The Saved Man: The Roman Clashes Book II by Karen Mann Chapter 1 256 A.D.: Dura Europos, an ancient city along the Euphrates in Syria
Mattias and Alexander ran out of the dust storm into sunshine, the sky before them clear as water. The dust storm had plagued them since Palmyra. And now, about 100 cubits from Dura Europos, the city rose up before them, its imposing walls almost yellow in the daylight, and spread out to the south. Perched on a bluff, high above the Euphrates, Dura was a crossroads of many cultures and was now under siege from the Sassanians, conquerors of the Parthians. The brothers carried a message to the Roman commander, Plotinus Nonus.
Removing his keffiyeh, Mattias used an inside corner to wipe the dust from around his eyes. Alexander did likewise and the two men grinned at each other.
“Water!” Mattias yelped as he saw the stone structure of a well at the edge of a wadi northwest of the city wall. Dropping his dust-covered cloak along with the scarf and his pack, he loped to the well.
In his haste, Mattias did not see the lithe young woman reaching for the leather bucket, just risen and full of water, and he knocked her over. In the collision, the bucket reeled back into the well with a distant ker-plunk.
“Sir!” the woman cried.
Alexander picked her up and set her on her feet. “Pardon! My brother is in a hurry.” Alexander, the taller brother, pulled off his heavy cloak, no longer needed as protection against the swirling dust, like tiny bullets in the wind, and dropped it next to his pack.
He looked at the young woman. She smiled at him and, for a moment, he couldn’t move . . . or think. He recognized those eyes, and he was plummeted back more than two centuries.
It’s coming true, he thought. We will find our true loves again.
But he could scarcely consider the thought because she was hurt. The fall had wrenched her ankle; it was already swollen, and blood ran from a gash in her right arm.
She looked at the men, who were now clear of the dust, having successfully shielded their bodies from the storm with their discarded clothing. “Dust storms make you thirsty.” She grinned then winced as she took a step.
Mattias, who had begun pulling up the bucket again, turned to the woman, letting the bucket plunk again into the water. “Apologies, miss.” He stepped toward her and again knocked her off balance. This time Alexander caught her and picked her up in his arms.
“She is hurt, Mattias,” Alexander said sharply. “Water.”
He set her on the edge of the well. As soon as the bucket reappeared, Mattias pulled it toward the woman and sloshed it on her arms, washing the blood away but dampening her tunic across her chest and lap.
“Ah-h!” she cried out against the cold of the water. Jumping up, she nearly fell again. Alexander righted her. Pulling at her tunic, she shook it to rid it of dampness. Standing on one foot and glaring at Mattias, she carefully sat again on the edge of the well.
Chastened, Mattias concentrated on filling her jug, while Alexander held his hand over the freshly-washed cut. “It’s deep,” he said, his voice matching his words. His hand became warm.
Surprised, the young woman looked at him. “My arm is hot!”
“Don’t worry. That’s normal.” Alexander smiled, his green eyes lightened, reflecting his kindness. He checked and the bleeding had not stopped. “That’s deep. Let me try again.” He knelt in front of her, one hand hovering over the cut and the other examining her ankle. Without looking at her, he said, “I’m Alexander and this is Mattias.”
“My brother is a healer,” Mattias said. The young man looked sheepish; he knew he’d been careless.
She winced as Alexander touched the swelling foot. “I’m Dema,” she said. “You’re brothers?”
Alexander nodded. “Dampen a clean cloth with water,” he said to Mattias. Behind him, Alexander heard his brother shuffle through the pack. Soon Mattias found a square of cloth over which he poured water fresh from the well and handed it to Alexander, who removed his hand from above Dema’s arm. After ripping off a narrow strip, he deftly folded the larger part of the cloth. He wrapped her ankle tightly in it.
Dema’s eyes teared, but she did not cry out. She looked at Mattias and saw that his eyes were glimmering too. He must regret his carelessness, she thought. She judged him to be about her age—nineteen. She liked his sandy hair and liquid brown eyes, but she thought Alexander, his hair lighter, his features more perfect, even god-like, the more attractive of the two.
After wrapping her foot firmly, Alexander checked the arm again. He took the narrow cloth and daubed at the wound. “It might need a stitch,” he murmured.
Dema understood and drew her arm back, nearly toppling into the well. This time Mattias righted her, and the three of them laughed. Dema noticed that Mattias, who had caused her fall, was trying to make up for it, and she smiled at him. She could not explain it, but she felt safe with these two strangers, as if she had met them before, but she knew she had not. Never had she seen men with yellow hair and such strikingly colored eyes. Where were they from?
