Truth in Blood
Siege of Masada, AD 73Edit
As the Roman Empire grew in size and scale towards the middle of the first Century AD, it found itself hard-pressed to maintain absolute control over its many territories. The most unruly of these, located in modern day Israel but then known as “Judea”, gave birth to one of the largest revolts against Roman rule as Religious and tax related tensions escalated. The Judean garrison was quickly overrun, and the single Legion sent by Rome to crush the rebellion was unthinkably ambushed and defeated. The Empire then set itself to the task of obliterating those who opposed it with unrelenting and unstoppable force. Four Legions were dispatched, lead by the experienced general Vespasian, and Rome saw its objectives completed within a few short years. All that remained was a single fortress manned by an outstandingly fanatical group of Jewish zealots calling themselves “Sicarii” and Governor Lucius Flavius Silva was dispatched to deal with this final act of defiance once and for all.
Governor Lucius Flavius Silva gazed out across the barren plain. The wind whipped at his cloak; yet another sand storm was coming, he was sure of it. The damned things were a persistent problem out here in this gods forsaken land. Yet, there were always bigger problems to tackle and this one came in the form of, as strange as it may sound, a small girl...
He was sitting in his tent when it happened, when the Legionnaire brought her in, and by Jupiter she was an absolute mess. The girl must have been half starved, wandering across stretches of empty desert, not to mention the lack of water. Yet, against all odds, here she was. Dirt and sand covered the remains of what had perhaps once been the equivalent of a peasant's tunic and, draped over her shoulders, was a mass of tangled black hair reaching almost to her thighs. It was behind this that she hid her entire face until he stood up, nodded the soldier off, and crouched in front of her to get a better look. She simply stood there, head bowed, arms motionless at her sides. He carefully brushed aside some of the hair and, finally, she looked at him. It was then that he knew something was wrong. Her eyes looked almost dead, devoid of emotion but containing something he could only describe as wisdom, and she scrutinized him for a moment. Those eyes, black as night, glaring into his soul. He instinctively withdrew.
The man, the soldier, backed away. He knew. He understood that something was different, something was threatening, and this was how they always reacted; out of fear. He would probably try to kill her in a moment, with his sword. She would simply watch as he lunged towards her, and then she would move out of the way; driving a spike of her own blood into his chest. He would fall, with a cry, and she would watch as he bled out on the floor. His sacrifice would only make her stronger. The guard outside would pose no real threat, nor would any of the others about this camp. She was unique, she was special, she could kill with ease, and they were but men with blades. And yet, neither of them did any of these things. Instead, he got up, and placed his hand firmly upon her shoulder; looking confused but, strangely, understanding.
Flavius had her put with the women and children following the army. He could hardly afford to allow her near the men, who knew what would happen? Welcoming her into his own tent wouldn’t be fitting. He’d heard of things like this done before by desperate commanders, and his enemy surely was desperate; sending a small unassuming child into the heart of an enemy camp to kill where it is least expected. He would give her the benefit of the doubt, he couldn’t murder a child in cold blood, but he’d sleep with a knife beneath his pillow just in case. Only the gods knew where she came from, and he doubted even the girl herself knew where she was going. There was nothing for miles, besides Masada; the great fortress built atop even greater strata of solid stone, and the temporary Roman camp erected next to it, on the neighboring plateau.
Contrary to the generals’ beliefs, the girl knew exactly where she was going, but had not an inkling of her origin; remembering only a few specific moments. She recalled the blood and the pain perfectly, but where it came from remained an utter mystery. Sometimes memories would surface, seemingly at random, and thoughts would drift through the murky waters of her cracked consciousness. Usually it was just a matter of plucking those pieces from the swirling aether and putting them together, as if they were a puzzle, but for once they were coming together entirely by themselves; sudden coherence, amid such chaos? Surely not. Amid this clarity, she came to realize just how strange it was that the Roman welcomed her into his camp; such an act was unprecedented. Looking at her tattered clothes and frail body, it also hit her that she was on the border of starvation, and her stomach growled at the thought. Perhaps he acted out of pity? She didn’t question how she had survived endless weeks in the desert, and for her own sake, she hoped he didn’t either.
Eventually, curiosity got the better of Flavius, and he decided to attempt to communicate with the girl. Although he spoke most of the local languages in his capacity as governor, and even a few a touch more exotic, he somehow doubted that she’d speak any of them. Her skin was as pale as that of a Northern Barbarian, while her hair as dark as that of a Nubian King, and her eyes, most importantly her eyes, shone with a dark and deep emotion he could only describe as despair. She seemed utterly alien and, for a fleeting moment, he dared wonder whether she was an instrument of the gods. Pushing such thoughts aside, he exited his command tent and turned to one of the guards standing to attention outside. When he made his intentions known, the guard looked at him for a moment and requested permission to speak freely. Flavius, caught off guard by the man’s response, allowed him to do so. The story that flowed from his lips was a dark one, and suddenly everything began to make a strange sort of sense.
