Gift of the Gods, Part IV

The Gift of the Gods:

The Tragedy of Mithridates the Great of Pontos

 

 

Chapter Eight

 

 

The king sat on a rock, just out of the reach of angry waves on the Black Sea shore.

The winter sunset spoke of violence far out to sea. There was a break in the clouds, though, toward the west, in the direction of his stern gaze. The sun moved down to show its face there, as though in the mouth of a cavern, with black and burning boulders of cloud stacked high around it. Brilliant rays splashed off the waves and stabbed hard into the rocks around him.

He sat beneath the walls of Sinope Fortress, where the stony peninsula curves out northward into the sea. This had been his father’s palace. Forty years of Mithridates’ own more prosperous rule had greatly expanded its walls.

It was the last month, though, that burdened his thoughts. Gordias and Dorylaus kept their distance, watching him anxiously, wary of his mood.

 

Mithridates

“Ahura-mazda! How the level sun

strikes off the surface water and burns home

here, in my uncomprehending eyes!”

 

Dorylaus

“It would not be wise to answer.”

 

Gordias

“His nature is dangerous when he’s like this!”

 

Mithridates

“Is there no reason? The mind remains,

questions the meaning, surmises the man

even when he is stripped of his name and purpose!”

 

Gordias

“The winds that his sails encountered

after his escape from Cyzicus

were even more violent than the one that caused

his unexpected defeat.”

 

Dorylaus

“A winter storm on the tongue of the Black Sea, bringing

all the unlimited fury of the northern steppes!”

 

Gordias

“The wreckage of his fleet

is driftwood on the shores

with the scarred bones men, washed clean by the waves.”

 

Dorylaus

“And he himself, saved only

at the last moment by Cilician pirates

as vicious waves dismembered his own flagship,

does not even seem to understand

how he arrived on this shore.”

 

Gordias

“And this was only the last of many misfortunes.”

 

Mithridates

“It is far too much to attribute to any fortune.

This is the anger of the goddesses!”

 

Dorylaus

“It is not the time

to interrupt his meditations.”

 

Mithridates

“If the people see that the gods no longer

favor me, they too will turn against me.”

 

Gordias

“He knows how many of his best commanders

defect to Rome, and even one of his sons.”

 

Dorylaus

“The danger of an unwise word or suggestion,

too often has been seen:

more than one dreamy sage has perished

poisoned, and entered wholly into his dream.”

 

Mithridates

“Where is my physician? It is the hour

to increase the potency of my daily prescription.”

 

Hermaeus

“Are you trying to kill yourself?”

 

Mithridates

“Where is my chalice and my sword?”

 

Hermaeus

“If you would prefer to consult the oracle…”

 

Mithridates

“I do not need an oracle to discern

the wrath of the goddesses against me!

I would weave the powers of those weapons now

not even for a drink

of immortality,

but for any advantage in the face of the gods

forcing them to my will, if that can be done!”

 

Hermaeus

“Does even the mage have power so terrible?”

 

Mithridates

“Yet is not their will as well

obedient to a higher order of things?”

 

Hermaeus

“You question the freedom of the immortal ones!”

 

Mithridates

“I question not their divine supremacy

but their capricious and cruel sympathy

for heroic ideals!”

 

Hermaeus

“I must counsel you in caution:

the gods watch every dark thought of men,

attending them far more closely

than all the prayers we so carefully prepare!”

 

The king thrust out

his great muscled arm toward the low sun.

 

Mithridates

“That intelligent orb

in the hand of its fashioner

hung curtains of light upon the celestial deep,

poured fire into their hearts, breathed motion into them

then opened our eyes to perceive them with understanding.

Was it not he who dropped a meteor

on the hour of my birth,

broke in with lightning on my cradle window,

anointed me with a scar of fire for my crown,

set it deep in my frown –

it is the daring thoughts still burning there

that invoke you now!

If you desired me to be the one

preserving the secrets of antiquity,

why have you turned your back

to let the Furies lash me with their barbed whips?”

 

Hermaeus

“Ahura-mazda, the great one,

is not your enemy!”

 

Mithridates

“Are there wars among the blissful gods themselves,

destroying all human endeavor?”

 

Hermaeus

“It is nothing new. The gods took sides at Troy.”

 

Mithridates

“And the great city fell,

and Rome, the bastard child, was born in blood!”

 

Hermaeus

“War among the gods

formed the mountains and seas

 

when Titans were overthrown. Even now

sometimes the heavens sing in harmonic measure,

sometimes they threaten universal ruin

in existential chaos. Your destined road

remains, as it was, your own; and you must walk it.

Did I not warn you it would not be smooth?

When Jason sailed in sight of the Bosporos

their fists closed on him. The rocks themselves

rushed in upon his ship from either coast

to prevent his sight from seas of the sun’s own shores!

Like him, you must persevere,

though there be trials yet more severe before you,

alienation far deeper than you have tasted.

I shall not go always with you.”

 

Mithridates

“Why say that?

Have you witnessed your own death among the stars?”

 

Hermaeus

“There are mysteries in that high scroll

not so easily read.”

 

Mithridates

“Are all things so fixed in immovable orbits

that even the answer to our prayer is predestined?

What was it then that you promised to accomplish

under the stars in my herbal laboratory

when you unveiled the instruments of magic?

And there was a formula from the pages

of Osteus the priest, in the time of Alexander…”

 

Hermaeus

“The mystic incantataion of Zarathustra.”

 

Mithridates

“By which he obtained immortality!”

 

Hermaeus

“By which he died, according to the legend,

swallowed by fire! I have told you many times

there is no truth in that myth.”

