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The Tortoise in Asia

By: Tony Grey
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Based on a popular legend in Gansu, the far western province of China, The Tortoise in Asia recounts the exploits of Marcus, a young Roman centurion schooled in the Greek classics who, after a devastating loss in a battle with the Parthians, is taken prisoner, marched along the Silk Road, and pressed into service as a border guard on the eastern frontier. After a daring escape, Marcus has many adventures working with the Hun army as a mercenary. Throughout this harrowing journey, Marcus learns about Chinese philosophies, uncovering the startling similarities between these philosophies and those of Greece.

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Chapter 1

ePub

Resting on pillows of morning air, a lone eagle stares at the ancient road of many-citied Syria. There’s something strange below, beyond understanding, too big to eat. An exotic creature glistens and crawls in the early summer sun, like a gigantic bronze-clad caterpillar. With forty thousand mouths to feed, it gobbles up crops and herds, leaving little more than blight in its path. Local people are gaping in stunned apprehension; many scuttle into their farm houses to hide. The dreaded Roman army’s on the march, in a massive troop movement that’ll change the course of history.

Its head is a man, charming and well spoken, but notorious for sordid greed. His love of lucre could make Midas seem lacking in monetary spirit, or Croesus neglectful of wealth. Former triumvir and the richest man in Rome, Marcus Licinius Crassus is in the Roman province to launch an invasion of the affluent Parthian empire next door to the east. Through wealth and political manoeuvring he’s procured the command of seven legions. It’s the greatest success of his career, but only the penultimate step. Much more than this, even more than the expected spoils of war, are at stake. He’s burning to become the number one citizen of Rome, civis princeps, never stops thinking about it. For that he must command an army that wins a glorious victory – on a par with what Scipio and his rival Pompey, not to mention the great Caesar, have achieved. Parthia is the place to do it, the successor to the Persian Empire of the Achaemids.

 

Chapter 2

ePub

Orodes II, divine ruler of Parthia, king of Kings, Brother of the Sun and Moon, hasn’t arrived yet. In the congress hall of his grand summer palace in the Zagros foothills, long-robed nobles and priests stand in little groups nervously chatting, awaiting the royal presence. Scouts are reporting the Roman army is at the Euphrates – a full scale invasion by the mightiest force in the world is under way and there’s no strategy. Normality has changed overnight.

Torches in sooty brackets on the walls extract blackness from the dark, leaving a dim visibility. Usually the gloomy light enhances the majesty of the marble hall but today it doesn’t; foreboding lurks in the corners like jackals in the night and impending catastrophe infects the air.

Four densely bearded soldiers with pikes and round shields stand rigid at the tall bronze – studded doors, massive enough to withstand a siege. Soft bonnets cover their long black hair which is tied in knots on top of their foreheads. The style looks like a battering ram. Outside, a huge stone lion reminds all who come of the glorious time when Cyrus the Great forged the Medes and Persians into the largest empire the world had known. These days the Parthians, of raw and lusty origin on the eastern steppes, are in power, having absorbed the cultivated ways of Persian civilization, or mostly so.

 

Chapter 3

ePub

While the bridge crawls across the Euphrates, Marcus and Gaius Fulvius Aquila take a stroll to Zeugma. Never taken by education – uninterested in books, Gaius only ever wanted to join the army. He accepts that high rank is beyond him, content with being an ordinary centurion, practical and reliable. In the earthy twang of his youth, he often teases Marcus about his aspirations, especially the improved accent.

The two are life-long friends, unfazed by differences. Underneath, their values are the same, a moral linkage which allows each to admire the other’s qualities. Gaius is stronger, Marcus quicker. The big man has more of an earthy attitude to life, uncomplicated by the disappointments attending ambition. He’s a natural Stoic; Marcus works at it.

In a few minutes, another centurion in their cohort catches up with them, slightly out of breathe. Marcus says,

“Ave Quintus. You want to come with us for a drink?”

“Sure. I thought we were all going together.”

