“Now for the Romans, they expected that they should be fought in the morning—”
Soldiers tell tales. We do it as a point of pride, a way of remembering, often only to pass the time. More than anything else we do it because we are alive, and because someone else is not. When a place is conquered it becomes someting new. Whatever it was before, what it was called, what Gods looked down on it, all these things cease to be. It’s simple enough: join or die, die and be forgotten.
A name is defeated just like a city, it ceases to be alongside the dead. That is how Empires survive.
“—when accordingly they put on their armor, and laid bridges of planks upon their ladders from their banks, to make an assault upon the fortress, which they did—“
The climb was brutal; seventy pounds of gear, armor plates baking like cheap skillets, and spongy leather that stank of months of my sweat.
“Honor has a smell,” the men said. It was just unfortunate it happened to smell a lot like shit.
My foot kicked through something wet and I slipped; my bad knee creaked. Someone up the line had puked their breakfast. My stomach rumbled; my head said I should vomit, guts said I should eat.
“You think they’ll put up much of a fight?” the soldier beside me asked.
“They know they are going to die. In my experience, that means a lot of us will too.”
“They picked a hell of a place to hole up.”
They called it a hill. Generals always did that; a child could tell this was a god damn mountain. The ancient fortress sat on a cliff side at the very top, commanding the valley in nearly every direction. I hated everything about it: its piss yellow bricks, the phallic towers that leaned. I’d looked up at it for fourteen months, dreaming how I would tear it down with my bare hands. It was all held together by a people too cowardly to just surrender.
“You ever met one before?” the soldier had kept talking.
The solder shrugged toward the fortress.
“They aren’t like the others. These are fanatics, zealots.”
Next to me, the soldier laughed.
“Sure, then again we’re the ones climbing a cliff just to kill them.”
“You sound like a politician.”
“I was a pig farmer.”
“—but saw nobody as an enemy, but a terrible solitude on every side, with a fire within the place as well as a perfect silence—“
The men at the front would just be reaching the gates. The sounds of battle should have come resounding down the path, but there was only silence. The kind of quiet that gives fighting men nightmares.
“You hear anything?” the soldier asked.
I shook my head. The line had stopped moving. “I can’t see a thing either.”
Whispers began to work their way back. Rumors spread like dysentery through an army, only quicker. There wasn’t any fighting, there was no battle.
“Maybe they decided to surrender after all,” said the soldier, now on his tip toes, trying to see through rows of helmets ahead.
“I’m going to take a look.”
I adjusted my pack and shouldered through the clump of men in front of me. Some were already sitting, a few even had broken out canteens and bits of leftover meals. Waiting was what they did best. All the way to the very top men were just passing the time. They wouldn’t die today, so they were already bored.
“At length they made a shout, as if it had been at a blow given by the battering-ram, to try whether they could bring anyone out that was within.”
The fortress gate was a massive slab of oak, it stood over a dozen feet high and was nearly two feet thick. It was open. A handful of soldiers leaned against it, playing a game of dice. I walked up to their captain.
“What the hell is going on?”
He didn’t look up from the game, but motioned with his head.
“Take a look yourself.”
“Did they surrender?” asked the pig farmer, now perched next to me.
The captain only laughed as he tossed a handful of dice. I could still hear him when I stepped into the cool shadows inside the fortress.
A congregation was waiting. They were all sitting, warriors together, some families holding children. Even the old and infirm had been brought out into the sun, placed beside the others. They were all in rows, facing toward the west. Their backs were to the gate, like they had arranged themselves with care.
A few had slumped to the ground, but most were upright, legs crossed; there was a single clean wound cut into every neck. The blood had already begun to dry.
I swatted at a fly, others were starting to appear.
The pig farmer looked like he wanted to wretch. “God, it reeks.”
“Did they have a name for this place?”
“Hell if I know,” he said.
“Go find someone who does.”
“When Masada was thus taken—“
William Ables is a writer from Nashville, Tennessee where he currently lives with his wife and their two dogs, Athena and Dr. Jones.