The following is one of my favorite passages in the Mago Scrolls. It is taken from Scroll III. There’s a fire, panic, mayhem… and the captain of the guard at the Neapolis gate is about to have a really, really bad day.
If you enjoy this passage and want more, you can download Mago Scroll I in a pdf format for free. Be warned, however. Mago Scroll I is not for the faint of heart. It has a very high “cringe” factor, so don’t read it if you’re the least bit squeamish.
The complete Mago Scrolls I, II, & III are available in both hardcopy and as an ebook. For more information about how to buy the Mago Scrolls, check out the Mago Scrolls I, II, & III information page.
Now enjoy this excerpt from Mago Scrolls III.
The captain of the guard at the Neapolis gate stood in the street, hands on hips, staring westward. All his senses told him that a huge fire was burning out of control in the slums. As soon as the smell of smoke had been unmistakable, he had sent two men to observe the situation and two to warn the palace. None of them had returned, and the ones he had sent uphill into the jumble of streets, tenement housing, and shops had been gone far too long.
This is shaping up to be a monumentally shitty duty shift, he thought grimly. First there had been the unscheduled alert, complete with five additional troops that brought the new passwords. The new men were not regulars at this city gate and had never served under the guard captain.
Then that drunken hunting party showed up just after sunset. There was something strange about them that he could not quite put his finger on. They were not at all threatening when their attempts to enter the city were rebuffed. The exchange of curses and taunts were mostly good-natured, but none of the inebriants ventured close enough to the gate so that the guards could see them clearly in the torchlight. And although their Greek was fine, they did not have local accents or employ the Syracusan dialect’s unique slang. Still, they had not made any trouble after they decamped to the springs, and their campfire could still be seen from the walls.
And now the fire. The smoke was thick enough to aggravate the officer’s auditory canals at the back of his throat. He hocked up a large glob of snot and studied it glistening on the cobblestones in the light of torches that stood in wall holders by the gate and adjacent guard quarters. From the crowd noise drifting down hill, the guard captain knew he had mere minutes before the terrified throng was upon him. If he were going to take any action to help mitigate the emerging disaster, he would have to so quickly.
He glanced back toward his remaining troops clustered around the large iron and wood doors of the gate. They were the five reinforcements sent along with the new passwords. The commander saw no point in wasting men on the walls now, when the danger was so obviously inside the city already. He also regretted sending the regular guards off to reconnoiter and take word of the fire back to Ortygia. Given the importance of these tasks, he really had not had any choice, but it meant that there was no one left that he trusted to help him make some very difficult decisions in a short amount of time.
Just west of the Neapolis gate, the circuit wall of the city took a perfect right angle jog to encompass the venerable temple of Demeter, which had originally stood outside the city in a sacred grove. Where the longest leg of the salient triangle rejoined the wall just above the double-doored main entrance, Syracusan engineers had constructed a well-disguised postern gate that allowed sorties against assailants engaged in storming the main gate. The postern door, which would only admit one man at a time, was located inside the guard quarters that wrapped around the right angle of the wall, providing troops stationed there access to the main gate both inside and outside the city, as well as stairs to the walk-way atop the circuit wall, without having to leave their fortified lodgings.
The area around the temple and the gate constituted the largest open space in Neapolis and had housed the neighborhood market for decades. Like a lake situated between a major river and the sea, the market was serviced by a major street (at least by Neapolis standards) from the west, but it emptied into a delta of alleys and warrens to the east. The walls themselves blocked any egress to the south and to the north lay the steep upper slopes of the quarry ridge that divided Neapolis from the Tycha neighborhood.
The captain of the guard had understood from the moment he smelled smoke and saw the sky glowing red that, sooner rather than later, the market would become a surging deathtrap that filled far faster than it could empty. Hundreds of people would be trampled and crushed and then the fire would get here. The guard commander was the only person on the scene with the authority and judgement to avert imminent catastrophe. He looked past his men to the gate itself.
The massive doors of iron-reinforced wood were bared with two huge beams. The main gate was framed by the city wall, which rose five feet above its top allowing troops to traverse without descending into the city. Above each set of outsize hinges rose a tower that provided direct defense for these weak points and contained capstones used to crank the doors apart.