After Mattias splashed fresh water on the narrow cloth, making the blood run off into the dirt, Alexander wrapped the cloth around her arm and tied it securely in place.
“We’ll take you home,” he said. “You should not walk.” He motioned that he would carry her.
Dema blushed, but she did not hesitate in pointing to the northwest gate, the one at the corner of the city, the one closest to the well.
Alexander picked her up. To Mattias, he said, “Get our belongings and her jug.”
Dema watched over Alexander’s shoulder as Mattias struggled with the two packs, dusty cloaks, and her jug, which he needed both arms to carry. She would have carried it on her head and had her arms free, but he did not. Almost she felt sorry for him; the bumbling boy, she thought.
She directed Alexander to walk down the street along the tall, thick city walls. “Past the next gate, then a one-story house on the left.” She laid her head on Alexander’s shoulder; she could feel his muscles, hard as packed dirt, holding her securely but not as if she were the awkward burden Mattias had.
As they walked through the narrow street, neighbors called out, asking what happened. Dema did not try to explain as Alexander did not pause in his long-legged stride. She called, “I am all right.”
A lad of twelve, coming toward them, yelled, “Dema! What happened!” He stopped in the middle of the street and stared. “You took so long. Gawahir sent me to find you.”
“I fell and these fellows helped me.” To Alexander, Dema said, “He is my sister’s boy, Qamar.”
Alexander grinned. “Greetings, Qamar. Show us the way.” He was glad the lad turned to lead them for again he had been disconcerted by meeting the eyes of a stranger—who was not, he determined, really a stranger. The lad, he saw, was the reincarnation of Aquila, Alexander’s nephew from the first century.
Why was this happening? Here. Now.
But he knew it to be true. About a hundred years ago, he had met the soul of his mother, Ambrosia, and the woman Amberine had been a healer too, just as Ambrosia had been and Alexander was, and they had had much in common and had spent many pleasant times together as colleagues. And about fifty years after that, Lucas, Mattias, Justus, and Alexander had the pleasure of spending many years with a man in Athens who was the reincarnated soul of their Roman father, Artorius. But here, at the same place, at the same time, were two recognizable souls—and would there be more?
As they walked along the street, Qamar glanced over his shoulder frequently. Alexander and Mattias were drawing lots of looks. Few people in Dura had seen men of such light coloring and certainly not carrying Dema, the young woman who had declared she would never marry. And in fact, one neighbor said as much. “Ha! The young women who says she will never marry brings two fine men into the village. Allies, I hope.”
Mattias was struggling still with the awkwardness of his burdens and did not answer.
Alexander, though, smiled at the old woman and said, “Yes. Romans. And friends.”
Shortly after that exchange, Qamar stopped and entered the doorway of a one-story, mud-daubed house. “Mother!” he called.
Alexander paused inside the door, and while his eyes did not need to become accustomed to the dimness of the little house for him to see, he did not want to startle anyone who might be inside. The windows were high but were shadowed on the west by the city wall. He set Dema down as gently as he could. “I will hold you up . . .”
But she put both feet on the dirt floor and limped over to the door to the courtyard. Her sister entered the doorway just as Dema reached it.
Gawahir saw Dema limping and the bandage on her arm. “What happened!” The sisters resembled each other in coloring, dark hair and brown eyes. But Gawahir was tall and pregnant, while Dema was short and slender.
Quickly Dema explained the mishap and introduced Alexander and Mattias.
Alexander blinked and had to be nudged by Mattias to give a cordial greeting. Three, he thought. How could it be that after nearly two hundred years he’d found three souls from their first life in a matter of less than an hour?
“Welcome,” Gawahir said. She saw Mattias holding the jug and told him what to do with the water. After filling a basin and a couple of pitchers, he placed it where she had indicated near the door.
In the courtyard, just outside the little house, where Gawahir had a stew cooking over a low fire, Alexander sat with Dema and prepared to stitch up her arm.
“Do not worry,” Mattias said to her. “Alexander is very practiced.” He did not add that Alexander had been a healer for well over two hundred years. Mattias took her free hand and looked into her eyes. “Have you ever been to Rome?”
Dema shook her head, and Mattias began to tell her of the Colosseum and how it could be flooded for spectacular water events, and soon she was so engrossed that she forgot what Alexander was doing and soon after, he was finished.
