Ashes fly back into the face of him who throws them.
– AFRICAN PROVERB –
DECEMBER 12, 533 A.D.
Kingdom of the Vandals, North Africa
The winter moon lit the paving stones as Gelimer, King of the Vandals, and his brother, Tzazon, galloped their horses through the old triumphal arch, past the theater, past the forum, past the still-elegant sleeping town houses. When they reached the center of the city, they veered left toward the old pagan tomblined highway leading out of Bulla Regia toward the hills. Once beyond the silent houses of the dead, they turned onto a long avenue filled with twisted shadows from the ancient olive trees. Their horses grew skittish as the silhouetted outlines of the neglected Temple of Saturn—the great god of the harvest—loomed up before them. A tangle of vines seemed to hold its crumbling, silver-tinged walls together, the entrance to the oracle’s temple hidden in the hill behind the ruins.
The two men reined to a stop, tying their horses to one of the trees.
“This way,” Gelimer said, leading Tzazon toward the temple, then up the stairs to the portico. They were met by a Moorish child, who seemed to appear out of nowhere.
She guided them over the porch of the temple, then beyond the ruins, deep into a cave in the hillside. Oil lamps hung from the ceiling at intervals, the shadows dancing across inscriptions carved into the walls. When they reached the heart of the cave, the girl stopped before an unlit chamber, Gelimer on one side of her, Tzazon on the other. Tzazon looked around. “Where is this oracle?”
The child raised her henna-traced hand in a gesture of silence. “Behold,” she said, “the Sign of Saturn.”
As their eyes adjusted to the dim light, they saw a tripod with glowing coals. Above this, a magic square seemed to materialize.
S A T O R
A R E P O
T E N E T
O P E R A
R O T A S
It glimmered for an instant, then vanished as the coals burst into flame. The flickering light revealed a girl not much older than the child who’d led them there. Sitting on a tall stool, she wore a turban, and was dressed in robes that shimmered like emeralds tinged with blood in the glow from the embers in the tripod. When she opened her dark eyes, she seemed to be looking straight at and through Gelimer at the same time.
The Priestess inhaled the fumes from the tripod. In a voice that seemed as thin as the wind whispering through the olive trees, she uttered her prophecy. “Saturn holds the wheels. The balance between Rhea, wealth and abundance, and Lua, destruction and dissolution . . . Hear, O King of the Vandals, the wheels have slipped. Lua reigns.”
A chill penetrated Gelimer’s heart. “Tell me, Sibyl, the meaning of your words.”
“It is as it was foretold. As Gamma pursued Beta, now Beta pursues Gamma.”
“Utter nonsense,” Tzazon said. “A children’s rhyme.”
The Priestess inhaled. “Two lost already, at the tenth milestone.”
The tenth milestone was where, in the attempt to rout the invading Byzantine Army outside of Carthage, their brother and nephew had met their deaths. Tzazon, unimpressed, spat. “She could have heard that from marketplace gossip. Or from one of Belisarius’s spies. Tell me of my death, Sibyl, so that I can prevent it.”
The Priestess turned his direction, her eyes as black as unlit coal. “Beware the third charge.”
“The witch is mad,” Tzazon muttered. “What does this even mean?”
The sibyl’s unseeing gaze turned back to Gelimer. “Know, O King, the Saturnalia is upon us. To break the curse, the sacred scroll must be returned by one who is of royal blood. Death will come to one who is not.”
“How?” Gelimer demanded. “How do I find this scroll?”
“The penultimate king sees it from the Underworld. The Usurper is blinded. He will lose that which he holds dear, until all that is left is shadow, and naught remains but vanity.” Then, as if the power of her oracles had drained the energy from her slim form, the Priestess slumped in her chair and seemed to disappear.
Gelimer and Tzazon were alone with the child in the darkness.
“She’s a Moor,” Tzazon said to Gelimer after the child led them out. The two men walked from the temple ruins toward their horses. “She worships the old gods. How can you deceive yourself by listening to anything she tells you?”
“Deceive myself? You will be the next to die unless I find this scroll and return it.”
“What is this curse you speak of?”
“It was cast as revenge from the very Priestess who helped Genseric win his conquest,” Gelimer said. “Genseric stole the scroll, hid it, ordered the Priestess’s death, then promised to destroy the scroll should anyone take up arms against the Vandals.”
