Beth touched the arch with gentle reverence and peered under it.
With the arch as a starting place, they were able to find the outlines of some other structures under the sand. It was Jonathan who found the outline of a door, a closed door, that looked like it led into a dune.
"Nicely done, Jonathan," said Beth, helping clear the sand from the door.
With all the sand cleared from the door, Johnathan tried to open it.
The door was difficult to open, but eventually they managed to swing it wide. Inside it was black against the dimness of the night.
"All this sand hasn't done these hinges a bit of good over the years," said Beth.
Jonathan struck a match and by that light they could see that they had uncovered something that looked like a Roman villa with a few modifications for a desert climate; galleries were covered rather than exposed, heavy shutters were on all the windows and so on. Before the match flamed out, they could see that the villa had several rooms and chambers.
"It's very exciting, but it could be dangerous," said Beth, master of the obvious. "I think however we proceed, we should always have one or two persons behind in case of cave-in or attack." She looked into the blackness, "It seems we aren't going to do as much good continuing at night. Perhaps we should head back to the oasis and try to get as much rest as possible to continue by daylight."
"Good idea Beth," replied Jonathan, "let's do that."
By daylight, they were able to get a better idea of the scope of the ruins. They extended over a reasonable amount of ground, it had clearly been a large village, small town or outpost of comparable size. They were able to identify twenty or thirty buildings, now that they had an idea of what to look for, and could guess at the location of more buildings as well as where parks or markets and streets had likely been. By nightfall they had picked out several buildings to investigate further, including the first one they had found.
The next morning, they ventured in. The initial impression of a Roman villa was borne out on further exploration. To the admittedly untrained eyes of the party, the architecture, layout and decoration were Romanesque and remarkably well preserved. There did not seem to be many artifacts around, though. The building was an empty villa. The second building was much the same story, although it appeared to be a public bath rather than a villa.
"I expected..." said Beth, searching for the right words. "When I thought about it, I pictured furniture and cooking pots and the diversions these people used in everyday life, but it seems like they may have left long before the sands took over the city."
They followed the same pattern for a few days; exploring the ruins, entering buildings where they could, finding a few items which looked interesting, but mostly finding empty buildings.
The morning on the third day, they were investigating a bathhouse. Jonathan had left the others inside to fetch a canteen from camp. He had only gone a few paces, when a familiar sounds came to him. It was so out of place it took him a few moments to recognize it - hoofbeats, horse hoofbeats; it sounded like a troop of cavalry descending on the town.
Johnathan dived back into the bathhouse, taking cover in the doorway, saying "It sounds like we have some company, quite a few horsemen, I would guess."
Then, just to be safe, he checked that his pistol was fully loaded.
"I had a suspicion it was a little too quiet for a little too long, said Elizabeth.
The hoofbeats came closer, they could soon be heard in the bathhouse. From the doorway, Jonathan and Beth caught a glimpse of the riders. They were swathed in cloth, as was typical for the climate, but their equipage had an antique feel; bows and swords and spears, but not of African design, and no firearms. The troop pulled up and someone snapped out what sounded like orders. The shock was the language, both recognized it as Latin.
"Good God!" exclaimed Johnathan quietly, "Was that really Latin?!"
"I think we should keep the firearms as a last resort," he continued, "an 'ace in the hole' as it were. Let's watch them for a bit and see what they do, wat?"
With admirable precision, the horsemen broke up into groups of five and separated. One troop headed toward the oasis - and the English camp, four more scattered out to what was clearly a search pattern, and the last, including the leader, rode to the top of a dune to get a view of the area. All were soon lost to sight, except the last group.
"They're fine horsemen, in any case," said Elizabeth. "It seems they know we're here. I do hope they're friendly."
The English huddled in their bathhouse and watched. Occasional noises drifted to them from outside but nothing much seemed to happen for nearly half an hour.
At that time, one of the squads returned carrying with them objects which had clearly come from the camp at the oasis. There was a short discussion, then the man leading the squadron saluted the other and the words, "Ave, Centurion!" came clearly on the wind.
