waves, and we were covered with salty spume. Bethesda blinked and shivered and at last took her eyes from the Pharos. She looked at me dully. 'Husband, what's happening?'

'I'm not sure,' I said. 'Perhaps we should take shelter aft.' I took her arm, intending to guide her and my other charges to the small cabin at the stern of the ship. But it was too late. The storm, arising from nowhere, was upon us, and the captain made a frantic gesture ordering us to stay where we were, out of his sailors' way. 'Grab hold of whatever you can!' he shouted, his voice barely audible above a sudden shriek of wind. Raindrops stung my face and left grit in my mouth. Sand grated against my teeth; I cursed and spat. I had heard of such storms when I lived at Alexandria but had never experienced one-whirling desert sandstorms that swept out over the sea, combining with furious rainstorms to pelt wind-tossed ships with both water and earth. Once after such a storm a ship had sailed into the harbor at Alexandria weighted down with sand, the broiling sun having burned away the water to leave miniature sand dunes piled high on the decks.

The red light of the rising sun became a memory, banished by howling darkness. Bethesda pressed close to me. I opened my eyes just enough to see that Rupa was nearby, clutching the boys with both arms, yet somehow managing to hold fast to the ship's rail. Mopsus and Androcles hid their faces against his broad chest.

As quickly as it had struck, the lashing wind died down. The howling diminished but did not cease; it seemed merely to draw back in all directions, surrounding us but no longer touching us. A hole opened in the sky above us, showing an incongruous patch of blue amid the swirling darkness all around.

'Can you see the lighthouse?' Bethesda whispered.

I gazed beyond the prow into a mist of deepest purple pierced by flashes of opalescent gray. I saw no hint of the horizon, much less a glimpse of the Pharos beacon. I had the uncanny sensation that Alexandria no longer lay off the prow, anyway; the ship had been so spun about that I couldn't begin to guess which direction was southward. I looked at the captain, who stood amidships, breathing hard but otherwise stock-still, gripping a taut length of rigging with such force that his knuckles were white.

'Have you ever seen a storm like it?' I said, lowering my voice instead of raising it, for the circle of stillness around the ship was unnerving.

The captain made no answer, but from his silence I knew that he was as confounded as I was. 'Strange days,' he finally said, 'in the heavens as on earth.'

The comment required no explanation. Everywhere and at all times men were on the lookout for portents and omens. Since the day that Caesar crossed the Rubicon River and marched on Rome with his army, drawing the whole world into ruinous civil war, not a day had passed that could be called normal. I myself had witnessed battles on sea and on land, had been trapped in cities under siege, had been nearly trampled by starving, desperate citizens rioting in the Roman Forum. I had seen men burned alive at sea and men drowned in a tunnel beneath the earth. I had done things of which I had previously thought myself incapable-killed a man in cold blood, disowned my beloved son, fallen in love with a stranger who died in my arms. I had deliberately turned my back on Caesar and his mad ambitions, yet Caesar continued to call me his friend; I had done a better job of alienating Caesar's rival Pompey, who had tried to strangle me with his own hands. Chaos reigned on earth, and in the heavens men beheld its reflection: Birds were seen to fly backwards; temples were struck by lightning; blood red clouds formed visions of contesting armies. In the days just before we left for Alexandria, word had reached Rome of a momentous turn of events: Caesar and Pompey had met at Pharsalus in Greece, and, if the reports could be trusted, Pompey's forces had been utterly destroyed. The world held its breath, awaiting the next gambit in the great game. It was no surprise, then, that in such an uncanny storm, a man like our captain could not help but see yet another manifestation of the chaos that had been loosed by the dogs of war.

As if to confirm this superstitious dread, the circle of blue sky above us abruptly vanished, and the ship was again lashed by rain. But this rain carried no grit; something larger struck my face, startling me. Bethesda slid downward, eluding my embrace. She knelt to pick up the thing that flopped about on the deck. It slipped from her fingers, but she nimbly retrieved it. I gave a start and shuddered, expecting Bethesda to squeal and cast the wriggling creature away from her, but instead she cradled it in her hands and cooed with delight.

'Do you see what it is, Husband? A tiny Nile frog! From out of the sky, and miles from the Delta. Impossible, yet here it is! It must be a sign from the gods, surely!'