Just getting the gate open could well take more time than he had. On top of that, he had explicit orders that the entrance was to remain barred and guarded by a double shift until one full hour after dawn. No one, not even Zeus himself, got through that gate without the password. But there were two entire legions of the best Roman troops in Sicily camped all around the city and a lot of people were about to die horribly if he did not find a way to get them out of this trap.
Suddenly the sound of running feet was very close. The officer turned back to the street as two men loomed out of the dark and nearly careened into him. They fetched up right in front of him. The shorter of the two sank to his knees as soon as he stopped and gulped in huge, shuddering drafts of air. The taller one was cloakless but his breathing, while labored, was under control. The man, obviously a barbarian now that the guard captain looked at him carefully, remained standing but rested a hand on the shoulder of his kneeling companion, a move which probably kept the exhausted man from collapsing prone onto the street.
“Where is the fire and how fast is it moving?” These were exactly the questions that the guard captain would have asked the men he sent westward at least half an hour ago, but he did not expect to learn much from hysterical refugees. To his surprise, however, the standing barbarian delivered an excellent summary despite his deep, measured breathing.
“The fire has engulfed…all of Neapolis and…is moving rapidly towards you…fed by the wind…it could be here in a quarter of an hour… but the major threat you face right now…is the crowd, which we are only… a couple hundred paces in front of.”
As the barbarian finished speaking, around twenty people spilled into the market. They were in much worse shape than the two before the captain of the guard. Their eyes were wide with fear, their clothes ripped, and they smelled of singed hair. The officer knew that these were just the vanguard of the stampede. He watched them tear through the stalls heading east as he made up his mind. Then he turned abruptly from his interrogation of the barbarian and shouted to his men in a voice of command that penetrated the high-pitched keening borne ever closer on the wind.
“Unblock the gate right now!!” He strode toward the soldiers as they jumped to obey.
Behind him, Hamilcar Barca grabbed Sakarbik none too gently by the hair and turned his head to stare into eyes filled with manic intensity. He spoke to his subordinate in Iberian. “Go out the postern gate and bring our men back through it. The main gate must remain closed. Do you understand?”
“What haaaiihch, about, haaaiihch, you?” Sakarbik was desperately hauling air into his lungs. In his vision dark spots were dancing in the milky grey smoke that was starting to fill the spaces between the market stalls.
“Don’t talk, just nod,” Hamilcar ordered. “Moderate your breathing or you will get dizzy. You are going to have to run even faster than you just did. You have to get to the spring and bring the lads back before the guards can get up into the towers.”
The Neapolis gate commander heard the barbarian switch from Greek to a foreign tongue and stopped in his tracks. He had been in charge here for five years and he could recognize many of the languages used in the polyglot neighborhood. The tall barbarian looked Jewish, but the officer knew he was not speaking Hebrew.
Hamilcar realized that the soldier in charge had stopped issuing orders to his men. He gripped and twisted the handful of Sakarbik’s follicles, pulling the Spaniard to his feet. The pain seemed to clear the cobwebs out of his lieutenant’s oxygen-starved brain. “Give me your weapon and by Melqart make sure you lock the door behind me.”
There were over a hundred people in the market area now. Most milled around between the stalls heading generally eastward toward the relative safety of the altar construction zone, but a significant minority fled into the temple calling upon the earth goddess to save them from imminent immolation.
“We have the beams off, sir,” shouted one of the soldiers unable to master the rising panic in his voice.
The guard’s use of distinctive, idiomatic Syracusan Greek triggered his captain’s retrospective insight. He realized that the barbarian behind him and the spokesmen for the hunting party used identical versions of international Greek employed from the Uxine Sea to the Pillars of Hercules by merchants and mercenaries. “You two get up to the west tower and you two the east. I need the gate opened immediately. Do not stop for anything or we are all going to roast. And you,” the commander pointed to the largest of the soldiers, “come with me. I have a few more questions for these two barb—” the commander of the guard spun on his heel and stopped short.
