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Authors: Ross Laidlaw

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BOOK: Attila
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‘No, let him stay,' said Boniface, his memory suddenly clearing. He had been about to hear the man's case at his customary morning tribunal when the news of the insurgency had arrived. He had immediately cancelled proceedings and prepared to depart for the south. That was three days ago; the poor fellow had been waiting for him all that time! His plea must be an urgent one indeed.

‘Have you eaten while you've been here?' he asked the Blemmye.

The man shook his head.

‘And you never thought to feed him?' Boniface barked at the tribune.

The tribune paled before his commander's anger. ‘He – he was given water, sir.'

‘How considerate,' sneered Boniface. ‘Perhaps a spell of duty supervising the digging of new latrines will remind you of our common humanity. Bring this man some food at once.'

The Blemmye's story, recounted while he devoured a bowl of couscous spiked with lamb, was a pathetic one. He was a date farmer near Thusuros,
whose living had been destroyed when his palms, inherited from his father, had been submerged in the worst sandstorm in living memory. (Boniface could well believe it. Everyone knew the story of the legion caught in a sandstorm which had blown for four days. The men had kept alive by stamping up and down in the raging sand. When the wind stopped, they found themselves standing level with the crowns of palms a hundred feet high.) To pay for food for their baby, the farmer's wife had consented to sleep with a soldier billeted on them. When he was posted to another base, she had accompanied him as his concubine, he having refused to pay the rent he owed unless she agreed.

‘She only did it for the baby,' the young Blemmye pleaded, his face an anguished mask. ‘She is a good woman, but—' He broke off, then continued in a trembling whisper, ‘She loves the child, my lord. We both do. I could not stop her.'

Boniface felt a surge of compassion for the young man. Unlocking a strong-box, he withdrew a bag of coin and handed it to the other. ‘This will help you restart your business, and feed your family meanwhile. If what you say is true, my friend, you have been gravely wronged. But I'll see that you have justice, never fear. Be here at my tribunal in the morning.' Dismissing the Blemmye's stammered thanks, Boniface sent for the
to make enquiries about the offending soldier's posting.

So much for rash promises, thought Boniface wryly, as he rode north towards the Capsa Mountains. Having told the Blemmye to attend tomorrow's tribunal, it was imperative that, he Boniface complete his mission before then, both to keep his word to the plaintiff, and to maintain his reputation as a larger-than-life heroic
figure, guaranteed to mete out swift and terrible justice. Boniface chuckled to himself; living up to this carefully nurtured reputation was hard work. It was, however, important that he do so, not from vanity, but because it promoted high morale and loyalty among his troops.

He had learnt that the soldier was now billeted in a village just to the north of the Capsas. It was a mere ten miles away as the falcon flew, but several times that distance by the standard route, which detoured round the western end of the mountain chain – a choice barred to Boniface. The Seldja Gorge, he had learnt, did lead directly through the mountains, though it was used only by the foolhardy or the desperate. To have any hope of keeping his promise, that was the route he must take.

Obeying instructions given to him at camp by a Berber scout, Boniface skirted the foot of the range till he encountered the Seldja river. He followed it as it suddenly angled into the mountainside, and found himself entering a rocky portal hitherto invisible. This natural gateway debouched into a wilderness of shattered rock, choked with debris from the heights above, and impossible to traverse save by keeping to the river-bed itself, which was fringed by spiky reeds and tamarisk. His mount, slipping and starting over the chaos of boulders, disturbed sandpipers and wagtails that skimmed the surface of the brook. Boniface emerged eventually into a fantastic canyon whose winding vertical walls maintained a distance apart of some thirty yards. High above, cliff-swallows and rock-doves swooped and fluttered.

Here, the track left the stream and ascended the gorge's right-hand side. Never before had Boniface's nerve and control of his horse been so severely tested, as he pressed on and up along a track barely eighteen inches wide, with a sheer precipice to his left. The danger was compounded by the presence of snakes. Several times, the general heard an angry hiss issuing from the rocks that strewed the path, and once a cobra rose up before him on its massive coils. Retreat being impossible, Boniface halted his trembling mount and tried to calm it, while the huge snake's hissing rose to a furious crescendo and its throat swelled ominously. But after a few nerve-shredding seconds it glided off, apparently deciding that the creatures confronting it posed no threat.