The girls’ mind continued to wander, and new memories floated through her consciousness; other instances of welcome, kind faces, warm hearths, and soft beds. As she basked in the comfort of these memories, night suddenly fell upon them. The faces contorted into expressions of intense agony, the darkened hearth became spattered with blood, and the beds contained only lifeless and bloodied bodies; staring blankly into the ceiling with glazed eyes. For a fleeting moment, realization hit the girl and her mind roiled with memories filled by unrelenting destruction. Yet, as suddenly as they flooded her psyche, they were whisked away as her mind reacted to the trauma in the only way it knew how. Thus, when the guard walked into the tent to collect her, she remembered nothing.
The sun was setting on the horizon, and Flavius was running out of time. What had been a minor concern only minutes ago, was now a pressing matter threatening not only his life, but those of his entire Legion. There was, of course, the smallest possibility that the girl was nothing more than she appeared. But, that was the problem. She looked harmless, until you looked closely enough as Flavius had and saw what was truly inside. But even then, looking at a perception within a perception, there was another layer; something within that deception that spoke of a brighter truth. It was because of that, that tiny speck of light amidst an encroaching doom, that he decided to speak to her personally. That, and because if he was wrong, he wouldn’t have to worry about rotting in Tartarus. He’d already be there.
The general asked her a number of basic questions, most of which she considered irrelevant, and dared to wonder why he even asked them to begin with. Why would she know how old she was? Why would she know where she came from, and why did that matter? Why did he even care who her parents were? Did that really have any bearing at all upon the current situation? So, she shrugged in answer to all of his questions, until they began to matter. Among other things, she did know where she was going, and for the first time, since before she could remember, she spoke.
After he asked his next question, one he expected to get no more reaction from than those asked previously, the girl turned her head and looked at him with those strange alien eyes. She cocked her head to the side for one moment, as if pondering the nature of her response, and when she began to speak the words sounded as if she hadn’t used them in a very, very, long time.
“I’m going that way”, said the girl, and raised her hand to point towards the darkening eastern horizon. Flavius, somehow nonplussed by the vagueness of her response, asked “To the east? Can you be more specific?” “Not really” “So, then, what’s out there?” “That’s for you to ponder, and for me to find out”, said the girl, pointedly. “Then would it make sense to call you an explorer?” “No.” The outright bluntness of her response took him aback, and doubled his curiosity at the same time. Why would she be going to the east? Nothing lay that way besides open desert and the lingering Parthian Empire, and she couldn’t be Parthian. She had to be going past that Empire, then, and into the vast and unrelenting desert beyond. But if she wasn’t an explorer, what was she? Perhaps, she was just lying.
The girl grew wary as the man continued. She had no real reason to be concerned, since escape was always an easy option, but at the same time she also felt a certain sense of relief. Maybe since he was the first person to talk to her since before she could remember, not to say that she had any idea of how long that actually was. Eventually, surprising herself with her own decisiveness, she spoke of her own accord: “It would hardly be accurate to label me an explorer, for the same reasons that labeling a migrating herd of aurochs as explorers would be. The herd moves because it must, to avoid what would otherwise mean it's inevitable peril, and I do the same. Your Empire is nearing the height of its power, there is no denying that, but what happens after that point? What will become of the continent-spanning power you shelter within? Dark times are coming, Roman. Perhaps not for you, perhaps not even for your children, or their children's children, or for numerous generations into the future, but for every rise there must be a fall and I don’t aim to be here when that fall comes. For all intents and purposes, your mark upon history is already made, it simply remains to be seen just how deep that mark will become and how much blood will flow from the gaping wound.” The general seemed shocked, and yet, so was she. The girl hadn’t made such a straightforward and targeted statement before, and the act of putting so many cohesive thoughts together confused her greatly. With that, she withdrew, and said no more.
Flavius didn’t know what to make of her statements and, lacking any appropriate response, decided to simply forward his plan. He had never been a particularly religious man, and preferred not to call upon gods in all their unreliability, but for a moment he silently prayed to whatever god would answer, that the girl please wouldn’t understand. He asked her to follow, she complied, and he took her outside to look east, towards the great fortress outlined against the horizon. They had been besieging Masada for several months now, and the only thing his army had to show for it was a great pile of rock and dirt. Masada’s positioning on a lone mesa across from the eastern face of the Jordan River Valley rendered any form of traditional attack futile and so Flavius’ legionnaires had been forced to improvise. The pile of rock and dirt that they had built over the past few weeks formed a bridge between the edge of the cliff they now stood upon and the nearest of the fortresses’ walls. Until earlier this morning, he had planned to march his men over this bridge, but given the sudden change in circumstances, he was having second thoughts. Of course, he explained none of this to the girl. She needed to hear only a few choice words.