Tzazon stopped in his tracks. “You expect me to believe that something that occurred well over a hundred years ago has any effect on the here and now? You forget, brother, that these so-called oracles are masters of the vague turn of phrase. You hear what you want to hear.”
“This oracle foretold Hilderic’s death if he failed to find the scroll before the festival of Saturnalia, then return it to Hippo Regius.”
“The only reason he is dead is because the Emperor Justinian would have tried to return him to the throne. It has nothing to do with prophecy and everything to do with protecting your kingdom.”
“And what of the penultimate king’s deathbed confession? How could she possibly have known that Hilderic’s last words were about the map?”
“There was no one there except Ammatas, who thrust the knife into his belly at my orders. And he told no one but me. If I can find this scroll, and break the curse before we go to battle, I may yet save your life.”
Tzazon freed the reins of his horse, then mounted. “Very well. Show me this map.”
The two men rode back into Bulla Regia to the royal house that Gelimer had occupied after he’d deposed his cousin Hilderic from the throne. It was the same home that belonged to Genseric, after he had stolen the scroll.
And now, a century later, it was up to Gelimer to see to its return.
When they reached the royal house, a dozing groom who guarded the doorway rose to attention, taking their horses as they dismounted. The two men strode up the steps, through the great entrance, passing into the atrium, where Gelimer seized a burning torch from its sconce. The torchlight caused the mosaics on the floor to glitter like jewels beneath their feet as the brothers crossed the central hall to a marble staircase. That led down to a long mazelike corridor in the story underground, which protected the Vandal rulers from the summer heat.
At last, the brothers reached what had been Genseric’s inner sanctum, then, years later, Hilderic’s. The flickering light revealed a desk and chair of ivory and ebony. On the floor beneath it, a detailed mosaic from the old pagan mythology—Echo, behind one of two olive trees flanking the temple, pining for Narcissus, who lay at the foot of the stairs, the handsome youth gazing downward, his finger almost touching the blue and white pattern of the pool in front of the temple.
“I have searched this room, this house, a thousand times,” Gelimer said. “There is no map.”
“Perhaps it was Hilderic’s final revenge. Sending you searching for something that doesn’t exist. What exactly did he tell Ammatas?”
“That unless I faced my vanity, I would fail to see that which is right in front of me.”
Tzazon grabbed the torch from him, pointing toward the floor. “Narcissus admiring his reflection. There’s the answer to your riddle.”
Gelimer stared at the shadows cast upon the mosaic by the dancing flame. Echo was looking at Narcissus, who seemed not to know she was there. Behind him was a building, which looked very much like the Temple of Saturn. “His reflection,” Gelimer said as he repeated the sibyl’s words in his head. All that is left is shadow, and naught remains but vanity. He looked up at his brother. “Vanity. That’s the map. Narcissus is pointing directly at it.”
“A map of what?” Tzazon said, scrutinizing the pattern in the blue and white mosaic beneath Narcissus.
War has no eyes.
– SWAHILI PROVERB –
DECEMBER 15, 533 A.D.
Tricamarum (50 kilometers west of Carthage),
Kingdom of the Vandals, North Africa
Gelimer held up his hand, signaling his army to a halt, as he and his brother, Tzazon, rode on alone to the top of the hill to survey the Roman encampment in the distance. A sense of fatality overwhelmed Gelimer as he studied the enemy, fifteen thousand strong. The sun glinted off the metal scale armor of the Roman cavalry and infantry as they sat around their fires, preparing their meals. “This is fruitless,” he told Tzazon.
“Forget about the words of that witch-woman.”
The sibyl’s prophecy was all Gelimer thought about. Though he had sent men to search what was left of the now dry reflecting pool in front of the Temple of Saturn, they came up empty-handed. One man died after falling from his horse, the others refused to go back, fearing the curse. Gelimer had even tried to meet with the sibyl again, but they found her cave behind the temple abandoned. “I cannot lose you, too, Tzazon—”
His brother glanced at him in exasperation. “How can you trust in pagan prophecies?”
“I beg you, do not fight this battle. Go back to the stockade and guard our women and children. You’ll give them courage.”
“And look like a coward to my cavalry? Besides, it’s my death that’s foretold. Let me be the one to decide.” He drew his sword, held it on high, and wheeled his horse to face his troops, crying, “Onward!”