 

Mithridates

“But I think there is – a hidden allegory,

and you gave me the key to unlock it.”

 

Hermaeus

“I gave it?”

 

Mithridates

“I knew I was getting close

in my alchemical experiments

when you gave me that sword and chalice, with inscriptions

around the rim, and written down the blade.

I did not have time that night to try my theory,

but many long nights since, I have pondered

in memory those symbols.”

 

Hermaeus

“That was simply the etymology

of your ancestral name and title, the cipher

of your regal patronymic and lineage

in the deep-rooted alphabet of the old ones.”

 

Mithridates

“It was more than that – it showed the fulfillment

of my desires in the fingers of the immortals!”

 

Hermaeus

“Explain yourself!”

 

Mithridates

“The sword and chalice

by the universal law of forms and patterns

correspond to the powers of fire and water.

And the mystery of letters interpreted

in chemical language speaks of a formula

of substances and herbs.

Extract their elemental properties

by fire and join them in water, as it is written

there on the sword and chalice…”

 

Hermaeus

“Is it possible that even I did not see this?”

 

Mithridates

“If it were for my own sake

that these metaphors were written in meteors,

the prophecy that demanded I think this way.”

 

Hermaeus

“I will consider the possibility –

and yet to unlock the secrets of the gods

your understanding must be purified,

attended by deeds with proper motivation;

far more difficult than ritual!

Are the elements of your life in perfect order?

If not, the sublime dominions you invoke

will tear you into pieces!”

 

Monime

“If he did,

the radiant goddesses would no longer haunt him

as he thinks they do.”

 

Walking across the sand at the margin of waves

and in their light, her beauty immeasurable

in royal gowns, Monime made her way

like the last breaking wave absorbing the colors

of superfluous skies in their western finality

infinite in reach, but more vividly mirrored

convolving in plummeting stains,

and, with immediate rush, release and splash,

echoing distant ethers! And now, how still,

as the water-film abandoned on the sands

she stands and waits for him, her fluid limbs

which summoned to themselves a luminous soul

now rapt in its own silence.

 

Mithridates

“This is the queen of Pontus,

this is the queen of my dreams!”

 

Monime

“And only in your dreams have I been

since you placed your crown in my hair!”

 

Mithridates

“How have you become more beautiful

with the years, more lovely than I can remember?”

 

Monime

“It is not so. I am lonely and abandoned,

imprisoned in these towers by the sea!

I have not had a husband in my arms

in many months, the man who was promised to me.

I have captured sundown in my arms instead,

a silent observer in the golden colonnade

caught by the sun against the outer wall

not knowing how long or why I wait – until

the last shock of color in the sky,

then to disperse – it is not

the essence of my being!”

 

Mithridates

“I gave you all you could desire in my absence!”

 

Monime

“It is your absence that I desire the least!

Inside this red stone wall, there’s a sunflower garden

and a few roses planted by a passionate priest

encircling the golden dome and its gilded altar.

What good is gold to me,

when I cannot purchase the freedom to speak my mind?

It is for this that goddesses punish you,

not for the cruel ambitions of your mother

or the schemes of your sister-wife!”

 

Hermaeus

“I will leave this discussion to the two of you…”

 

Monime

“Do not leave! Intelligent conversation

and the sharing of equal minds I have missed most,

as when the wise of Alexandria

and India gathered here at the king’s table.”

 

Mithridates

“And when they gazed on your beauty…”

 

Monime

“Which I would gladly trade for one true friend!

Eunuchs and serving-maids

care only for the comforts of the royal chambers.”

 

Mithridates

“And yet you refused

to give yourself into my embrace until

I made you queen of the world.”

 

Monime

“What do I care for the world?

I yearned for the crown only because it was yours,

to be queen of your desires, the one with whom

you shared your heart and all its tremendous thoughts;

nor shall you take me into your bed again

until you first reveal to me your mind,

all your troubles, the wreckage of your ambitions

and all that remains of your hope!”

 

Mithridates

“You would hear such a sad tale?”

 

Monime

“I would hear it all!”

 

Mithridates

“The world ordained of ancient kings is crashing

down, from citadel to outermost wall

torn from the dark rebellious soil, whose severed

hands clutch back the moldering foundations,

while civilization rears

the specter of its face at window and gate!”

 

Monime

“Colossus has thrown himself into the harbor,

but history lingers on the vacant pedestal

as though her lament were all our learning.”

 

Hermaeus

“What lesson does she sing, in your allegory?”

 

Monime

“The king is bitter. A fallen fruit, rotting

contents itself in wasting to nourish the seed.

Since the pregnant swelling borders of your lands

were slashed by Sulla, and now even more severely

Lucullus, after one hard year driven back

you sulk near the graves of philosophers and dreamers?

Rouse yourself to even greater deeds!

Defeat must be your larger victory.

When great men confront adversity

they learn to be kings! This is how you must think;

but you need my touch, and my encouragement

or you will begin to believe the goddesses

conspire to bury the fires of your inspiration

as they did with Hercules, when the enmity

of Hera led to his glory of his name!”

 

Hermaeus

“The queen does not need my investigation

to reach her conclusions! Her wisdom surpasses my own.”

 

Mithridates

“Rome is crawling near, eating its way

through herds, fields and orchards, bloated on plunder,

slow but not yet sated, defiling our cities

thriving on their coasts since the dawn of myth.

We cannot stop them now from taking this fortress.

We must form our last defense deep in the mountains.”

 

Monime

“And the blissful goddesses

will persist in the duties of their persecutions

if I do not go with you into exile.

I shall petition their divine disfavor!