The tall one was running straight at him. He held a foot long dagger in each hand, but it was the demonic glint in his onyx eyes that froze the guard captain for a fatal instant prior to reaching for his sword. He had it half out of the scabbard when there was a bright flash of steel just beneath his chin as Hamilcar drove the blade in his right hand up beneath the officer’s jaw, pinning his tongue to the roof of his mouth. The Carthaginian hauled back on the knife, pulling his prey to within inches of his own face, and then guided the dagger in his left hand with grim precision past the metal-studded leather pleats hanging beneath the cuirass that protected his victim’s groin.
The only sound the gate commander could manage was a stifled whimper as Hamilcar severed both femoral artery/vein pairs on either side of his genitals with two quick strokes of his dagger. Then, utilizing knife and muscle power with brutal efficiency, he hurled the gaffed officer beneath the feet of the thickening mob and charged the startled knot of soldiers—leaving their commander to bleed to death amidst the human flotsam of fire victims who tripped over, stomped on, or kicked at their would-be rescuer in an increasingly futile quest for safety.
Sakarbik ran directly in Hamilcar’s wake, but when the Punic commander slammed into the first soldier, knocking him back into his mates who were hurrying up in support, the Iberian sheered off and shot past the flailing group toward the guard quarters. He reached the door without any interference, dashed inside, and slammed it shut. Hamilcar pivoted around the opposition, covering Sakarbik’s retreat with a lightening series of defensive parries dealt with either hand, until he stood with his back to the guard quarter’s door. A dull clang sounded from inside.
The Barcid prince shouted his family’s battle cry and charged the five mercenaries again. They were standing in a ragged line, each armed with a leaf-shaped sword, circular buckler, forward peaked composite bronze and iron Macedonian helmets, and leather body armor. Hamilcar bore down on the middle trio composed of the large guard he had collided with a few minutes earlier and two smaller companions.
His enemies were currently uncoordinated and leaderless, but Hamilcar knew that would not last long. They not only held an unassailable numerical advantage, but individually their swords were twice the length of his daggers, which would have difficulty reaching vital organs through their stout leather jerkins. Speed and audacity were the Carthaginian’s only hope for survival until and unless Sakarbik brought help.
The big soldier tried to use all his strength to finish the fight quickly and aimed a blow at the Carthaginian’s unprotected head. Stepping inside his swing, Hamilcar stomped down with his right heel on the hulking mercenary’s instep while simultaneously aiming dagger thrusts left and right into the faces of the flanking guards. The sensation of several small bones snapping traveled up Hamilcar’s leg as his daggers slid into the spaces between helmet rims and cheek guards, driving the two men several paces back with nasty but superficial facial lacerations.
The large guard spat a curse and stumbled trying to shift some weight to his uninjured foot. Hamilcar could have killed him in less than a minute, but any amount of time was a luxury he simply could not afford. He shouldered past the stumbling behemoth as the fourth guard’s sword whispered by, less than an inch from his face. He was not as lucky with the fifth soldier who managed to leave a six inch gash across his ribs before Hamilcar got his dagger under the sword blade and deflected it. Then he was past them racing back toward the market.
Behind Hamilcar the guards took their time regrouping. His vicious dispatch of their captain and suicidal assault had unnerved them, but now he was trapped. The limping Antaean mercenary was not going to cede the initiative to this mad man again.
“He can’t get past the crowd in the market,” the large soldier told his four subordinates. “He has to come back this way eventually, and when he does, we are going to be ready. Now get your asses into five on a kubos centered on me.” The guards quickly formed a square around their leader. “Move slowly and keep him inside the square,” their leader admonished. “Drive him towards me and when I have him fully engaged, finish him.”
Hamilcar reached the outskirts of the mob, which was behaving like a body of water undergoing a wind shift. The clogged maze of alleys to the east made escape in that direction impossible, and waves of people surged back west trying to avoid the suffocating crush beyond the stalls. They were met by irresistible counter-pressure from the east, the effect of which was to drive the fire-scourged wretches into the temple salient. There was fighting on the steps of Demeter’s shrine as those in possession contested the new arrivals for its dubious sanctuary.