After a few miles, to Boniface's immense relief the canyon opened out, its sheer walls giving place to easy slopes up to a plateau. Soon, Boniface was descending the north flank of the range, and by early evening had come in sight of the village – a scatter of one-storeyed mud-brick buildings, with here and there the black goat-skin tent of a nomad family. Militarily, the place was an outpost of Thelepte, a largish town some distance to the north, where two
, or infantry units, the Fortenses and the Cimbriani, were temporarily billeted.

A few questions to a couple of villagers elicited the information required. Boniface knocked on the door – painted the ubiquitous blue – of one of the larger buildings, and was directed by the landlord to an annexe at the rear. He ripped aside the goatskin curtain that screened the entrance and stepped inside. Dim light from a small unglazed window revealed, besides domestic clutter, and soldier's kit hanging from pegs, a cot with a sleeping infant, and a bed containing two figures, one a native woman, the other a huge, fair-haired man. Both sat up and blinked at the intruder.

Boniface rapped, ‘Soldier, she came with you under duress did she not?' The man shrugged but made no attempt to deny it. To the woman, the general said gently, ‘Tomorrow, you will return with your child to your village, and rejoin your husband. I will arrange an escort.' To the soldier he said, ‘Get dressed and say farewell. I'll wait for you outside.'

In silence, Boniface and the soldier marched to a cypress grove a little way beyond the village. Admiring the man's stoic courage in the calm acceptance of his fate, Boniface drew his sword . . .

Attempting to return through the Seldja Gorge in darkness would have been tantamount to suicide, so Boniface took the safe but much longer route round the mountains. Dawn was breaking as he approached camp, and a ghostly radiance shimmered over the pale expanse of the Shott. As the sun's disc lifted above the horizon, he gazed in wonder as an extraordinary phenomenon developed: an apparent second sun beginning to detach itself from the other. The two orbs separated; the upper rose aloft, the lower wobbled, sank, and deliquesced into the Shott.

An hour later, bathed and shaved, imposing in his parade armour (a splendid though antique suit dating from the time of Alexander Severus, and handed down from father to son through seven generations), Boniface was seated in his command tent, ready to hold tribunal.

First in line was the cuckolded Blemmye.

‘Today, your wife and child return to you,' the general informed the peasant.

‘And . . . the other, lord?'

‘Fear not, my friend, he'll trouble you no more.' And with a grim smile, Boniface emptied at the man's feet the contents of a sack – a severed human head.

Titus' ship docked in Carthage's commercial harbour (warships had their own), overlooked by the capitol on Byrsa Hill. Regretting that time did not permit him to explore the great city, Titus showed his travel warrant at the central post station, and pressed on at a gallop straightway for Bulla Regia as instructed. His route took him south-west along the beautiful valley of the Majerda river wide and flat with extensive vineyards for the first twenty-five miles, after which the terrain became gradually more hilly, terraced vines giving way to olive groves, with broom and terebinth covering slopes too steep for cultivation.

Titus had been born and raised near the border with Gaul, in what had once been the non-Roman territory of Cisalpine Gaul, where his family had been settled for over four hundred years. To Titus Italia proper had always seemed in some ways like a foreign country. Apart from changing horses at a post-station outside the city on his journey to Africa, he had never even been to Rome!

After the flat, misty reclaimed land and small provincial towns of the Po basin, Africa came as a revelation. The brilliant light in which even distant objects stood out sharp and clear; the teeming, cosmopolitan city of Carthage, full of impressive monuments and huge public buildings which seemed almost to be the work of superhuman beings; the staggering fertility – the wheatfields, vineyards and olive groves: all this made a great and lasting impression on the young man. Such evidence (much of it admittedly at least two centuries old) of Rome's power and far-flung influence almost convinced Titus that the Western Empire was not in serious jeopardy. The barbarians could surely never overthrow a race capable of producing such mighty works. Could they?