Their loveliness and wisdom was evident

when priests from every continent sat at your table

and we feasted on knowledge – like that of Theocritus,

a messenger from the heavens! But for his counsel

you gave a reward that I did not approve.

Not you sit on the rocks and talk to sunsets,

and only one mage dares still to listen!”

 

Hermaeus

“When the wise ones fear to speak,

a woman will not hold back!”

 

Monime

“How does a king lose the respect of immortals?

By presuming their favor in proud, cruel deeds

not worthy of divinity, despoiling

shrines to the exalted bestowers of beauty –

stole the sacred ruby, raped the young priestess

as your drunken pirates did so stupidly

when they rescued your desperate armies! Do men in peril

never even then consider how thin

is their thread of their existence

in the radiant spinning fingers that wove their stars?

 

Mithridates

That was an outrage I did not condone,

nor did I even know of it at the time!

 

Monime

But yet they were your men,

and never did you offer propitiation.

Already their graceful favor was offended

if you want to know the truth,

by your obsession with the one god reigning

supreme over their superior splendor.

Even now, you are blind to their one best gift:

the adoration due to your loving queen!”

 

Mithridates

“If I were taken, you will be ravished, tortured.

You must go to the distant safety of Pharnacea.”

 

Monime

“While Stratonice goes with you again

to your secret loft in the mountains of Kabeira

where you can take your comfort, contemplating

her fingers on the lyre and in the dance

and then, for your pillow, slide into her arms!”

 

Mithridates

“You are of greater value than any other.”

 

Monime

“Hidden away like one of your treasure-vaults,

no good to yourself or anyone, even to me.

You have your way with so many women

you don’t know how to value the one that matters!

That is why the virgin laughed at your knife

with hollow, shocking laughter, demon-echoes

when you thought to sacrifice the girl to the Furies

for throwing down your towers at the moment of conquest!

But why should I pronounce the curse in my heart?

One hundred ships lost in the Hellespont,

one hundred thousand of your best fighting men

when Aphrodite woke Lucullus from dreams

in the porch of her temple, and pointed out to him

your fleet, not far off, trapped in the islands!”

 

Hermaeus

“This is the wrath of the goddess, tongue of the storm!”

 

Monime

“And these are her thoughts in plain speech; hear, and obey!”

 

 

 

 

Chapter Nine

 

 

 

“The Roman commander is this concerned with fruit saplings?” said the Phrygian peasant who supplied mules for Lucullus’ wagons.

The Consul was carefully arranging them for shipment. With their root balls wrapped in small hempen bags, he set them tenderly into a cart for the coast.

“These will need to be kept on the ship’s deck, out in the air and sun,” said Lucullus. “And tell the captain they will need fresh water, every other day. Fresh, not seawater.”

“That is a lot of deck space, and a lot of water for such a long sea journey!”

“But the gold that he will carry in payment can be moved down into the hold, hidden and safe in the ballast and quite sufficient for his trouble! There is enough here for him and for you, too.”

“These little trees are worth that much?”

Lucullus glanced up and around. The steep hillside was covered with orchards and luxurious gardens. It had been a paradise when the army arrived. But the layout of the camp, with tents strictly regimented in blocks and avenues around a parade ground in front of the Consul’s quarters, had trampled much of it. Exotic animals had roamed free, too, tame as pets. These were already roasting over the campfires.

“In a few years,” said Lucullus, “there will be orchards on the Italian coast that will blossom and spill their perfume in the air. It is a scent that drops like unworldly thoughts in the glowing dusk of April! The gardens that I have seen in this country are like none that I have ever seen in a Mediterranean climate.”

“And in the late summer,” said the Phrygian peasant, “when the cherries and apricots mature, flavorful and sweet, even we who have always known such fruits are amazed by their taste!”

“Yours is a fortunate country, with its nut groves and farmlands between the mountains and the Black Sea. One could not do better than to transplant your fine horticulture. We are a civilized people, after all.”

“Certainly,” said the peasant. “Yet we hear rumors of young girls publicly raped in the marketplace, before they were butchered in the streets of Sinope.”

“I will not argue that war is a terrible thing,” said the Consul. “It is a plague upon our human history; and yet history is built upon it.”

“War is an art,” said Archelaus the general. “Among all ascetic labors that are taught and practiced in the gymnasiums, academies and mystery schools, war is the athletic masterpiece, the game of games!”

“You say that as though battle were an exercise in intellectual measure and physical constraint,” the peasant calmly argued. “But man in a killing mood is hard to control.”

“I have to agree,” Lucullus admitted. “I myself hardly recognize as men my own soldiers, once thy have conquered a city’s walls. Slashing their way into the streets, they are rabid for plunder and blood. I do what I can to restrain them. I have to give them a day or two for the fever to subside, before I can rebuild and govern.”

“On the other hand,” said Archelaus, “we did not leave Sinope until that city was established in peace and law. The survivors are well defended from retribution, either from their own tyrant Mithridates, or from the Roman bankers and publicans who wish abuse them.”

“That was well done!” said the peasant. “Though your own Senate may not agree with your clemency. Are you sure you didn’t make enemies among your greedy patricians?”

“Is it a common thing among these Asian peasants,” Archelaus complained, “that they feel so free to question our purposes? We have encountered this line of examination before from them!”

Undaunted, the muleteer kept talking.

“Your own soldiers seem less enthusiastic, too, now that they have left our rich coastal regions to follow you into these mountain ravines.”

“There is not plunder enough here for their satisfaction,” Lucullus agreed.