 

Chapter 4

ePub

Gaius Cassius Longinus is sure to be there, the tall rope- muscled Quaestor and second in command. How could anyone like the man’s cold and mineral personality? But you have to admire his quenched iron intellect, his uncanny ability to sense immediately the controlling ingredient in a muddle of facts, the main thing or critical combination that will determine an outcome. He knows instantly that it’s a thorn in his paw that causes the lion’s reactions while his colleagues still canvass other possibilities.

Although wary of him, Marcus reluctantly admires the man, keen to learn what makes him so successful. It seems that while his memory and cognitive ability are impressive, although not outstanding, he has an inexplicable additional element, something that can’t be learned, which he brings to decision making. But, though present in military applications, that element is absent in others, in human relations for example.

Dressed in a white rust-fringed tunic fastened with the usual wide leather belt extending from below the rib cage to the abdomen, Marcus arrives at the praetorium, the command centre. Two exceptionally tall centurions, faces as still as stone, guard the tent’s entrance. Close by is the flagpole that flies the colours of the army, hanging flaccidly, hot and lazy. An eagle sails high on the thermal currents keeping watch and the Road runs by, patiently waiting for information. It’s within earshot.

 

Chapter 5

ePub

Bearing the pride of Roman youth, hungry for battle, the Road leaves the silt-laden river and passes into grassy plains which are gently undulating and articulated with clumps of trees. Birds are singing and all is benign. It could almost be in Italy. The great connector is making the march easy, pleasant even, as if it’s enticing the soldiers to the expected clash. And no wonder, for nothing in its history has been on the scale of what is to come. It lives for action. Whether it’s in trade or violence is of no account.

The sound of the army on the march is prodigious. Squeaking and crunching of the baggage train’s wheels, bronze armour rasping against itself, snorting animals, tread of man and horse, create a corridor of sound that extends the presence of the invaders wide into the countryside.

Soon the terrain changes, becomes drier and subsides into gnarled scrubland. Eventually it abandons vegetation altogether, sliding into sand like a shoreline ceding its domain to the sea. No birds are left to sing.

 

Chapter 6

ePub

As night thickens and no leadership emerges from the Roman camp, everyone wonders what’s happening at the top. The command structure has broken down. Marcus and the other officers are receiving no orders, no information, nothing. In a state of shock he goes in search of Crassus but can’t find him. He comes across Cassius, looking more tense and gaunt than usual. It seems the man has some feelings after all.

“Sir, where’s the Commander in Chief? I’ve been sent by Legatus Cincinnatus to see what’s going on.”

“Not here. Don’t know where he is. Should look for him.”

They’ve no idea where to look. Cassius says they should use an old hunting technique. If the lion is known to be somewhere not too far away, the tracker walks around the place he was last seen in widening circles. They do this, starting at the Command Post. After a few circuits they find him, alone. He’s lying on the ground huddled in his cloak, shivering. He’s looking so small, so shrunken. Even phlegmatic Cassius is jolted at the sight of the man who such a short time ago had the stature of a god. He asks for orders, for direction. Crassus can’t reply; he just shakes.

 

Chapter 7

ePub

In the Armenian foothills to the north, another weird ceremony is about to take place. The Parthian monarch has secured a truce with King Artavasdes of Armenia and is celebrating the wedding of his son to the sister of his new ally. It’s being held in the well apportioned but not opulent Armenian palace. He’s pleased that the first part of his strategy is working. No need for battle, Artavasdes was content with an alliance. Now there’re two armies to deal with Surena, weakened as he’s sure to be after the Romans have finished with him. Things are going well; he’s got reason to celebrate, to drink with confidence alongside his new found friends.

As the bonhomie of the sumptuous feast is filling the grand hall to the ceiling, brute-faced Sillaces appears at the large bronze door and looks around for the Parthian King. A hush quells the partying mood as the big man strides through the tables to Orodes who is sitting next to his host. Standing several paces away, he bows low, holding something wrapped in cloth under his arm. Murmurings begin among the guests.