“Just two stitches,” he said. “It will heal soon.”
Gawahir looked at the neat stitches. “Good.” She glanced at him and with humor said, “I have a tunic I could use help with.” Her smile revealed perfect teeth and dimples.
The smile, the smile behind her eyes, left him speechless, and he turned away to clean the needle by pushing it in and out of the sand several times. Then he replaced it and the sinew thread in his bag of herbs.
“Come now,” Gawahir said cheerfully; her voice was rich and mellow. “The stew is ready.”
“What of Nonus?” Dema asked. She explained to Alexander and Mattias that Nonus was Gawahir’s husband and a Roman soldier. “He is overseeing the digging of tunnels against the incursions of the Sassanians.”
Alexander and Mattias knew of these attacks; that was why there were here.
“He can eat when he returns.” Gawahir sighed. She rubbed her ball of belly. She looked at Alexander and Mattias. “In the tunnel, they do not know it is evening.”
Alexander nodded. He and Mattias had dug many tunnels. Alexander could scarcely believe that Gawahir and Dema could be looking at them and not know them. Even though the women looked different than they had in Judea, he knew who they were; he knew whose souls were captured inside these bodies.
He took a deep breath and realized he’d have to think about this insight later. Would he share it with Mattias? To the women, he only said, “Plotinus Nonus? The commander? We need to find him.” Was the commander of the Roman forces, in Dura, Gawahir’s husband? At least Dema was unmarried—perhaps she’d been waiting for the right man. Would she recognize Mattias as that man? “Is the commander your husband?” Alexander had to know now the answer to this question.
Gawahir confirmed he was. Then, at the same time, Gawahir and Dema said, “Eat with us first.” They looked at each other and laughed. Dema blushed. “As thanks for helping me.” Her eyes fluttered as she looked at the two handsome men.
Mattias grimaced. “He was only setting right my clumsiness.”
Alexander clapped Mattias on the back. “You can do that too. You can carry water and do other tasks for Dema. She should not walk.”
Mattias nodded. “I will.”
Alexander was glad to leave the house alone. He needed time to think about his discoveries as to the true nature of the sisters and the boy, the boy who cavorted before him as Qamar led Alexander to find Nonus. They found him coming from the tunnel just as the two arrived.
“Qamar!” Nonus put a dusty arm around his son and ruffled the lad’s hair with his other hand. His teeth gleamed from his dusty face. It was clear Nonus was pleased to see Qamar, and Qamar was just as pleased to see his father.
Qamar gave his version of the events that had landed Alexander and Mattias in the home of the Roman commander. “And he sewed up Dema’s arm,” Qamar finished.
“Are you a healer?” The Roman captain asked.
Alexander nodded and added, “Mostly a messenger nowadays.”
Nonus turned back to the boy. “How is your mother?” The Roman officer was covered with dirt, much like Alexander and Mattias had been before they’d shed their dusty garments. Nonus had been working hard in the tunnels with his men.
“Mother is fine, but she wants you to eat with us and our new friends.” Qamar added, “We miss you!” Then the lad looked at the ground. “But I know you are leader to the troops.” He seemed to be reciting a line he had heard often. “And they need you.”
Nonus grinned but quickly became sober. “The city is under siege. We work to keep everyone safe.”
Qamar hung his head.
“I would rather be home with you . . . and your mother.”
Qamar brightened at this concession of his father, who seemed to be saying Qamar was really more important than his father’s soldiering. To Alexander, Nonus said, “Do eat with Gawahir and Dema. My wife is near her time. See that she is all right, if you don’t mind.”
Alexander cleared his throat. “She appears to be healthy. I’d say she has a few more days before the baby comes.” He handed Nonus the tight roll of parchment that he had carried across the desert from Damascus.
Nonus read it quickly. “There is no news here.” He crinkled the parchment in his fist. “Can they send no reinforcements?”
Alexander nodded. “But it will be a fortnight before they arrive. How close is the enemy?”
“They’ve already tried twice to mine under the wall. We fear our countermine may not stop them, but we must try.” Nonus threw the message into a nearby fire. “We must meet them and turn them back.”
Alexander quickly understood the situation. The Sassanians were tunneling under the city wall to try to collapse it or, perhaps, to make entry into the city through the tunnel. Nonus had ordered a countermine to be dug in order to meet the enemy tunnel and stop the attack.