“Actually,” laughed the peasant, “there has been so much that it has become devalued – not only here, but throughout your empire! They fight among themselves over gold and cattle, loading so much on your ships that many of them sank from the weight! Look at them, barbecuing beef quarters over open flames, roasting nuts and fresh fruit until they are fat and sick, and despising you for your horticultural interest in cherry saplings! Even among these barren mountains, as they well know, so much of Mithridates’s treasure is hidden in secret fortresses that even he would not dare to reveal how much, for fear of inflation! They have no interest in pursuing Mithridates, but only the legend of his treasure; and yet they do not have the wit to understand the subtle balance of trade and value that could make them truly wealthy!”

“I remember this voice,” growled Archelaus, yanking off the little peasant’s Phrygian hood. “This is the same trader that misled us in the mountains, and then escaped!”

“A spy, as you suspected,” admitted Theocritus the trader.

“And you dare to show your face again?”

The little fellow shrugged.

“It is hard to recognize a man who has been in the land of death,” Theocritus replied, “and even harder to intimidate him.”

“What do you mean?” Archelaus demanded.

“Death itself no longer frightens me, since Mithridates sentenced me to death for all my help! I kept you from surprising him at that time, here in this very fortress! Is that not ironic?”

“It was a masterpiece of subtlety all right! You had us all fooled.”

“It was too subtle for Mithridates himself. He rewarded me with his most powerful poison. You know how he likes to experiment on his own subjects, when he suspects the slightest treachery. It was ‘dragon’s blood’ that he poured down my throat, a concoction from the Caucasus. But it was given me for the sake of testing an antidote attributed to the legendary skill of Medea herself! I suppose I should be honored. The antidote brought me back to life; but it did not restore my trust in him!”

“How do we know this is not more of your treachery?”

“You, Archelaus, must know better than anyone that I speak honestly.”

“How do you know my name?”

“I have always known who you are, from the moment I saw you in my Cappadocian caves. A wise leader of men, one in whom Mithridates put all his trust; one who even gave his own life on the battlefield. But because you survived your wounds, because it was Sulla himself who honored your bravery and nursed you back to health, Mithridates assumed that you betrayed him. Now I understand you better than I did then! There is no defense against that suspicion. The king who goes by the name of light and truth, whom I took as the great hero of the gods, is unstable. It is difficult to see him as an example of the divine life, when he grows so distrustful of those closest to him.”

“It is a disease that has grown on him since childhood,” Archelaus lamented. “What it must be like to have been betrayed by your own mother…”

“A disease,” Theocritus agreed, “that drives all his philosophical studies toward one goal: the possibilities of his own greatness! The gods have never tolerated such tyrants.”

“When you were instructing my men in the rites of Mithra, was that, too, part of your game?”

“I hope not!” said the little man.

“They grew uneasy about attacking a king named for that god,” Archelaus complained, “especially after the meteor at Otryae!”

“But they showed no hesitation when I showed them how to cut off Mithradates’ supply lines at Cyzicus, or where to attack his cavalry!”

“That was you?”

“Your men knew who I was, even if you didn’t.”

“They told me it was a local priest of Cybele!”

“It was not intended as a disguise! That battle took place during the week of her rites.”

“I don’t understand,” said Archelaus. “My men told me a little about your exotic teachings: the feast of light, the great abundance of peace and truth, and the god who leads men beyond death!”

“Ah! You are an intelligent Greek commander, after all, with an inquisitive nature of concealed in skepticism.”

“But is not Mithra the face of Ahura-Mazda, the one who does not allow the worship of other gods?”

The little man threw out his arms.

“These things are beyond our understanding. I, too, have questions! I always thought that the rites I taught prepared us for the confrontation with mortality. But I have been confounded with the sight of death; not in other men, as we have seen so often in these violent times, but in myself! I never dreamed how terrifying it is. The mysteries do not prepare men for that! We thought they would – but they do not. That is why I am here, hoping to speak with your philosopher…”

“What clarity can I offer, if even you are confused?” said Antiochus, limping down at that moment from a steep, rocky path in the canyon wall.

“I see I have exhausted you again, my old teacher,” said Lucullus, calling for a skin of wine.

“These scouting missions will kill him yet, I am afraid,” said Faustus, coming down behind him.

“I am not too tired to hear more of this,” Antiochus replied, sitting on a stone to drink. “Have you visited the shores of immortality?”

“Tell me about the god you saw,” Theocritus replied.

“Me? Tell you! Are you not a priest of the gods?”

“I no longer know what I am. I know that I am a man, and no god, and that death walks very near to every mortal. But I have seen that man is a living soul, not confined to his fragile flesh. This is no surprise; we all assumed that such was the case; and yet I have also seen that the soul is powerless without this flesh! Who knew that the body was so valuable, or the few brief years we spend with it? Without his body, a man’s will is helpless. Knowledge is vast in the afterlife – almost too much to bear – yet the ability to act is cut off. All decisions of the human mind are performed through the use of one’s limbs. We do not have omnipotent power like the gods, to act through thought alone. When the body is taken away, the living soul is subject to judgement for all the actions done through the flesh. The judgment is unyielding and terrible! So to understand all that, and yet to be given a second chance as I have been given – I cannot afford to squander a single moment!”

“Then you must show us what you meant by the transcendent superiority of Mithra,” Antiochus insisted.

“But you were the one who saw a god in the form of a man, radiant with light!”

“His face and his form were beautiful beyond any splendor Homer could have imagined. And his words were kind, but ripe with power!”