After an overnight stop at Tichilla,
a small town with a postal
catering for travellers, Titus pushed on at first light, pleased at having covered eighty miles the previous day – almost half the distance to Bulla Regia. Woods of cork oak, red kites flashing in the air above their glades, stippled the valley's sides; they were joined by stands of holm oak, pine, and laurel as he neared his destination. The
cursus velox
, the express post, enabled him to change horses every ten miles, and he made excellent progress, reaching Bulla Regia in the afternoon.

When he entered the city, Titus passed a theatre (clearly of recent construction) on his left, then turned right into the main
. Leaving his mount at the post station, he proceeded on foot past a busy market to the forum, which was flanked on opposing sides by an ancient temple (boarded up) and a huge basilica. He enquired in the latter where he would find the president of the
, the inner committee of the city council, and was directed to a villa at the north end of the town. His route took him past a disused temple fronted by statues of city fathers, and a monumental fountain enclosing the Springs of Bulla around which the city was founded. Titus was enchanted by the beauty of the place – the gleaming marble of its splendid public buildings made a striking contrast with the dark foliage of pines and cypress, which everywhere gave grateful shade. Could this really be the place that Augustine, the Church's moral mouthpiece, when haranguing the citizens in the very theatre Titus had just passed, had denounced as a sink of sin and a den of iniquity?

At the villa, Titus was conducted by a slave through a peristyle, then, to his astonishment, down a flight of steps to a vaulted hallway. This led to a large
, or dining-room, flanked by pillars and with a splendid floor mosaic depicting Venus riding a seahorse; several corridors led off the room. The soft glow of oil lamps made a welcome change from the glaring sunlight. In all respects the house resembled a well-appointed Roman villa, except that it was all built underground.

‘Cool, even on the hottest days,' said a languid voice. ‘African summers can be
trying.' The speaker, an elderly man in a loose white robe which Titus guessed owed more than a little to native dress, rose from a couch. ‘Our subterranean dwellings are quite a feature of Bulla, you know. Romans of Rome affect to despise us, calling us cave-dwellers. Little we care; at noon they sweat while we stay comfortable. Well, young man, now that you've
disturbed my midday sleep, you'd better tell me what it is you want.'

Titus obeyed.

‘Count Boniface is away on his annual inspection of the central provinces,' said the president, ‘which suits us decurions – means we can relax a bit and work six instead of twelve hours a day.' He smiled wryly. ‘Don't misunderstand me; we all love the Count. It's just that trying to keep pace with him can be exhausting, to put it mildly. No one takes any liberties when Boniface is around, I assure you. Why, on tour last year, he tracked down one of his own soldiers who'd seduced a native's wife, and cut the fellow's head off. What a man!

‘Where is he now? Let me see. He's due back in Carthage soon, so he'll probably have finished his sweep of the desert frontier and be heading north. My best advice would be to take the main road south to Sufetula. That way you'll probably meet him.'

The president's offer of a bath and a meal was gratefully accepted, and Titus was on his way later that afternoon. He crossed a vast plain where a large river joined the Majerda, after which the terrain rose steadily. By sundown, when he stopped for the night at a lonely mansio, he had reached the foothills of the Dorsale Mountains whose crest delineated the boundary between the provinces of Africa and Byzacena. The following day he pushed on into the mountains (the road looping in most un-Roman fashion to accommodate the gradients), past dense stands of holm oak and Aleppo pines. Crossing the summit ridge in the late afternoon, he found himself in a changed world. Southwards, in the rain-shadow of the mountains, an endless expanse of dusty grassland, sere and yellow as a withered leaf, rolled away to the horizon. A gust of wind like the breath from an oven, fanned his cheek. This, Titus felt, was where the real Africa (the continent as opposed to the province) began. The swift tropical darkness was spreading when he reached his stopover for the night, the little town of Sufes,
a rustic backwater whose only claim to distinction lay in being another place to have incurred the censure of Augustine. Here, for the first time, he gleaned news of Boniface; the Count was reported to be three days' march away, at Thelepte, and heading north.

BOOK: Attila
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