 

Chapter 8

ePub

Next day, the Parthian guards order the prisoners out of Carrhae onto the Road in the direction of the awakening sun. Everyone wonders who will fall victim to the brutality of the morning. All prepare to dive quickly to the ground, hopefully into a gully. But as the sun emerges from the pale blue, the usual signal for the dreaded horseman to arrive, he doesn’t appear.

News of Surena’s fate winds through the straggly line. A ragged cheer breaks out from the tired Romans in stages, as word of the deliverance passes along the Road, whose flatter stones here seem to indicate its relief too. Marcus says to Gaius that Epicurus had a point when he said pleasure is the absence of pain. The big man merely grunts.

Even the Parthians seem pleased, for while admiring his talents, many of them suffered from his dark side. They have a new commander for the march, a junior officer, noted for harshness but not savagery. And so the prisoners know they will live today, unless sickness or unhealed wounds claim their due. It’s a blessing, even when measured against their journey into slavery.

 

Chapter 9

ePub

Lushan, a flamboyant Sogdian merchant just arrived with his caravan, is holding forth in front of an attentive audience. He’s got them spellbound. A picture of what Romans think of the East, he’s a vision of colour and panache. His silk tunic, as blue as lapis, is open to mid chest and gathered by a silver- studded belt. Pearls trim the edges of the garment. Still strange to Marcus, the fabric seems like the surface of a pool, capturing the light and freeing it. He’s embarrassed as he’s caught staring at it – mesmerized by its beauty and the memory of its battle role.

The Sogdian has a narrow black moustache, drawn above his lip as if by an artist’s crayon. Its precision suggests more personal grooming than could ever be contemplated by a Roman, even if moustaches were in fashion. He’s wearing a conical hat, shorter than the type worn by the magi, with silver plaques at the bottom. Loose yellow trousers are stuffed into sharp-toed boots that rise almost to the knee. His well modulated voice is pleasantly refined. Opulence and sophistication seep out of every pore.

 

Chapter 10

ePub

The Hsiung-nu seem to be showing a concern for the safety of the Romans above what might be expected. Of course it’s in their interests to have the potential mercenaries arrive intact but they could just leave them to their own devices along the way and defend them only if an attack materializes. Instead, Jiyu has split his escort so that it protects the Romans in both front and rear. Just what they’re protecting them from isn’t clear. Perhaps it’s the Parthians who might catch up once they notice the escape but that’s not likely now that so much time has passed. It’s certainly not the peaceful Sogdians, nor the usual marauders of the Road; it’s the Hsiung-nu themselves who’re the bandits. Anyway, it’s refreshing to see Roman soldiers valued again – something not evident for such a long time.

Jiyu rides in front by himself, silent and aloof. Just behind are Marcus and Lushan. The merchant is riding competently and is as voluble as ever. As the sun comes up he says;

“We are entering the fearsome Red Desert, home of cobras. Tell your men to be on their guard. These snakes can be very aggressive. Sometimes they even spit their venom. They are liable to slither into the camp looking for food and warmth, even sliding into the bedclothes. Check them every night before you get in. Stamping around usually gets rid of them. Be careful. Their bite out here in the desert will mean certain death”.

 

Chapter 11

ePub

Two expressionless soldiers stand outside the entrance of the tent, armed with long swords and composite bows. They guide Marcus and Lushan through the flap. A slight stoop is necessary, to put visitors in an inferior position. Their eyes take a while to adjust to the dim light inside. Brightly coloured carpets cover the raw ground, overlapping each other to the walls – soft under foot. Some are of thick felt, articulated with animal and abstract designs and others, more refined, are tightly woven and thin, like the ones sold in the Bukhara markets.