“That is unlike any of the gods we have known,” said Theocritus, “and certainly not like the ones I saw waiting for me on the banks of death! All the gods were there, in ranks like a vast army. I had no idea there were so many. I saw their names written beneath them, as though in the pages of a book – and their names were terrible. Their faces, too, were vivid and marvelous. But their expressions could not be said to be beautiful, but rather dangerous with eternal judgments.

“Better than that, I cannot describe what I saw. But my heart was fully awake to the meaning of my deeds among men. I understood how insignificant is this human life, and yet at the same time, I saw that it is tremendously important, in every moment!

“With that awakening, a cloud was removed from my mortal sight; and I saw divine things unfolding! I perceived that all those gods are not in fact the reality of divinity, but only frail images. Nor are the statues in our temples, nor are the oracular voices that speak through the statues. Socrates was right! We have created marvelous fictions about our gods, like children playing with dolls. But what a man is, that is every bit as much a mystery. Man is a shadow of what he could be.”

He retreated into an uncomfortable silence.

“Do you remember what you told me,” Theocritus said at last, “among the cave-dwellings of Cappadocia?”

“I remember speaking of the deeper mind, that has the ability to distinguish truth from falsehood,” the old philosopher answered.

“And you assured me that a life of virtue can strengthen that wisdom!”

“But you were already familiar with the ideas of our philosophy, if I remember.”

“I was; but I never heard these things said with the conviction that your words carried. ‘I have known good men, whose cultivation of virtue is difficult to describe. They do not appear as heroes. Their interior life is hidden,’ you said. ‘These, I think, are closer to the gods than they know…’ ”

“You are able to recall my words so precisely?”

“Without the memory of your words, I don’t know that I would not have survived the ordeal.”

“I would not have thought a few poor sentences could have such an impact.”

“But they came to mind; and when they did, I saw something else. It was the one you saw, exactly as you described, in the form of a man; and yet somehow more than a man, and more even than a god. I understood that he was the maker of heaven and earth…”

“The Demiurgos!”

“No Demigod he, mere artisan in inferior clay, fastening the visible cosmos upon the beautiful Ideas in the unseen mind of God. He was no such minor deity. No. He was the Archetype and the Image, the visible and the Invisible Logos both! There were no limits to his existence. I can’t explain it. It doesn’t make sense. He lay in the cave, utterly alone, in a chamber like the one where we celebrated the rites of the feast.

“There was no breath in him.

“Then I saw a wonderful star, with a brightness unlike any light I have ever seen. It floated out of the invisible heaven, shone like a portent in the sky, and then moved down and entered the cave. It moved with an intelligence of its own through the skies, not following the orbits of the stars, as though calling the star-watchers and the wise of all ages to attention. It came down to the man who lay there, and I saw that it was a luminous child within a resplendent womb, and that it was the man who lay there.

“And he spoke my name, and stirred, and stood!

“And then I was gazing into that star, deep into its revolving light, and beyond. It was not a star at all; it was a sun, burning with exalted visions! The cave expanded into a great hall luminous with visions. They were painted into the walls like frescoes of light, visions of the overturning of death and a future existence, beautiful and splendid beyond imagination!

“The rays of that light shot out into all of Cappadocia, and all the caves of that region became temples of light, painted in the colors of the vision. It spread to Pontos and Phrygia and the Ionian coast, Syria and Palestine, Egypt and Parthia, all the cities of Asia illumined with those same visionary temples; then Greece, even Rome, and the far lands of the west. But none of those wonderful temples were as glorious as the men and women who stood inside them, all of them like gods! And I saw him, the god-man, walking out of the cave into the sunlight.

“That was when I woke, though not as from a dream. Hermaeus the Mage was with me when I opened my eyes. He was astonished, even afraid, when I opened my eyes. He said that I had been as cold as the stone I lay upon. Immediately I questioned him about this star that I had seen. He could give me no answer that satisfied me. Instead, as though still half in the land of visions, I foresaw how Hermaeus would die, abandoned by Mithridites.

“I did not tell him of that.”

“You have become an oracle,” whispered Antiochus.

“If that were so, why would I be begging you for an explanation of so many things that I cannot comprehend?”

“If you can’t explain, how shall I?”

“You and I, sir, we must devote our remaining years to this investigation!”

“But how can we proceed, without a guide?”

“First,” Lucullus interrupted, “we must find a way to take the tyrant who has taken so many Roman lives, and tried to take yours as well. Until Mithridates is captured or killed, Rome cannot turn its attention to any other endeavor.”

“And yet here you are, admiring our oriental gardens and packing cherries while your men search for hidden caves of gold,” Theocritus smiled.

“What information do we have on this fortress?” Lucullus replied with irritation.

“Mithridates chose its position well,” said Antiochus. “It is built into the mountainside, with walls as thick as extensions of the cliffs. I found no position where catapults can be effective, and the approach is too steep for a battering ram.”

“I’ve been inside its walls,” said Archelaus. “This is where he entertained his favorites with lavish feasts; this is where he conducted his most deadly experiments on life and death.”

“Such as the one he performed on me!” Theocritus interrupted. “I would like to see it ripped from the mountainside.”

“But it was constructed with a long siege in mind,” Archelaus added. “Its foundations are deep, and so are its massive store-rooms. You can be sure he had them filled before we knew he was here.”

“Not only is it filled with stores,” said Theocritus. “His finest fighting cavalry are packed within those gates.”

“Men and horses, with provisions!” said Lucullus. “How deeply packed could they be in there?”

“Four thousand Scythians, plus Amazon horsewomen,” Theocritus replied. “You have not yet met riders like them, nor their poisoned arrows.”

“No cavalry that could be contained in those walls could possibly defeat a trained army this size!” said Lucullus.