'But a sign of what?' I whispered, grunting in disgust as another of the clammy creatures fell from the sky and struck my face. I looked about and saw that the deck was alive with the leaping creatures. Some of the sailors laughed; some wrinkled their noses in disgust; some jumped to avoid being touched by the frogs and bellowed in fright.

A flash of lightning split the sky, followed almost at once by a peal of thunder that rattled my teeth. The frog in Bethesda's hands leaped free, over the parapet and into the void. The deck spun beneath our feet, making me dizzy. I was overwhelmed by a strange illusion that the wind had borne the ship aloft and that we were skimming above the waves, flying through the air.

I lost all sense of time, but hours must have passed while we clutched at one another and braced ourselves against the power of the storm. Then, at last, the sea abruptly grew calm. Black clouds receded in all directions, tumbling back upon themselves so that they seemed to pile up at the distant horizons like mountain walls, steep, polished, and black, tipped along their ragged crests with fire, and opening ever and again with flashes of intolerable splendor, while the bases were scrawled over with lightning like a written scroll. The sun above our heads was small and as red as blood, obscured by a thin, black shroud of vapor. Never in all my travels on land or sea had I beheld anything like the uncanny light that suffused the world in that moment-a lurid glow that seemed to come from no particular direction. But before us, far in the distance, there was one break of clear blue sky on the horizon, where yellow light shone upon a sparkling emerald sea. The captain saw the opening in the gloom and ordered his men to sail toward it.

The sail was unfurled. The oarsmen returned to their places. The break on the horizon was so distinct that I almost expected to emerge from the gloom all at once, as one emerged from the mouth of a cave. Instead, as the oarsmen made steady progress, raising and dipping their oars in unison, we moved gradually from a world of darkness into a world of light. Above our heads the black mist thinned and dispersed, and the sun turned from blood red to gold. To our right, a strip of low brown land appeared on the horizon; we were proceeding eastward, and the westering sun, warming our rain-soaked shoulders and backs, was at least a couple of hours past midday. I looked over the parapet and saw that the water was a confluence of green and brown, the brown being mud from the Nile. The storm had blown us well past Alexandria, to some point beyond the broad, fan-shaped Delta of the Nile.

So set was the captain on reaching calmer waters that he took no notice of the several ships that lay dead ahead of us, their sails as bright as ivory in the glaring sunlight. Some of the vessels appeared to be warships. Such a group, encountered closer to Alexandria, would have given no cause for alarm, for there the harbor and its guardian fleet would have offered protection from vagabonds and pirates. But our location appeared to be far from any port or harbor of consequence, so that we might as well have been on the open sea. We were acutely vulnerable to robbery and attack. Even as I was considering this, the captain finally appeared to take notice of the vessels ahead of us. He gave an order to veer southward, toward land, even though that arid, featureless strip of shoreline appeared to offer very little in the way of succor or concealment.

But the other ships had already spotted us, and whatever their intentions, seemed unwilling to let us go without an encounter. Two smaller vessels struck out toward us.

The captain maintained a cool expression, only a slight squint betraying his anxiety as he peered toward the pursuing ships; but in his command to the rowers to accelerate, a note of fear rang out as clearly as a trumpet's call. They doubled their speed so abruptly that the deck gave a slight lurch beneath us.

'Rupa!' I said, intending merely to gain his attention; but the hulking mute anticipated my query, and reached into his tunic to discreetly show me that his dagger was readily at hand. Little Mopsus, seeing the glint of Rupa's blade, swallowed hard. His younger brother seized the occasion to give him a teasing nudge. I found myself jealous of Androcles's naive courage. There are few fates more dreaded by travelers than the prospect of being boarded at sea by hostile sailors, far from any prospect of rescue. Even the mercy of the gods is rarely known to be dispensed at sea; perhaps the glint of sunlight on water obscures their view from the heavens. I reached into my tunic to test the grip of my own dagger. If worse came to worst, I might at least be able to spare Bethesda the degradations of capture at sea. With streaks of silver in her black hair, she might no longer be young, but even in her weakened state she was still desirable, at least to my eyes.

We made good speed, but the pursuing ships were faster. As the shoreline drew only slightly closer, the pursuers bore down on us, their white sails full of wind. Armed men populated the decks. They were warships, not

Вы читаете The judgement of Caesar
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