To Qamar, he said, “Get Mattias. We are needed here.” After the boy ran off, Alexander climbed to the top of the wall with Nonus to view the Sassanian outpost.
Because of the dust storm that had followed the brothers all the way from Palmyra, Alexander and Mattias had been unable to assess the enemy troops, but from here Alexander could see their number and the large equipment—catapults, trebuchets, and ballista—they had. Nonus pointed out not only the camp of the enemy soldiers but also the Roman situation within the city walls. Alexander could see that Nonus was a good leader and would fight to the death for Rome.
More practiced at war than he would have liked to be, Alexander could see the Sassanians numbered eight thousand or more. Nonus put the Roman troop count at three thousand, all sequestered within the city walls, all working to fortify the wall and dig a tunnel. Nonus explained that to fortify the western wall, the soldiers and many of the townspeople (men and even women) had filled the buildings along the west wall with dirt and sealed over the new embankment with mud bricks.
Alexander was interested to hear that among the buildings that were filled in were a mithraeum, a synagogue, and a Christian church. Here in this small city, miles away from anywhere, the several religions—pagan, Jewish, Christian—lived in peaceful co-existence, a situation not replicated in other parts of the empire. The persecution of Christians had not spread to this outlying city, a welcome piece of news to Alexander, yet his heart fell because he knew these kinds of desperate attempts to save a city were not always rewarded with victory.
For three days, Alexander and Mattias tunneled with the Romans. Even though the brothers could have tunneled continually, never stopping for sleep or food, they followed Nonus’s example as far as taking time to eat or rest.
During those times, Alexander and Mattias returned home with Nonus. Each time, they were welcomed by Gawahir and Dema. Mattias and Dema had formed a fast friendship. As it should be, Alexander thought. Yet he was, again, to be kept from Gawahir, his Ginevra soulmate, by marriage. Not a marriage to his brother, Lucas, as it had been long ago but a marriage to a stranger, who Alexander had quickly come to respect as a stalwart soldier, husband, and father.
“We could use Lucas and Justus here,” Mattias had said to Alexander after their first shift of tunnel digging.
Alexander nodded. A reunion of the immortal men would be helpful to the city and the people Alexander and Mattias had quickly become attached to. But Justus was living in the Scetes desert, a place where Christian hermits went to contemplate their religion. Lucas was in Gadir in Spain, the last they’d heard.
The brothers could be reunited in an instant when Lucas chose it because he could step into any space that he chose. Stepping, as he called it, allowed him to travel to anyplace in the world; he only had to think of a person or place.
It was agreed the brothers would reunite on the first day of every year—at least. In times like these, it was frustrating to Alexander that he had no easy way to communicate with Lucas. It would take weeks to send a message, and Dura did not have weeks; it might not even have days.
On the third night, several hours after midnight, the Romans broke through the wall separating the Roman tunnel from the one of the Sassanians. Alexander and Mattias were among the soldiers taking the final blows to the now thin wall separating the Romans from their enemy. The final clods and rocks tumbled and scattered with soldiers scrambling for weapons instead of digging tools.
From in front of them, Alexander heard the loud cry of an enemy soldier and saw—he and Mattias could see nearly as well in the dark as during the day—the soldier lighting a pile of black stones. Flames rose with a whoosh. A terrible acrid odor, reminiscent of rotten eggs, washed over them as the Romans were met with a blast of heat that knocked the front soldiers off their feet. Alexander and Mattias felt flames licking their legs and chest. Quickly the brothers reached for their fellow Romans to pull them back, but then the flames were gone and the torches, one by one, flickered and died.
The soldiers were coughing and gasping and falling. Alexander and Mattias, sensing extreme danger, grabbed two soldiers each and carried them from the tunnel. They quickly went back for more, but the soldiers and the Sassanian, the one who lit the pile of rocks, were dead. The air was noxious and the brothers could feel weakness creeping over them.
“We must close . . . the tunnel,” Alexander heaved. It was a desperate situation to even think of leaving the bodies of several soldiers inside the tunnel, but it seemed necessary in order to keep the enemy from using the countermine to enter the city.
Mattias pulled Alexander backward in the tunnel, where the air was slightly better, and the brothers pulled at the uprights and pounded on the ceiling, one with an axe and one with a truncheon, until a cave in began. They ran for the entrance.
“What happened?” a tribune asked. He had been leaning over Nonus who was one of the soldiers Mattias had carried from the tunnel.