“Not in the open, perhaps,” said Theocritus. “But if they were to corner you in one of these canyons they would certainly have the advantage.”

“Cavalry attack in a confined space is ineffective,” Archelaus challenged. “Horses cannot build speed for charging and turning. I learned that to my sorrow in Greece, when I led Mithridates’ troops against Sulla.”

“And you don’t think Mithridates has realized that as well?”

“That’s true,” admitted Archelaus. “He is as fine a master of war as any. He will have studied all his defeats, and may have developed inventive solutions.”

“The horses he purchased for this fortress were raised on the mountain slopes. They can attack in ways you have not yet even thought of; they could herd your entire army over a cliff!”

“He chose this fortress for his last stand,” said Archelaus. “He would not have done so without considering every possibility of success.”

“I see no other alternative to a long and difficult siege,” Antiochus agreed.

“What will be hardest for you, I think,” said Theocritus, “will be maintaining this army’s morale in this wilderness.”

“I chose this place for his last stand!” shouted Lucullus. “I chose it, not him!”

He yelled loud enough for all to hear. His men looked up from their fires.

“Why do you think I have been loitering in this countryside?” the Consul exploded. “Have I been sight-seeing? Gathering up marble statues and those rare scientific treatises that the king left behind as he fled, for my own profit? Picking fruit? That’s what I wanted him to think! I wanted to give him time to gather his courage and his armies, so that he would stand and face us in battle one more time! This is the only place where he would dare to confront us, and I knew it!”

Some of his men began to move closer.

“What is the alternative? Do you believe that if he disappeared into the mountains, he might never be seen again? And Rome would be safe? Think about it! Has that ever been his character in the face of defeat? As long as he lives, he is a threat to Rome. Even if he were in exile on the farthest shores of the Black Sea, he could raise up another army from the very grasses of the steppes! He has a vast and trackless wilderness to fall back on. The Caucasus Mountains could hide ten thousand wily kings like Mithridates.

“Only a few days’ ride from here lies Armenia, ruled by Tigranes, King of kings, Mithridates’ son-in-law. Tigranes rules such armies that he levels cities and transplants populations, subduing Parthia, Syria, Medea, Palestine, murdering the rightful rulers and ravishing their wives and daughters! Tigranes is eager to make war on Rome. If we drive Mithridates into his arms, then we’ll have to fight Tigranes the Great and his Medes and Armenians! No. I have given Mithridates time to re-gather his forces, so that we can crush him here!”

He was answered by no cheer; but a murmur of approval passed through the Roman camp as the men returned to their dinner fires.

“Well then!” said Archelaus. “As long as we can keep them fed and moderately hopeful, we might just pull this off.”

“We’ll need luck as well,” Antoichus complained. “Otherwise, it may be impossible to take that fortress, even with so large an army.”

“It is not impossible,” said Theocritus.

“You know of a vulnerability in those walls, or a way underneath them?”

“I know this wilderness better than the men of Pontos know it. Theirs is a civilization of coastal cities and farmlands; but the interior mountains and plateaus are my territory. I know of an advantage that even Mithridates has not considered.”

“And will you tell us what it is?” said Lucullus, after a pause.

“I don’t mind telling you.”

“Will there be a price for such information, then?” said Lucullus, beginning to lose patience.

“There may be, of a sort. I am no longer much enamored of this king, as you might guess; but I am not happy with this marauding army of yours, either. I would love to see them sent back to Rome before they destroy more of this country.

“I don’t mind the idea of a long siege, keeping your unruly marauders in this wilderness where they can do no harm. I would happily supply them for the long term. But I know they won’t stay for that. They want to plunder Amisus, and all the other fabulously wealthy cities along the coast.

“If Mithridates were to escape at last, I am not opposed to sending your legions deep into Armenia until they disappear into the earth!”

“Have I not just demonstrated that I know how to control my men?” said Lucullus.

“As a matter of fact, I don’t think you ever understood them very well,” Theocritus replied. “These are your own dispossessed plebians, men without a home in Rome, who joined your army for lands and for loot. Sulla promised them both, when he chased Mithridates out of Greece and back into Asia. Their goal was in sight: the richest plunder they had ever seen, when Sulla had to abandon his conquest and return to the civil wars in Rome. They have been howling for blood like dogs ever since, hunting their prey for ten long winters now.

“I would not be disappointed to see a reasonable government, such as you desire, nor even an occupying army that has respect for law. I would not even begrudge them a little loot for their efforts. There is enough in the vaults of that fortress to send them home content!

“But if I give you Mithridates, how can you guarantee the peace of Rome that you promised me when I first met you in Cappadocia?

“Mithridates promised an era of light and truth, and an end of the blight of Rome, which makes a slave market of all the world! And yet he cannot rule his own fear, which makes slaves of all those closest to him! You promise a rule of universal order and law; but it is not a law to your wealthy Senators and Roman bankers. They have proved themselves to be a powerful enemy to all who stand in the way of their greed.

“How, then, can you be the one to bring us an era of peace, for the spread of true philosophy that you assured at the start of your invasion?”

“But for that to happen,” Antiochus replied, “we must discover what true philosophy is.”

“And it is because you have given me hope that that can be done,” Theocritus replied to the elderly philosopher, “that I have come to you here!”

The sudden alteration in his countenance and his speech was so complete, that those who stood listening to him wondered at the change.

“There are mountains in that direction,” he said, pointing above Kabeira, “that come down to the cliff overlooking the walls. There is an abandoned fortress up there, almost as old as the mountains themselves. The hill folk of an earlier race built it to hold this region against the Phrygian invasions, when that people first migrated from Thrace long ago. It was last occupied against the Persians, when Cyrus brought his armies into these lands from his liar in the East.”