The girl stared out across the ravine and at the menacing walls standing opposite her. A memory drifted into her consciousness, and she realized that she was most likely looking at a fortress of some kind. She didn’t know why it was there, or who was inside it, or even why the general was insisting that she look at it so closely. Her gaze instead drifted to the growing darkness on the horizon. As she looked at it, she felt a pang of dread. Some primal fear, she supposed, awoken by a combination of her current thoughts and the rant she delivered earlier. It wasn’t the darkness she had heard foretold, that was a shadow of a different sort, instead this was something specific to her; a message encoded by the mess of her mind yet still as understandable as any other base instinct. She needed to escape the night, she needed shelter, and she needed it soon. Seemingly reading her thoughts, the general offered her a place in the fortress, saying that it would provide better protection during the coming night, and that he would let her leave in the morning. Almost eagerly, she nodded in affirmation, and allowed him to lead her to one end of the dirt bridge spanning the ravine. Flavius was surprised that she took his offer so quickly, and without even a stare from those strange eyes. He handed her an enclosed note to give to whoever lead the fanatic Sicarii, and hoped that they wouldn’t shoot her as she approached. He couldn’t send her under the guise of a parlay, she might come to understand the nature of her situation, and who knew what the enemy would do in that circumstance? He was now throwing everything into one base assumption; that even the Sicarii wouldn’t shoot a child.
The girl felt the night close in around her, and found herself almost trapped in the darkening shadows between the two walls of cliffs. She looked back over her shoulder and towards the bright torches of the camp she had just left. The general still stood there, his pale face contorted into an unreadable expression, but his eyes fixed directly upon her. For a fleeting second she looked at his short hair and clean-shaven face, remembering that he was a Roman. She then looked the other way and into the eyes of another soldier warily tracing her steps from the top of the wall. His features were somewhat masked by the dark, but she could tell that armor was of a different design, and his hair flowed down to his shoulders, along with a thick beard entirely covering his neck. Thoughts and memories began to fly together and alarm bells began to sound in her cracked mind. Yet, the darkness was closing in and she completed the last few meters to the fortress doors at a short run, pushing all other thoughts aside. She waited there a moment until the doors cracked open and a man’s face peered out; silhouetted against a sliver of light. He looked at her for a moment, and stood back as the doors opened. The sliver of light quickly became a wall, blinding her momentarily, until she could see the anxious faces of perhaps a hundred people; men, women, and children, all staring intently. Someone stepped forward and pulled her inside as the doors shut behind her with a resounding boom. Finally, she was out of the darkness. Flavius watched and waited. He would have been lying if he told himself that he felt no guilt. But he would have also been lying if he told himself that he had made the wrong decision. It was too late to send her away, night came too fast, and he could hardly have let her sleep among them and pray that nothing happened. His men had heard the rumors, and they may well have done things even more drastic had he not stepped up to the challenge. No, he had done the right thing. He and his men would survive and return to Rome with a bloodless victory. Maybe the girl would survive, maybe she would wake in the morning amid the crimes she had committed and remember nothing. Maybe she would die, and the siege would drag on to an eventual bloody conclusion. Or maybe, just maybe, nothing would happen.
Two women offered her a bed among the other children, and although she somehow felt that it would be wrong for her to rest there, she lay down and tried to get some sleep. The fortress she had walked into was practically a town, with its walls filled to the brim with soldiers and civilians alike, and it had conjured up some older memories of similar situations. Usually, she realized, people gathered like this only when they were desperate, when they were fleeing from something threatening their very lives. She didn’t know what that was, and nor did she care, because she would be gone in the morning.
Minutes later, Flavius could hear screams on the cooling night air and knew that he had been right all along. Almost as one, his men began to emerge from their tents and stood to look upon the now-burning fortress of Masada. Flavius supposed that the fires must have started accidentally, and he winced as the shrieks grew in number and volume. Tomorrow he would have his men swear upon Jupiter and the Emperor to tell any who asked that something else had happened, anything else. He would need to create an official story tomorrow, along with orders to break camp as quickly as possible; they couldn’t afford to linger another night, not with such a monster nearby. He turned away, and slowly made his way back to the command tent. All of the questions that had previously permeated his mind - where had she come from, where was she really going, what did she want - were gone, and replaced by an absolute certainty. Whatever he had spoken to earlier had been nothing more than a beast; some work of an evil and vengeful god. The soldiers had called her “Lilith”, apparently one of many names circulating the region, and he found it fitting. Something from the Sicarii’s own tales had strode from the shadows to his aid, a claim most would boast of, but for the first time in months Flavius felt truly sorry for those he had spent so long trying to kill. Tomorrow morning he would find what was left and bury it, who knew what horrors this “Lilith” would leave in her wake?