Turning to face his pursuers, Hamilcar took in the slow moving box-and-one formation and smiled grimly. They have forgotten about the gate and their commander’s last orders, he realized, but I have not. He looked back to the crowd and shouted in Greek, pitching his voice higher than normal so that it could be heard throughout the market. “Make for the gate!! The Neapolis gate is open. Over here, you can escape this way. The guards have opened the gate. Hurry, the fire is almost here!!”
As his enemies came on slowly, adjusting their formation so that the square would envelop the Punic warrior and force him to confront the limping giant, Hamilcar shouted the same orders in Hebrew, then Celtic, Scythian, Latin, Oscan, and finally Greek again. People were starting to listen and comply, flowing past him and into the guards’ formation. Hamilcar kept his five adversaries in sight as he backed up slowly against the strengthening human tide.
The mercenaries were having trouble maintaining their formation now and it was difficult to distinguish their prey from others in the gathering smoke. Their leader railed at their incompetence and urged them forward, quickening his halting pace. Still Hamilcar moved backwards, pressing deeper into the throng, viciously employing his daggers when elbows and knees did not do the trick. When he could no longer force himself backwards into the wall of flesh, he dug in his heals and held his ground until the surging throng lifted him physically off his feet and propelled him straight at the mercenary formation.
As he rode the human torrent back toward the gate, Hamilcar picked out the guard holding the right front position. Using the brief opportunities when his feet were in contact with the cobblestones, the Barcid prince danced and wriggled toward his target. The guard was leaning against the crowd, his shield and legs creating just enough space to bring his sword into play. Looking back to his leader, the soldier noted with relief that the behemoth was tearing his way through the crowd with brute force. If he could just keep this fire-spawned demon occupied until the big man arrived, he was confident that the two of them could make short work of the barbarian.
Hamilcar’s head seemed to float toward the waiting guard through the smoke. The soldier’s Macedonian helmet provided decent visibility, but his eyes were streaming from the smoke, and the physical distress of holding his position against the desperate hordes was becoming intolerable. With a thrill of fear, the guard realized that he had lost sight of his adversary.
The Carthaginian saw the enemy leader closing in. In a desperate gamble, Hamilcar quickly dropped to his knees in front of the guard just out of sword’s reach. He crawled around the mercenary on all fours using his daggers and even his teeth in the sea of legs and prone bodies that blocked his way. People fell over and on him, but he kept moving, driven by the certainty that if he stopped for an instant he was dead. Beneath the crowd the smell of panic—a compound of sweat, blood, and body waste—was worse than the smoke above. Layered with contusions, gagging on his own bile, and calling on his family gods to stave off a knot of terror in his guts, he at last sensed more than saw the bubble of space around the guard’s legs.
The guard leader was less than ten feet from his companion when the man suddenly shrieked, dropped his shield, and tried to strike something behind and below him with his sword. His right leg gave way in mid-pivot, and the guard disappeared beneath the surface of the mob. The leader shouted the man’s name and was relieved to see someone spring to his feet, but the feeling did not last long.
After hamstringing the guard, Hamilcar had stifled the urge to go after the man’s sword and shield. Instead, he used the instant of open space created by the man’s fall to get his legs underneath him and lurch upright. The move saved his life and gave him the opportunity to further even the odds against him. The enemy leader was starring at him with unalloyed savagery less than two body lengths away, but despite the behemoth’s strength, his arms were pinned at his side by the crush of people.
Hamilcar pushed the dagger in his right hand above his head, literally cutting it free of entangling limbs and bodies. His antagonist’s defiant stare melted into naked fear as the Carthaginian prepared to cast his weapon. At this range, someone with half of Hamilcar’s strength and skill could easily guide the knife into the mammoth guard’s exposed throat, but the Barcid Prince let fly straight at his opponent’s right eye.
As the knife left his hand, the fire itself burst into the market with huge sheets of flame engulfing the space between the temple and the quarry ridge. The crowd reacted as a single entity, sluicing irresistibly toward the gate and carrying both men along with it. Hamilcar howled with fury as the dagger sailed past his hulking adversary and into the wide-open mouth of a shrieking woman.
A mass of well over a thousand screaming, burning, and dying people drove the front of the crowd against the closed gates. With the beams removed, it might have been possible to get them open with sheer muscle power, if the press had not been so great. Still some tried, clawing at the seam between the doors until they had ripped all their fingernails out.