“If there is any such ruin up there,” Archelaus argued, “it has been long forgotten by the mountains themselves! That cliff is entirely cut off from its mountains by the river. It makes a deep and impassable gorge before emerging in that high waterfall by the fortress tower. There is no way to scale that precipice.”

“Not only is there a path,” said Theocritus, “but it is one that can carry all your men and machinery to that height. There is a small stone bridge that spans a narrow high up in the gorge. The way is remembered only by a few local hunters who use the ruin for a camp; but I have been there.”

“Catapults could be moved over that bridge?” said Lucullus.

“Only if they were disassembled. But they would have to be modified anyway. The precipice is too close and too high over the target for the range of catapults.”

“Our engineers could devise something,” Archelaus answered, “even if it were simply to roll boulders over the edge!”

“But if we were to move the whole army to such a remote location,” Lucullus pointed out, “Mithridates would be sure to cut us off from our supply lines.”

“That can be remedied,” said Theocritus.

“You can get us supplies up there from the coast?” said Lucullus.

“Not from the coast,” Theocritus replied. “But there is a pass through those mountains toward Comana. I can provide you with wagons there within days, loaded with my grain from Cappadocia.”

“If that were so,” said Archelaus, “Mithridates would be in our hands!”

“It may not be so easy as that,” said Theocritus. “You will still have a siege, though with the advantage of higher ground. Mithridates will recognize the wagon trains as your weakness. He will use his cavalry to attack them. His attacks will be desperate and furious, and will require all your watchfulness and skill and strategy.”

“As soon as he sees us moving camp in that direction, he will bring out that same cavalry,” said Lucullus. “We must study that road, to see how well we can fight while underway.”

“I would not advise it,” said Theocritus. “You will be stretched thin, in single file. But if you were to leave your campfires lit as you abandoned them, and moved in the night, he will not know anything until morning. ”

“By then, we could be looking down on him from above!” said Archelaus.

“I cannot guarantee victory,” said Theocritus. “And yet have I not foreseen the tragic end of this fortress, with the deaths of many, and among them the noble mage Hermaeus? For him, I grieve, and for many of the king’s friends!”

 

 

Chapter Ten

 

 

 

 

“Tall soldier! Are you looking for love?”

He stared at the young temple courtesan.

“Something to eat,” he replied, “and a safe place to sleep.”

“You will be safe in my arms, after I bathe and oil your tired limbs.”

“But first,” said her lithesome companion coming out of the dark door between the columns, “you must donate an offering to the temple, for the sublime moon priestess.”

“Here comes another, more handsome still!” said the first courtesan. “Where do you come from, soldier?”

“From battle and from death; and it comes this way.”

“Stay clear of him, sister,” said the second courtesan. “That one’s lost his mind.”

“Now here is an old beggar,” said the other. “What could he want here?”

“Water…”

“Go away, old man! This place is not for such as you.”

With a wonton smile, she gazed around at rich temple complex of Comana.

“We are reserved for the young men,” said the other with her hands on her hips, “instructing them in the rites of the goddess.”

“We’ll make an exception for a highborn elder,” said the first, “if the weight of his purse can prove his nobility.”

“We’ll even bathe a eunuch, if he’s rich enough.”

Both girls laughed.

But a third woman, not quite so young but much more elegantly robed, ran out of the alley and threw herself into the old beggar’s arms.

“My Lord! You live!”

“Who is this splendid whore?” sneered the first courtesan.

“Dressed like a dancing-girl!” said the other. “And why does she call this vagabond a Lord?”

The third woman spun about in wrath.

“A girl who serves in these temples should know that the god may come in disguise, at any hour!” she shouted.

“This broken shell of a man is no immortal!” said the courtesan.

“Is he your master?” said the other.

“And yours as well! You don’t know Mithridates the Great, your king?”

“Impossible!”

“On your knees, girl, and beg forgiveness!”

“Leave them,” said the weary king. “Before the sun sets tomorrow, they will all be Roman slaves.”

“Is Kabeira fallen?” gasped the woman.

“The beautiful fortress is lost, and all within it.”

Collapsing to the earth, she sat on the ground and wept.

“My childhood village; and my father’s, for generations before you built your palace there!”

“I will never forget the night when your father first brought his lovely daughter to play the harp for our feast,” said the king. “And when he spoke your name: Stratonice, named for victory in war!”

“Those high slopes overlooking the world, where he taught me how to touch the strings, while watching the sheep!” wailed Stratonice.

“All ruined by war and brutal conquest,” he said.

“All my kinsfolk murdered, or, worse, enslaved!”

“In the end, I was not able save them.”

“But you were so confident of your cavalry!”

“We fought with all our might and minds, attacking on a narrow mountain trail where their army seemed most vulnerable. But they forced our horses over the precipice.”

“Where are the rest of your horsemen, and your counselors?”

“Very few escaped. Perhaps a few hundred will arrive here by nightfall… ”

“Was not Hermaeus with you?”

“Trampled into the dust by our own horses, just within the gates. Men whom I always thought brave, panicked at the end.”

“Where is Dorylaus? Your adopted brother, the son of your father’s most trusted commander and your own finest general! He would not have abandoned you.”

“Slain by his own soldiers, for the prize of the purple cloak I gave him!”

“These were the last true fighters of Pontos! What could have crazed them so?”

