Palmyrian Night #1

Palmyra tower

“If you want to understand today, you have to search yesterday.” – Pearl Buck.

Bardisan woke up with a groggy haze filling his heavy head. His conscious mind struggled to find a sensible thought among the jumbled fog of sleep and bleary-eyed laziness. Meanwhile, his instincts seemed to be screaming inside his own skull.

“Someone knocks at the door!” The voice in the back of his head screeched. “It’s night, get up!”

Focusing his gaze with teeth-clenching effort on the oil lamp beside his bed and the sputtering, murky orange glow of its flame, Bard was able to clear some of the mist from his eyes. Now he clearly heard the hard knuckles rapping against the cracking wood of the door.

He leapt to his feet, snatched a sword from the headboard, drew the small blade and flew across the room in a great lunge. At least, that was what he intended to do. However, the room was barely larger than a slave’s cell. The door would only open halfway before it struck the edge of his bed.

Bardisan’s arms became tangled in the bedsheets, the sword tearing them to ribbons as he unsheathed it. His great leap sent his shoulder jarring into the far wall, his shins cracked against the cedar chest where his most prized possessions were kept and the tall man crumpled in a moaning heap on the floor.

The door creaked ajar and met his dazed head with a dull thud. An elderly woman’s voice called through the opening.

“Bard, you asked me to wake you at sundown. Where are you? He’s not here? Well, I shan’t be waking him again. Taking all the time forcing my weary bones up those stairs.” Her voice slowly faded into a soft mutter as the landlady shuffled away down the corridor.

As he was already up, or rather down, Bardisan decided he would head off without further ado. Kicking on a pair of tattered sandals, the straps hardly more than frayed leather threads, he hoisted his body up to the narrow window and slithered out into the cool night air.

He crept down dusty alleyways between tall sandstone walls, slunk along streets ranged with high marble columns, and finally arrived on the outskirts of the city. Behind him, Palmyra slept peacefully beneath an endless black sky picked out with tiny points of brilliant starlight. From a distance, it seemed like a sort of paradise, white-walled houses and brightly painted temples nestled in a broad green oasis at the desert’s fiery heart.

“Not now, Bard.” He whispered to himself, turning away from the city.

Ahead of him, a towering oblong structure rose like a jutting finger from the sand-whipped earth. Its sides were sheer and a single black doorway gaped at its wide base. It was a tomb.

Bardisan slithered closer on his belly, careful not to let his sword rattle in its scabbard. His keen eyes had already detected a man’s figure standing guard at the foot of the tower. The soldier’s cloak flapped around him in the nocturnal breeze and his thick armour gleamed dully in the starlight. But he was asleep, hanging on the shaft of his stout javelin like it was a crutch.

The master thief stood and tiptoed up to the slumbering sentry. He began to fish around inside his pockets, fumbling at a wooden button, a small amulet and a spool of thread. Finally, his fingertip brushed against something hard and cold. It was a small nub of iron, an ancient coin worn down to a pea-sized, misshapen lump by centuries of use.

He was so close to the other man’s face that he could feel hot breath on his cheeks. But he knew the Roman wouldn’t wake. Bardisan was more silent and subtle than a skulking adder when night had fallen. It was as if darkness embraced his being, enveloping him in its shadowy stillness.

Bardisan reached out a deft, steady hand and deposited the lumpen metal inside a fold of the soldier’s tunic. He was better than a common thief, knowing as he did that nothing was free and a price must always be paid, but he never passed up a bargain.

Over the Roman legionary’s shoulder, the cavernous blackness of the doorway seemed to yawn wider, drawing Bardisan towards it. He faltered, knowing that what lay inside had a value beyond counting, beyond imagining.

Its worth was greater than the imperial treasury, less than a grain of salt, truly priceless.

Read the latest Palmyra news here (BBC) and click here (Sacred Destinations) to find out more about the city’s fascinating history.

For something similar, and an excellent read, check out Emperor and Prophet on one of my favourite blogs (John’s Life and Travels)!

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