In the middle of the tent the Sharnyu sits on a rough wooden chair with arm rests. A guard on either side stands rigid with a vertical banner attached to a spear. The banners have different patterns and colours, presumably belonging to distinct regiments. Marcus has never seen their like before. Flags are always set to flap horizontally not to cling up and down the pole. Body odour fills the tent like smoke and almost causes him to gag. It’s as strong as the stink of a boar’s carcass in the second day; but it’s not a smell of death. Life, sweaty and energetic and disdainful of creature comforts produces it. The foul air projects the savage reputation of these men he’s seeking to join and gives fair warning of the risk he’s taking.

 

Chapter 12

ePub

Jir-Jir leads an eight thousand strong force out of the camp in full panoply. Drums bouncing on the sides of the horses begin the growl of war and regimental banners flash colour onto the steppe. The Romans are on foot in the rear, carrying two standards, one for each century, a sober contrast with the flamboyance of their new comrades. An enterprising man has made them out of found objects.

It’s an odd combination – a barbarian army of horse archers leading the most sophisticated infantry in the world. But Marcus doesn’t think it shameful as once he would. He and his comrades are free and that’s what counts. Besides, proving the merits of the Roman way to the sceptical Sharnyu is a welcome challenge. The pressure is heavier though than in a normal battle where victory solves all. They can be part of a winning event but still fall short of the standards this unpredictable character requires.

It’s just as well that he had the men keep up their skills in the daily practice at Margiana. It was really done for morale boosting but today its effect in the battle could be decisive. He looks at his men steadfastly marching as they used to and feels confidence return – good to be at battle again. The cohort’s like a slack sail without wind tighten up from a new breeze and become full and strong. Today he’ll wipe the slate clean after the ignominy of Carrhae, or die in the attempt. He has no doubt the others feel the same.

 

Chapter 13

ePub

A week later Lushan appears at Marcus’ tent.

“My good friend, I have come to say goodbye. I am off to Samarkand. Jir-Jir has given me an escort. I am very pleased that you have found a place with him and the Hsiung-nu. Your life will be so much better than under the Parthian yoke.”

This is a moment that had to come. As Lushan speaks, nostalgia begins to tug at him. The chances of meeting again are as unlikely as the steppe avoiding the coming freeze. The Sogdian is the first non Roman friend he’s made. He’ll miss him. He’s grown used to his expansive manner and sentimental attitudes – so unlike the Stoic approach but engrossing all the same. In a way Lushan has been a teacher, one who has sympathetically led him to at least a partial understanding of the world outside the Roman imperium. He’s shown him how to see things from the perspective of another culture, a perception seldom experienced by Romans and never before by him.

“Lushan, I’ve been honoured to know you. Who can tell, maybe our paths will cross in the future. I hope so. Anyway, best of luck in your endeavours. You deserve it. You’ve been a good friend to me and my comrades.”

 

Chapter 14

ePub

Far away from Sogdiana, on the eastern portion of the Road and past the great mountain barrier is a lonely outpost in the wilderness. It’s built of mud brick in a low lying oasis on the northern reaches of the Taklamakan desert. In that region, every few kilometres, rammed earth beacon towers, four and a half metres high, rise out of the sands and extend like a necklace all the way to the frontier of the Han Kingdom. Whenever danger breaks out, each tower signals to the next – wood fires at night, black smoke from wolf dung in the day. Arduously collected from the wilds, the dung produces a colour not only aesthetically pleasing but distinguishable from normal fires.

Inside the multi-towered fortress, a hastily called meeting is in progress between Gan Yen-xu, the Protector -General of the Western Region and Chief Commandant of Cavalry and his second in command, Colonel Chen Tang who’s in charge of military operations. Both are relatively young, Gan a few years older than Chen but still in the vigorous part of middle age. The Emperor knows of the hardships facing anyone in the wild west, so remote from civilization that only the hardiest can cope.

 

Chapter 15

ePub

The wooden palisade, its entire length set alight by the flaming arrows, is receding into charred stumps, and the town that was to be Jir-Jir’s permanent residence is slumping into a shapeless mound that will soon be abandoned to oblivion. A senior officer comes up to the Han Commander in Chief and says,

“Colonel Chen, during the battle we saw something curious outside the gate on the eastern side of the town. It seemed like a giant creature covered in fish scales. When we looked closer, it was a group of soldiers with round eyes like Sogdians but in uniforms we’ve never seen before. They’re there now. I counted them. There’re a hundred and forty-five.