“It was too suddenly clear that all hope was lost, that the Romans knew they could would force the gates at dawn and we could no longer stop them! We spent the night loading the horses with my scrolls and with the treasures…”

“Was that why Hermaeus pulled me from a dream, and threw me on a pony?” she said, standing slowly, leaning against him. “The swiftest and most nimble in the fortress, he said. For many miles on the dark trail, alone before the dawn, I was not sure if I were awake or not.”

“The men were not to know of it until the last moment. But they saw. Rumor and fear could no longer be contained, nor the distracted stampede. One too many defeat in the hard-fought mountain passes robbed their minds of all glory.”

“But how do you come here, in such a state? It is no wonder that no one knows you for a king!”

“I disguised myself as a commoner, to escape through the Romans. My own men did not know me when I was caught up in the press. My horse was wrestled from me, by warriors turned into wretches. Callistratus found me hiding on the path, and gave me his own horse. He paid for that kindness with his life.”

“Callistratus too, your faithful historian, your honored scribe?”

“I saw him taken as I fled. They weren’t after me, and they weren’t interested in the information which only he knew. They couldn’t care less; all they wanted was gold. The only gold he had was packed on the horse he gave me. They searched him with swords, stripped him, stabbed him and left him; and then came after me. One whole detachment; my horse was not as swift as theirs. So I knifed the sacks, all of them, and the gold spilled out. That worked. They went after the trail of coin, and let me go.”

“But they will follow the road this way?”

“That is certain. This road, and the others that lead back toward the coastal cities.”

“You must send word to them!”

“They are lost,” he said. “There is nothing to stop the Romans from taking them now.”

“Monime and your sisters are still in Pharnacea!” she protested.

He looked away from her, and said nothing.

“No. Oh, no! No, my Lord, you must see to their immediate rescue…”

“There is only one rescue possible. I have already sent Baccides to see to it.”

“You do not really intend to sacrifice your queen?”

“I truly believe it is what she would want.”

“But if not…”

If not, it is what she prophesied in her high-minded fashion!” he replied angrily. “Otherwise, she would be cruelly paraded in Rome, naked except for her chains, raped again and again and then slaughtered in the arena.”

“Then I must go with you!” she gasped. “But where can we go?”

“You cannot travel the hard road that I must take into east.”

She stared at him in disbelief; then sank to her knees, sobbing violently.

“Yes, my Lord, you must take me with you! Hermaeus did not save me with so much care, just so that I would be given one of your poisons to drink in the porch one of these temples! It may have been his last deed – think of that, and be reasonable!”

“It is good that he gave thought to you,” the king answered gently.

“He said that this horse must carry what is most precious to you!” she said with desperation.

“He knows how near you have always been to my heart.”

“And he said – what was it he said? Everything was so chaotic, I thought I was still dreaming! He did not have time for thought, nor to pack provisions for my journey. He simply gave me the horse, and told me to go. I said to him, you will save my life, and not my kithara? And he replied: another lyre can be found, but what this swift beast carries cannot be replaced. And then – yes, I remember. He instructed me that if I should not find you here in Comana, that I was to take that same horse to the hidden fortress, Kainon Chorion deep in the mountains, and bury the satchel bags as deep as possible.”

“What is this? What is in those bags, that he would have considered to be of such importance? Bring them!”

She motioned to one of the temple courtesans, who stood watching in speechless amazement. The girl immediately ran off in the direction from which Stratonice had come.

“I don’t understand. There was no gold nor jewels. Just scrolls, in languages I cannot read. And there is a precious chalice, I think, and what looks to be a blade…”

“Did you touch them?” he demanded, grabbing her by both arms.

“You are hurting me! You are my treasure. Why would I want to steal anything of yours?”

“That is not what I asked! Did you fingers touch that chalice, or that blade?”

“They are wrapped in cloths and silks, and sealed. The seals are intact. Here are the bags; you can see them.”

The temple girl ran up, handed them to the king and threw herself in the dust at his feet.

“Hermaeus knew,” said Mithridates, peering into one of them.

 

Stratonice:

I beg you to let me live,

so that on another day I may see my Lord,

so that these arms and fingers you’ve kissed so often

and tenderly one day

may hold my Lord and king again once more

close to this beating heart.

 

Mithridates:

When I no longer had his voice for counsel

Hermaeus knew he could speak to me through these:

an oracle to the mind of stars, and more.

This blade is the tongue of gods, and this cup

the unpredictable will of goddesses

poured out into my hands,

so that if it is possible for the chosen king

to repeal the determination of immortals

through ritual sacrifice

and chart new courses for the stars themselves…

 

Stratonice:

You frighten me with these words!

 

Mithridates:

This is what I must study

among the scrolls of the constellations tonight

and for many nights to come on the highland roads

into Armenia.

 

Stratonice:

At times you forget

you are just a man, my Lord; though there were nights

when I thought I pressed a god against my breast.

I felt what Leto knew, when lightning struck

her loins, or Daphne, embracing celestial rain,

felt stirring in her womb!

 

Mithridates:

These pharmaceutical formulas I will need:

roots and flowers that thrive on the mountain slopes

of Ararat and the vast Caucasian foothills.

I will harvest with the sword, slice and dig

herbs from the flesh of earth,

mix them in the chalice, stir with fire,

perfecting the rare and undiscovered secret

alchemy of my fate.

 

Stratonice:

If I must die,

then let it be tonight, with you in my arms!

 

Mithridates:

And these – years of experiment and searching –

letters and texts you will take to deepest vaults

of Kainon Choria, hide them in graves, if you have to.

I will send you with guards, and eunuchs – and these young daughters

of noble lines – though most of their fathers are dead –

you may take, if you wish, to serve you. My girl,

you might have just saved the Black Sea kingdom!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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