we want our money.

Get out! the fellow shouts back. Leave my home! I have taken nothing!

Flag seizes him by the gullet and jams him against the wall. Tollo and Little Red begin overturning furniture, what few sticks there are; they bowl over the cooking kettle, kicking the flat loaves across the floor. By now half the street is pressing tight about us, all bawling in indignation, and all proclaiming innocence. Lucas and I are certain we have made a mistake. We must’ve lost the money somewhere else! Leave these poor people alone!

The barber’s face has gone purple. He is gagging and calling on the gods to witness his blamelessness.

“Flag! They’re innocent! Let’s go!”

Flag ignores me, dumps the barber, and snatches up a small boy who is clinging in terror to the old man’s breeches.

“Whose brat is this?”

The haircutter makes no reply. No one does. But clearly the child is his.

Flag turns to Tollo. “Cut his foot off.”

Tollo and Little Red spreadeagle the boy. The child is screaming blue murder. Tollo unsheathes his edge. The mob begins brandishing their own daggers. Lucas and I beg Flag to stop. Flag looks to the barber. “Where’s the money?” No response. To the mother. Nothing. He signs to Tollo. Up goes the sword.

At the last instant a girl-child wails, indicating a corner of the dirt floor. Her mother wallops her across the face. Chaos redoubles. Flag probes where the girl has pointed. Up comes our wallet.

Outside on the street, Lucas and I can’t stop shaking.

“Liars and thieves,” Tollo is muttering. “Every one of ’em.”

We try to give Flag part of our recovered cash. He won’t take it. “Mark one thing,” he says, directing our attention back to the barber’s hut. “If Little Sis hadn’t squealed, Mom and Pop would’ve let us take their son’s foot.”

He is right.

“And would you have taken it?”

Flag doesn’t answer. “They’ll beat the hell out of that little girl now. Thrash her within an inch of her life.”

Three days later we’re humping up the pass out of the Reghez Valley. I have a sixty-pound pannier across my back and a counter-pack, half that again, in front; the rope straps are gouging my shoulders raw. Flag falls into step alongside. “You’re thinking again, aren’t you?”

And he smiles and treks on.

To watch Flag march is like watching water flow. His skull is the color of parchment; the sun might as well be beating on stone. He can feel my gaze tracking him. “You’re wondering what a soldier is, aren’t you?”

I tell him I am.

He indicates a laden beast, mounting the track before us.

“We’re mules, lad. Mules that kill.”


It takes our column of replacements 127 days out of Tripolis to catch up, at last, with the trailing elements of Alexander’s army. We have trekked 1,696 miles, according to the army surveyors (who measure the roads down to the half-hand’s-breadth), crossing all of Syria and most of Mesopotamia, Media, Mardia, Hyrcania, and no small portions of Parthia and Areia. I have gone through three pairs of road-beaters and my march-pay twice over. My kit is rags. I arrive at the front-if such a term can be used for a war that is prosecuted across a theater 1,000 miles broad and 900 deep-already three months in debt. So does everyone else.

When you march long distances in column, you pass the time by landmarks. Say you come over a rise into a desert valley, a pan twenty or fifty miles across. You’ll set your object as the hills on the far side and march to that, marking your progress as you approach. That will be your day. Or you’ll pick out intermediate landmarks, little hills, washes, dry riverbeds-wadis or nullahs, as they call them out east.

You can see weather for miles, crossing Media and Hyrcania. Squalls play across the pans at midday. Rain falls on one section of the column but not another. You’ll see precipitation sheet from the bellies of the clouds, never to reach the ground but burning away high in the heat of the air. Great shadows play across the plains, making the earth dark in one spot, bright in another, in shifting patterns as the clouds transit the sky. Thunderheads collect over the mountains; you get downpours late in the day.

Alexander’s commanders will not stand for a body of men straggling in one long column; it’s unsightly and unmilitary; you can’t fight from such a formation. So when terrain permits, the troops are fanned out ten or fifteen columns across. This is good because when you reach camp, the whole body can catch up in an hour instead of four. The column packs up everything at night, so it’s ready to go in the dark before dawn. Cavalry other than reconnaissance ride their horses sparingly on the march; they tramp on foot alongside, to conserve the animals’ strength. Grooms lead a remount in each hand. Horses are never permitted to herd on their own, even at rivers where they water. Otherwise they’ll revert to equine hierarchies and be worthless as cavalry.

Crossing Media, we see game in abundance. Gazelle and wild asses; the column spots them from miles, trailing their dust in the clear air. Hunting parties are organized like military operations: Divisions send mounted companies to envelop the game, circling as widely as twenty miles sometimes to cut off the herds’ flight, drive them into rope pens if they have time to rig them, or simply run them to exhaustion on the open plain. Riders return with meat for the army’s pots. This is great sport; everyone wants to go. It breaks the monotony.

An army passing through a territory attracts commerce and curiosity of every kind. Actors have come out from Ephesus and Smyrna; we have dancers and acrobats, harpers and reciters, poets, rhapsodes; even sophists offering lectures, which to my astonishment are actually attended. I took in a fascinating one on solid geometry in the middle of a thunderstorm on the High Line in Armenia. Between camps the caravan traders, or just natives loading up asses with anything they can sell, trek alongside the column, peddling dates and sheep, pistachio beer, eggs, meat, cheese. What do the lads crave most? Fresh onions. Back home onions go to flavor a stew. Out here you eat ’em raw. They taste sweet as apples. A man’ll give half a day’s pay for a good onion. They keep your teeth from falling out.

I have a fiancee at home. Her name is Danae. On the march I write letters to her in my head. I talk about money, not love. When we get married, Danae and I will need the equivalent of six years’ pay to make an offer on a farm, since neither of us wish to be beholden to our families. I will volunteer for Forward Operations, first chance I get. Double pay. I cannot tell Danae this. She will worry.

There are many things a fellow cannot tell his sweetheart. Women for one. An army travels accompanied by a second army of whores and trollops, not to mention the camp wives, who constitute a more permanent auxiliary, and when these melt away in “wolf country,” enemy territory, their numbers are made up by locals. We have heard much about the Asiatic’s sequestration of his women, and no doubt this is true in normal times. But when an army as laden with plunder as Alexander’s passes through, even the most hawkeyed patriarch can’t keep watch over his daughters forever. The maids dog the column, seeking novelty, freedom, romance, and even the lamest scuff can gin them down to nothing for a quick roll-me-over. The girls’ll even stay to mend kit and do the laundry. Half the young cooches are blinkered-with child, that is-made so by our fellows passing through with Alexander months before. This doesn’t stop us from stropping them. Not me of course, or Lucas. We hold true to our girls back home, much to the amusement of our comrades.

Tollo is the primary fig-hound. He’s sluicing the natives two at a time. “One on each hip,” he says, “just to keep warm.” Tollo’s Color Sergeant pay, counting bonuses, is four drachmas a day (four times my packet). You can buy a house for that here, or hire half a village to do any labor you want.

The army has its own language. “Steam” is soldiers’ slang for women. Dish. Fig. Cooch. Hank or bert (from the native tallabert, “mother”) for an Afghan. The locals have their slang for us too. Mack. Scuff. Bullah (from their word for “stupid”). Sex is qum-qum. The enemy himself our lads call “Baz,” the most common name for an Afghan male-as in, “Baz is out there tonight.”

Women are of two types in Areia and Afghanistan. Those beneath the protection of fathers and brothers are called tir bazal, “the jewel.” If you so much as glance at them, their people will slit your throat. The other type has

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