It was clear the four soldiers were dead; already Alexander and Mattias could see the men on the ground were blue and not breathing. Alexander was stunned by conflicting feelings. Nonus, a fine man was dead; Nonus, Gawahir’s husband, was dead. Would she now, in time, see Alexander as a possible partner? He berated himself for this thought. Shouldn’t he feel sorrow for the loss, for the family’s loss, for the loss of a fine soldier?
Mattias replied to the tribune, “They burned something that took the air away. Sulphur, some kind of coal.” Mattias was guessing.
“Clever,” the Roman soldier said.
“Diabolic,” Alexander said. He hated what he thought of as trickery in war. Let men fight hand to hand. Let them see the cost of war and be motivated to find ways to stop it, but killing dozens of men by chemicals or through catapults hurling fire or boiling oil or other missiles seemed unjust to him.
A bit later, Mattias and Alexander accompanied the tribune, Scotinus, who was now in command, to the top of the wall, and they could see that the Sassanians were building a ramp to breach the walls. And no doubt the tunneling was continuing also.
“I fear for the city,” Alexander said to Mattias after Scotinus had left them. “It cannot survive.” An onslaught of soldiers over the walls and from under the ground would be more than the Roman troops could handle.
“What can we do?” Mattias asked.
“We can save Nonus’s family.” Alexander wanted to say more. To save Ginevra and Demetra and Aquila, but he was not ready to tell Mattias. It seemed Dema and Mattias had been naturally drawn to each other, and Alexander thought that this way was better for Mattias, than coloring his budding romance with Dema by reliving his past romance with Demetra, his bride, who had tragically died after only one week of marriage.
The brothers walked away from the chaos of the Roman soldiers trying to defend the city against a persistent enemy.
The night Alexander and Mattias returned with the devastating news of Nonus’s death, Gawahir was in labor, and thirty-six hours later she still was. The booms of the fighting sometimes drowned the cries of her pain. Word had come that the Roman soldiers were running low on gun powder and that the ramp that would allow the enemy access to the city was nearly finished. Little hope remained that Dura would stand.
Alexander had run out of any herbs to help the pain or the progress of the birth. He was not even sure the baby was alive, but if his will could keep it alive, then it was still alive for the stakes were high. He had been unable to save this baby’s father, and he wanted to stand in as father during this baby’s lifetime with this baby’s mother.
Their faint hope, the hope of each Saved Man, that their true loves might return to an Earthly body was shown to be, not a hope, but a fact, and how could he lose her so shortly after he found her?
“The baby will die,” Gawahir said. Her voice was weak and halting. “You must save . . . .”
“I must save you,” Alexander said. He wanted both his patients living and was unready to concede a different outcome. It was torture to feel that he was powerless to help her. His knowledge of childbirth was exhausted, except . . .
Gawahir insisted, “Save . . . her.”
At the word “her,” Alexander felt the baby kick beneath his hand. Either way, if the baby died or the baby lived, Alexander could see, he was going to have to cut it—her, if Gawahir was right—away from the mother. It was Gawahir’s only chance of living, yet . . . the risks were monumental. Alexander had only known of one woman to survive such a monstrous act. Still he had successfully stitched up Dema’s arm. Perhaps . . . but no, he could not risk losing Gawahir now that he had found her.
“Yes,” Gawahir whispered. “Please. For Nonus, save his child.” Tears brimmed up in her eyes, “I have nothing to live for without him. Give her life.”
Alexander knew better. Gawahir had him to live for. The memory of Nonus would fade and she would look at Alexander differently. The tie was too strong for her to not succumb to it eventually.
He looked at Mattias and Dema who were sitting nearby. Mattias’s arm was around her and with his other hand, he clutched her hand. She was leaning into him, exhausted, afraid for her sister, fearful of the fate of the city. Alexander knew she would always lean on Mattias now; they would stay together. And he . . . he would be alone—maybe not, maybe he could save both baby and mother: it was possible.
In only minutes, Alexander had the baby in his arms. When he held her up, she opened her eyes and he saw she was Ecatya. And in one room, for one minute, the reincarnated souls of Demetra, Ginevra, and Ecatya were together, and Alexander had a vision of where Flavia—now called Zenobia—was.
Then Gawahir died.
And less than twelve hours later, Dura’s survivors, which included Alexander, Mattias and Dema, Qamar, and the new baby, Karam, were marched off to Ctesiphon to be sold as slaves.