” called Brutus. “Slowly!”
“I – can’t – hold – it!” Meridius said as the rope slipped through his hands, the box impossibly heavy now. “Stand clear!”
No sooner had he spoken the warning than his grip gave way altogether. Marcus tried valiantly to stop the chest from plummeting downward, but the rope slid through his hands so fast most of the skin of his palms was burned off by the friction. With a resounding crash, the chest fell seven feet to the floor of the bottom chamber. He stout black wood did not shatter, but the silver chain was severed by the weight of the box and came rattling off, piling onto the floor on either side of the chest.
“No!!” Bishop Alexander exclaimed, horror seeping into his voice. “Get out of there, men, now, up the ladder while you can!”
That was when the lid of the box opened a few inches, and something came shooting out, so fast the eye could barely follow it. A long appendage thrust forth and impaled Brutus Afranius through the chest, piercing through his leather hauberk as if it were wet parchment. The three soldiers would discuss in hushed tones later that day what they saw, and they found that none of them beheld the appendage the same way. Marcus Phillipus had seen a long, scaly body with a fanged head that gnawed its way into Brutus’ chest, while Meridius had seen a hairy, jointed leg with razor-sharp claws at the end. Quintus Claudius, who had been in the chamber of horrors and closer than any of them, insisted that it was an impossibly long human arm, green and glistening, with a clawed hand. But at the moment, all they could do was watch in terror as Brutus twitched and jerked and screamed for what seemed an eternity. Then, with a wet wrenching sound they never forgot, the appendage jerked itself back, clutching the soldier’s still-pumping heart.
It was the bishop who saved them. Elderly as he was, Alexander leaped down into the pit of horror and raised a silver, cross-shaped vial.
“Back, foul creature!” he said in a voice that rang with authority. “Back, in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit!”
The appendage froze, then rotated towards him, dropping the heart to the floor with a wet plop. The bishop shook the vial, and sprinkled the bloody limb with droplets of holy water. There was a hissing shriek from inside the box, and the appendage withdrew as fast as it had shot forth.
“Quickly, men,” Alexander said. “Help me fix this chain back around the box! Your friend is beyond all help save prayer, but we will all join him in death if we do not hurry!”
Marcus and Meridius leapt down into the chamber, and Quintus shook off the fear that had paralyzed him. They wrapped the chain back around the box, finding the links that were broken. Meridius spotted a small hammer left by the masons, and he used it to pound the links back into their proper shape. When the box was chained shut again, Alexander bade them slide it back into the far corner of the tiny chamber.
“Bear your fallen comrade hence,” he said. “What remains to be done here, only I can do. But once you have carried him outside, return quickly, and tell no one what happened!”
They used the ropes that had lowered the chest into the chamber to carry Quintus’ limp and bloody form back up to the commandant’s quarters, then out into the courtyard. The soldiers had been dismissed from formation, but many of them were lingering outside, having heard the faint screams from below. Tribune Macro stood with drawn sword before the door, barring their entrance. Legionaries clustered around Meridius and his two friends, demanding explanations, but the three soldiers simply shook their heads and headed back inside.
Bishop Alexander was climbing out of the bottom chamber, his face pale with fright and sadness.
“Pull the ladder up, my lads. God willing, no man will ever enter that chamber again!” he said.
Once that was done, he ordered them to lower the massive stone slab into place, which they did with alacrity. As it slid into place, Meridius caught one last glimpse of the puddle of blood on the floor below them, where poor Quintus had died.
“Good work, men. I am sorry for the loss of your comrade, and I will say a special mass for him this evening,” the bishop said. “But we must finish the work that he died performing, or his death will not be the only one. Now, tell the masons to mix up several buckets of concrete! We are going to spread it evenly across the floor, hiding all trace of the flagstones. Tomorrow morning, when it is dry, the remaining chests in the wagon will be deposited in here, and then we will seal the last stone in the floor of the commandant’s quarters.”
“What was that thing, sir?” asked Meridius.
“Evil,” said the priest. “Evil in its purest and most sinister distillation. I can tell you no more than that.”
“I believe you,” Meridius said with a shudder.
By the next day, it was done. The cement dried quickly in the arid desert climate, and remaining chests were lowered into the chamber beneath the commandant’s quarters without incident. They were heavy, but it was a normal heaviness that did not shift, move, or change as they were lowered through the hole.
“What is in these, then?” Meridius asked the Bishop when they were alone for a moment.
“Coins,” the Bishop said. “Mostly silver, some gold. They are to be a decoy, so that, if thieves or looters ever discover the hidden chamber, they will take them and be content, and not delve any further to disturb that which should be buried for eternity.”
Once both chambers had been sealed and the commandant’s quarters restored to normal, Bishop Alexander spoke to the men.