With a mighty roar in response, the cavalry drew their swords and followed Tzazon into battle before Gelimer had a chance to countermand the order. Crossing the stream, they charged at Belisarius’s center. On the right flank, Gelimer’s troops held back.
Euric, his next in command, rode up beside him. “My Lord,” he said. “Your men await your orders.”
Gelimer rode over to the waiting troops, then held up his sword, repeating Tzazon’s battle cry. “Onward!”
Euric raised his blade, shouting, “Hail, Gelimer!” They rode forth, bringing up the right flank as Tzazon took the center. Arrows flew toward them from the Romans, but the Vandals lifted their shields, rendering most of them useless. A few found their mark, the casualties dropping, but their ranks quickly filled, the Vandals repeating their battle cry as they drove into the ranks of Roman horsemen.
Swords clashed, the ring of steel deafening to Gelimer’s ears. A Roman horseman charged, his spear poised toward Gelimer’s chest. Gelimer parried with his shield, urged his horse around and brought his sword down, knocking the spear from his grasp. The Roman tried to draw his own blade, but Gelimer came in for the kill, driving the sharp tip beneath his armpit, knocking him from his mount. The king quickly turned, taking on a second horseman.
More Roman arrows pierced the Vandal ranks. Gelimer whirled his horse around, saw the archers riding behind the cavalry, and was about to call for his flank to work their way toward them, when suddenly Belisarius ordered the Roman Army to retreat.
The Vandals cheered, and Tzazon looked triumphant as he galloped toward Gelimer. “Cowards,” he said. “You see? We have nothing to fear.”
“Do not be so quick to judge,” Gelimer replied, surveying the battlefield. “They have twice the number of dead.”
Tzazon rode off toward his men, signaling them for their next attack.
Gelimer, unable to shake his sense of foreboding, watched Tzazon and his cavalry chase after the fleeing enemy as they tried to regroup not once but twice. The third time, the Roman horsemen ignored both the right and the left flanks, instead picking away at the center where Tzazon was fighting.
Beware the third charge . . .
“To my brother!” Gelimer cried to his men. “Protect him at all costs.”
His cavalry galloped forward, scattering Romans in every direction. The Vandal warriors were superior horsemen and unparalleled with the sword, driving the enemy back as Tzazon battled a giant of a man.
The two fought bitterly, their swords clashing. The giant thrust his blade at Tzazon but missed. He tried to right himself, but Tzazon drove his sword into his enemy’s shoulder, knocking him from his mount. As the man hit the ground, his sword fell from his grip. For the first time, Gelimer felt as though his Vandal Army had the upper hand.
Even Tzazon must have felt it. As he surveyed the battlefield, searching for the next Roman to kill, he caught sight of Gelimer. When their eyes met, Tzazon lifted his sword, crying out, “Hail to the King!”
Behind him, the giant stirred, grabbing his sword.
“Tzazon,” Gelimer shouted.
Tzazon reined his horse around. Too late. The giant’s sword arced toward him, striking his side between the plates of his armor. Tzazon faltered, his look one of surprise, as the giant thrust again, then pulled the blade from Tzazon’s ribs. Tzazon’s sword slipped from his grasp. He clutched his wound, staring at the blood. His horse, sensing the change in his master, suddenly reared, throwing him from the saddle.
“Tzazon,” Gelimer cried as his brother struggled to his feet. A new strength surged through Gelimer’s veins. He slashed at every Roman that came between them, the men falling in his wake. The giant leered when he saw Gelimer charging. He hefted the mighty blade and brought it crashing down on Tzazon’s neck.
Gelimer’s heart clenched. His pulse roared in his ears. He charged faster, driving his sword into the giant’s chest, watching as he stumbled backward, dead before he hit the ground.
Gelimer slid from his horse, staring at his brother’s fallen body. The battle raged on around him. The sounds dimmed, the world darkened.
“My Lord,” Euric called. “We need orders.”
Gelimer heard nothing.
“My King,” Euric grabbed him by his shoulder. “Your men await your orders.”
“All that is left is shadow . . .” He dropped to his knees. The battlefield was littered with the Vandal dead. His men. Tzazon’s men. “Naught remains but vanit . . .” He struggled to breathe. “Tzazon . . .”
“He’s dead,” Euric said. “And you will suffer the same fate if we don’t get out of here.” Euric pulled him to his feet.
Gelimer remembered nothing afterward. Somehow, he found himself on horseback, following Euric, while the remnants of the Vandal Army fled in every direction.