A group of market laborers kept their heads and cleared a space around the gates to work in. They pressed one of the discarded wooden crossbeams into service as a lever, and despite breaking more than a few fingers and shattering a couple wrists, forced it into the seam, levered the left door out enough to get hold of both doors, and began swinging them open. Many hands now grasped the timber, creating a breach large enough for one of the workers to worm the upper half of his body through the seam.
“I can see outside the gate,” his ecstatic cry drifted back to those holding the multitude at bay and plying the beam with the passion of the damned. “The road is clear. Just get the door open and we can still escape!!”
Only those closest to the doors heard him. The fire had reached the temple, igniting its wooden beams and anything else flammable in the structure. Smoke and ash were joined by flaming brands driven airborne by the fire’s cyclonic wind. The burning embers fell among the stalls and soon most of the flimsy wooden shacks were ablaze. The hair and clothes of those nearest the stalls began to catch fire. They lurched blindly into the crowd spreading their personal agony to others before they succumbed and added to the mounds of stomped and suffocated corpses channeling the survivors inexorably towards the gates.
The leading edge of the firestorm swept on toward the altar construction site turning the knot of alleys into a maze of ovens. The throng’s perfervid wail intensified as the superheated core of Vulcan’s tempest settled on the market. Suddenly, the tufa substructure of Demeter’s temple ignited, turning the sanctuary into a blazing funeral pyre. Like torching pine trees in a crowning forest fire, peoples’ clothes and hair burst into flame.
The rescue attempt at the gates was drowned in a sea of tatterdemalion furies. The end was not sudden, but it was inexorable. Bodies piled ten deep against the doors. The beam bowed as a dozen men strained against the pressure of several tons of frenzied semi-sentient meat. It snapped with a sharp report that sent fist sized splinters of jagged wood into the roiling mass. The man who had squirmed half way through the seam in the gate could not extricate himself, and his death throes temporarily eclipsed the noise of fire and crowd until the doors crushed his rib cage and lungs before eventually closing so tightly that his body was ground in half.
Hamilcar knew the crowd dynamics he had triggered to escape the guards would kill him if he did not find a way out of the center crush. The horde bore him toward the gate on a series of pulses that he was powerless to resist. Each time he was lofted off his feet by a surge, he fought with all of his strength simply to create enough personal space to breathe.
As soon as a pulse dissipated, however, he regained his footing and immediately began forcing a zigzag path to his right. The area between the entrances of the western gate tower and the guard quarters was sheltered from the mob on two sides, and as a consequence, contained relatively few people. Hamilcar had to reach this oasis and keep it free enough of people to allow Sakarbik and his men through the door of the guard quarters when they returned.
The Carthaginian kept his center of gravity low to avoid getting toppled, but each surge carried him closer to the mound of bodies smashed up against the gate’s doors. He moved right in each trough of fleshy waves. He kicked, gouged, killed when he had to, but it was increasingly clear that before he broke free he was going to be pinned by the living against a wall of dead. Once immobilized, he would be dead from compressive asphyxia in less than five minutes.
Hamilcar could see the hill of dead and dying men, women, and children just over the shoulders of those standing directly in front of him. The tableau was straight from Hades. The upper reaches of the mound were immobile, composed of the longest dead or incapacitated, but the lower slope was a wriggling mass of crushed and tangled bodies. In front of this sanguinary quagmire, those still standing braced back into the crowd against the next surge—fighting to keep their footing in the blood, filth, and offal that oozed out of the compacted horror. Smoke was so thick that neither gate tower was visible. Hamilcar put his hand to the back of his head; the heat was intense. The next crowd pulse was only seconds away.
He stabbed a woman directly in front of him. The thrust hit a kidney releasing a hideous stench to accompany the spurting blood. The crowd surge began to build, increasing body pressure sent Hamilcar’s latest victim sprawling. More people tripped and fell over her. Hamilcar abetted the pile with shoves and kicks until there was no one standing between him and the squirming mound in front of the gate. Timing his move with the surge peak, the Punic officer struggled up his improvised ramp and leapt as far as he could onto the drift of bodies.