“Your hard work and diligence are appreciated,” he said. “Tomorrow morning, we will all journey together to the Oasis of St. Jude to rest for a day or two before proceeding to Constantine. The permanent garrison is already en route and should arrive at the fort by tomorrow night. This has been a difficult task for us all, and your reward will be great, both on earth and in heaven.”
When he was done speaking, the bishop turned to Tribune Loukas Macro and whispered: “I have something for you, from the Emperor himself. I know the gist of what it contains, but I would ask that you read it alone, and do not come out to face the men till you have time to consider its contents. Duty is a hard thing, my friend, but in this case, adherence to it is a matter of life and death, not just for these men, but for uncounted future generations.”
Macro nodded, took the sealed scroll, and retired to the commandant’s quarters. It was nearly two hours later when he finally emerged for the evening meal, but his gait was steady, and when Alexander gave him a searching look, he simply nodded and then sat to eat with his men.
The next day they packed up and marched out; the priests riding in the mostly empty wagon, and the legionaries marching in neat step, eager to put this grim place behind them. Macro and Alexander alone rode, leading the way towards the oasis. They set a good pace, with a short break for a midday meal and a long draught of water and wine, and they arrived at the oasis as the sun was westering. Alexander walked over to the wagon and spoke to the priests who had driven it, and they nodded and took the two hefty barrels that had been tied down near the front and set them up by the wagon’s tailgate.
“Men,” said Macro, “Before you go to bathe in the springs, Bishop Alexander has prepared a bit of a reward for us all. Two barrels of fine ale, so that we can drink a toast to the Emperor’s health before we break ranks! Everyone form a queue, with your drinking cups ready. And no one takes a sip until I give the word. For the Emperor!”
The men cheered, and then they dug into their kits for the battered pewter drinking cups they all carried. They quickly lined up and the priests drew each of them a generous draft of what smelled like a very fine brew. It did not take long for every legionary to be served, and they returned to their ranks, holding their mugs in front of them so the Tribune could see they were following orders.
“To his most Christian Excellency, Emperor Justinian the First!” Macro bellowed and raised his own cup to his lips. Three hundred soldiers, and all the rest of the entourage, drained their cups, shouting the Emperor’s name with real enthusiasm. The bishop watched the men with an expression of genuine sorrow, as did Tribune Macro.
Less than a minute after the drinks were swallowed, a soldier in the front ranks screamed and doubled over, clutching at his belly. His comrades stepped up to catch him as he slumped, but then they, too, began to cry out in pain as the poison took effect. Within two minutes, all the legionaries, auxiliaries, and engineers were writhing, screaming, and frantically clawing at their midriffs as the deadly poison did its grim work. Even the four priests who had served the poisoned ale convulsed and died; for they, too, had drunk to the Emperor’s health. In five minutes, it was all over. The entire company that had ridden forth from Fort Justinian lay dead on the grasses that grew by the Oasis of St. Jude – all except for the tribune and the bishop.
“God rest their souls,” Alexander said. “There was no other way that we could guarantee the secret of the fort would be kept forever.”
“A grim necessity,” said Junius Macro. “One for which the Emperor expressed deep regret in his letter to me.”
“He said something similar in his orders to me. But our task is not complete. You did not drain your cup, my son,” the Bishop said.
“I had to be sure that they had all done so first,” the tribune replied. “And I now have one last duty the Emperor commanded me to perform.”
“What is that?” the bishop asked him. “He mentioned nothing else in his instructions to me.”
Macro drew his gladius like lightning and drove it deep into the bishop’s chest. Alexander’s eyes widened with shock, and then a flash of understanding crossed his countenance as he died.
“God rest your soul,” Macro said. “There was no other way to guarantee the secret would be kept forever.”
He looked out over the bodies of his soldiers and choked back a bitter sob. Such good boys, all of them! Then, with a grim laugh, he drained his own mug and waited for its contents to take effect.
The replacement garrison had already taken possession of Fort Justinian by the time the bodies of its builders began to cool with the coming of the evening. The mass suicide of the garrison became a topic of gossip throughout the Empire, but no one connected it to the building of the fort. For a century, Byzantine soldiers were stationed there, on the edge of the desert, bored and frustrated, always wondering why it was their lot to guard rocks and sand. A hundred and twenty years after the chambers had been sealed, Arabs led by the Caliph’s nephew overran the fort and held it for the next fifty years. But they, too, could not see any reason to stand watch over empty rocks and sand, and long before Charles Martel blocked the Moorish invasion of France, the old fort was abandoned to the elements, and there it stood, a grim stone square in the middle of nowhere, as the centuries passed, and the Dark Ages came and went. Then, eventually, a new Dark Age threatened . . .