“During the battle they showed a lot of discipline, holding their formation stubbornly against our attacks. They may look odd but they’re impressive soldiers, and big, taller than our men.”

The officer leads Chen and other senior commanders over to the Romans. A detachment including Gan and Kang goes with them. The legionaries are silent and still, holding their shields with the bottoms on the ground and their swords pointing down. They’re passive but ready to defend themselves. They expect to die and intend to charge a high price for their lives. It’s what honour demands.

 

Chapter 16

ePub

On the way over to the Headquarters tent Kang asks Marcus to explain to his superiors the Roman custom for celebrating a victory. When they enter the grand structure, as large as Jir-Jir’s he introduces him. Gan says;

“Yes I remember you. What have you got to say?”

“Kang Guiren asked me to tell you what happens if Romans win a big battle. If we do that, the commander is awarded what we call a Triumph. He’s allowed to march his entire army through the city to a sacred hill on top of the forum – our market place. Along the way the troops carry pictures of the victory and the crowd applauds.”

“Protector – General”, Kang says, “This is what I was telling you about. Wouldn’t it be worthwhile to have an artist paint pictures of our victory and send them to the Emperor?”

“What an excellent idea,” Chen says. “It would impress the Court and help persuade the Emperor to pardon us. Nobody has ever done this sort of thing before.”

Somewhat sceptical, Gan says, “Do we have an artist who can do it?”

 

Chapter 17

ePub

The weather is clear and warm as the troops wind through the dense forest that hugs the lower slope. As they ascend, the trees grow at steeper and steeper angles, and conifers start to appear. It’s really a walk at first but after several hours it becomes a climb, though not requiring skill. The temperature is noticeably dropping. They’re coming close to the clouds which glide over the peaks in white and grey shapes, like ships. They tease the eye, covering everything then opening up patches of empyreal blue. A rainbow from a recent shower shines in the distance.

Little white flowers peek out of the underbrush. And large blossoms in clusters of brilliant reds, mauves and pinks on trees with twisted branches paint blocks of colour on the mountainside and in the valleys below. Monkeys sit in the taller trees and gossip about the strange intruders who have no right to come into their abode.

It’s a relief from the grimness of the steppe. Here everything has a green presence, green in all shades and textures, moist and luxuriant green. It’s hard; it’s soft, sometimes threatening in its impenetrable mass, other times seductive and mysterious. Like siblings, its forms compete with each other for attention. At altitude, dwarf bamboo plants in pale green appear and eventually give way to the darkness of conifers. Meadows like lawns are revealed without warning, so smooth they could have been scythed by human hand. Sometimes they surround tumbling streams which carve the host rock as if with a white knife and crash in misting cascades. Often they’re flat like balconies in the sky. On one of these the Romans spend their first night.

 

Chapter 18

ePub

He’s pushed roughly into a small lightless cell. Nothing is in it except a bucket in the corner, no bed, no chairs, just a blank mud brick enclosure with no windows. The door slams shut with a harsh rattle and a key scrapes in the lock. He’s been deprived of his liberty before but never locked up. On one level it’s frightening, being alone in the dark with no idea for how long – people grow blind without light after a while, but on another, its horror is assuaged by the events in the hall. His sprits soar out of the cell as he savours the one thought that comes to him over and over again. He’s done what was needed to placate the Eumenides. Now he can breathe without a clamp on his heart. Deep down at the spiritual level he feels a new sense of freedom. He doesn’t care about his incarceration. It’s sure not to last long; something will happen to release him.

The night passes well, though he has difficulty sleeping on the stone floor. The torturing birds don’t appear. While the tormentors didn’t come every night, the threat was never absent. This time is different; he knows they’ll leave him in peace now.

 

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