Hamilcar could never recall the next ten minutes in waking memory, but he relived them every night for the rest of his life in vivid, heart stopping episodes of pure terror. He dragged himself to the very doors of the gate and then turned right, working by feel in the smoke that now obscured even the crowd below him. The bodies were packed tight enough a few feet from the gate that he could stay on the surface, but every few feet he sank up to his knees, often to his crotch. The human sludge sucked off his sandals. His clothes caught on body parts protruding at bizarre angles from the heap and he had to cut them free. The heat from the cyclonic inferno dried the fetid solution of blood and shit covering his body. Worst of all, he could feel the crowd surges packing the bodies ever tighter beneath him. The pulses gained strength as his hands felt the curve in the western tower’s wall and the rear third of the crowd ignited like so many human candles.
With demented precision, the Carthaginian found two heads located close enough to stand on. Then testing his weight on each foot, he climbed upright and tried to gauge the distance to the back of the press. He could not see the door to the guard quarters, but he could just make out where the crushed bodies stopped and the standing crowd feeding the growing pile of carrion began. The heads shifted as his weight forced them beneath the grizzly surface. Utter revulsion swept over Hamilcar as sounds bubbled up from the one under his left foot. He shrieked a plea to Melqart and dived twisting onto the upright, suffocating multitude.
Landing on his back, he immediately began rolling to his left, grabbing and pulling on any purchase—hair, limbs, ears—that moved him over the top of the crowd and toward where he desperately hoped the guard quarters were located. When the mass surged, he splayed out all four limbs and treaded the undulating flesh until the wave had passed. Wondering whether his strength or his sanity would give out first, Hamilcar was completely unprepared for the drop in crowd density that sent him tumbling to the cobblestones. He wielded his remaining dagger with indiscriminate brutality as he fought to his feet and then burst through the last of the throng, landing on his knees less than twenty feet from the door of the guard quarters.
There were screams and thuds behind him in the smoke. Several people flew backwards past him. The Barcid Prince turned to see three round Macedonian-type shields in an arrow point formation battering their way out of the tumult to his north. The crowd had claimed a second mercenary, but the mammoth leader had kept his head and formed the remaining soldiers into a wedge that now reoriented on Hamilcar. He rose slowly to meet them.
The big guard limped directly toward Hamilcar while his flankers moved quickly to invert the wedge, hedging him in. Each breath was like a draft of liquid fire now and their helmets were hot enough to blister their faces. A sword arced toward the Carthaginian from his right, leaving a contrail in the smoke. He got his dagger up to block it, but the force of the impact numbed his arm to the elbow. The weapon clattered away out of reach, instantly forgotten as the Punic warrior instinctively dodged away from a follow-up stroke to his left side.
But the trio had at last brought their quarry to bay. The leader slammed his shield into Hamilcar, driving him back onto the swords of the other two who had pivoted to completely surround him. There was a dull clang behind him and the Barcid prince dropped to the ground.
“Don’t move, he’s mine!!” the large guard coughed out the order as he prepared to strike.
Half a foot of arrow grew from the center mass of each subordinate. The leader watched incredulously as they toppled to either side and another shaft split the smoke, burying its steel head between the giant’s Adam’s apple and the top of his jerkin. Hamilcar erupted from the pavement, relieved the staggering guard of his sword, and bludgeoned him to the ground with maniacal strokes that ceased only when his men drug him to safety as he declaimed the Cloud Rider’s vengeance.
The creature they hauled into the guard quarters terrified Sakarbik. In the half hour since they had parted, his commander had been transmuted into a filth begrimed, gibbering parody of a man. Hamilcar still held the big mercenary’s sword, however, and he clearly did not recognize any of his companions. Several of them tried to calm their leader with reassuring words and passive gestures, but he struck viciously at them, calling on his household gods for assistance.
Hamilcar was so exhausted and traumatized that no one was hurt, but Sakarbik knew he had to act. Their leader was not fighting them, his lieutenant realized, but strove mightily against a host of unseen foes. The Barcid prince spun in a tight circle as the men backed away in the crowded guard quarters, pressing against the walls to stay out of sword range.
“Father, Father, save me from the moloch”, he pleaded. “Do not let me burn like my brother, oh Father I beg you!!”
Sakarbik leapt forward, caught Hamilcar’s sword arm and twisted, disarming his commander. Then he engulfed the Barcid prince in a bear hug that was strong but unthreatening—what the Spaniard desperately hoped would resemble an affectionate paternal embrace. Trying not to gag from the malodorous reek engulfing his captain, he whispered reassuringly. “It is all right, my son. You are safe. Your friends are here. They will care for you.”
Hamilcar squirmed out of Sakarbik’s embrace and grabbed his lieutenant’s tunic with both hands. “You are not my father,” he hissed murderously. His grip tightened, pulling out fist-fulls of chest hair beneath Sakarbik’s garment. “My father is lightening in human form, the beloved of Baal. You,” Sakarbik could see sanity and recognition gradually replacing the hideous light of madness in his commander’s eyes, “you are the son of a diseased Iberian whore.”
Well at least his memory does not seem to have been affected, thought the Spaniard as Hamilcar threw him to the floor. Most women in his village had turned to prostitution when their mercenary husbands were killed or simply did not return from the wars. His mother had been no exception.
“Commander, the mission, we cannot stay here much longer, the fire!!” Sakarbik pleaded, dodging a kick.
Hamilcar froze, took stock of his surroundings for the first time since they had drug him inside, sniffed, barely stifled a dry heave and calmly issued his first command. “Clean me you animals.” No one moved. “Clean me or I will personally feed each of you to the flames.”
The men jumped to their task with speed born of relief mingled with fear. It did not take them long to locate water and clean clothes in the well-stocked guardroom. Yet by the time they had hurriedly sponged their leader clean, dressed him in tunic and sandals, and found him a helm, shield, and bronze cuirass to go with the mercenary’s sword, the iron door had taken on a dull red glow and it was uncomfortably hot inside the cramped confines of the guard room.
“I will lead,” Hamilcar told them. “Keep moving no matter what. Try not to breathe until we clear the smoke. If you cannot see, place your right hand on the shoulder of the man in front of you. Sakarbik, arm yourself and bring up the rear. If anyone stops or panics, kill him.”
Hamilcar lead his twenty-man assassination team up the steps to the circuit wall. They came out above the postern door and groped like blind men across the main gate and through its two towers. Continuous screaming from below accompanied them on their nightmare trek. Above the gate, the stones were so hot that it was painful to walk on them.
Sakarbik had the worst time of it bringing up the rear. The line of men moved with dream-like slowness. He forced himself to take infrequent shallow breaths, trading off the agony of oxygen starvation for the torment of smoke inhalation. Pushing with all his strength on the man in front of him, he fought the desperate urge to throw himself into the inferno below or just give up and lie down to die. He would not have made it but for the fear of displeasing his commander. Hamilcar’s indomitable courage and unshakable piety had forged an unbreakable bond with his lieutenant.
By the time they cleared the worst of the smoke and heat, armor had burned skin and cloaks were beginning to smolder. As soon as his lungs allowed, Hamilcar quickened their pace. He had come within a hair’s breadth of failure, pushing his body and mind to their very limits, but now the plan was gaining deadly momentum. The fire was already large enough to cause great loss of life and property. He prayed it would permanently damage and disfigure the beloved polis of Rome’s favorite Greek catamite, but in any event, the inferno provided superb camouflage for an attack on the palace.
He had the men moving at a trot now. As their confidence returned, they instinctively tightened the formation into three abreast, sandwiched between him and Sakarbik. The circuit walls of Syracuse dated to the time of the Elder Dionysius and were one of the engineering marvels of the Mediterranean. It had required over three hundred tons of stone every day for five years to complete the seventeen miles of wall surmounted by fourteen towers. The base of the circuit walls was over fifteen feet wide, allowing the construction of a road along the top that facilitated the rapid transfer of troops to any part of the city. Having set fire to Hieron’s city, Hamilcar son of Hannibal now turned the king’s fortifications into an avenue of approach to his citadel.
We returned to Syracuse this spring and took the following photographs of some of the places described in the Mago Scrolls.