He took his squad off again, back in the direction he had come.
"Centurion?!" gasped Beth, under her breath. "Do you suppose there are really a hundred of them out here?"
She thought for a moment.
"Do you suppose they're really Roman soldiers?" "When was the last time anyone saw a Centurion?" she continued to muse.
"Well, I certainly wish it was still fourteen hundred years ago myself," Johnathan replied, "oh well. Do we want them to find us so we can learn more of them? if so, perhaps we should 'give ourselves up', as it were ... what do you think?"
"It's a thought," mused Beth, "but perhaps not all of us should deliver ourselves into the hands of the unknown. I'm still healing this shoulder and I'm no good with a gun, so perhaps I should pop my head out."
"No, on second thoughts, I don't think it's particularly wise," replied Johnathan, "Let's just wait and see what they do ..."
As time passed, it became clear that a fairly extensive search was under way. After an hour or two, they heard a search party approaching their bathhouse and it seemed likely the entrance would be discovered.
"Urgh..." said Elizabeth.
"Do you think it would help if we came traipsing from the bathhouse, not a care in the world, as if we didn't know they were there? Hiding for hours seems like a weak position to start from."
"Good point," replied Johnathan, "Shall we then?"
"We're right behind you, Sandy," said Beth.
The company trooped out, all innocence. Almost immediately a cry was raised and several dismounted troopers closed in on them, with drawn swords - gladiia (gladiuses?) on the Roman model.
They were questioned quickly in Latin, which questioning, of course, they did not understand.
"Calm down," says Johnathan, hands raised, "We mean you no harm ..."
Jonathan had spoken in English and got only a blank look from his interrogator. He tried again in Swahili.
"You speak the degenerate tongue of the locals then?" said the man. "Good. Then be aware you are the prisoner of Centurion Regulus. Accompany me now to the Centurion."
After translating the conversation to the others, Johnathan continued, "I have learnt it from them, yes, and we will meet with your Centurion; lead on."
"Amor vincent omnia," said Elizabeth cheerfully.
The soldier led them up the hill to where the officer waited. They exchanged a few sentences in rapid-fire Latin, then the Centurion turned to them. "I am Regulus, Centurion of this Century of men," he said in Swahili (except for the words Centurion and Century, of course). "Who are you and what is your business here?"
"Is there any reason not to tell him the truth -- or a version of it?" asked Beth. "It was Rose's parents' dying request that we come back to the lost city they discovered...? Surely even a Centurion understands 'dying wish'."
"I can think of none - Rose? do you have any objections?" asked Johnathan
"No," replied Rose. "Pray carry on Beth, Sandy."
Beth nudged Jonathan. "Yes, Sandy, tell the nice man about your Uncle Algie's deathbed request."
Johnathan replied to the Centurion - "My Uncle found these ruins shortly before he died, and we came to explore them at his request. And why are you here, Centurion?"
"Do not presume to question me, outlander. What are your names?" asked the Centurion. After the party had given their names, the Centurion continued, "You are not like the barbarians, whence come you?"
"I do believe that was a compliment of sorts," said Beth, when Sandy had translated.
"From over the sea, from the island of Brittania," replied Johnathan
"Brittania? I had believed it to be inhabited by blue-painted wildmen and little else," said the centurion. "No matter. Come, let us return to the city. My men shall bring your equipage, here comes one now with your beasts." A soldier approached leading the camels.
"Rose... Sandy..." whispered Elizabeth, "These men aren't just hanging on to the glory of the Roman Empire -- they're actually living it! Either they're stark raving and very thorough about it or they're caught in some sort of time anomaly."
After a moment's thought, she added, "But they do seem to be fairly reasonable and courteous for all that."
Soon the party was mounted and travelling north and east across the desert. A core group of horsemen was with them always, including the leader, but detachments were always coming and going as they travelled. Their host, or captor, it was sometimes hard to tell, asked them questions as they rode, about life in Britannia, and the outside world. "Are you Roman citizens then? Or native Britons?" he asked.
"Oh we are citizens of the greatest empire the world has ever seen, have no fear of that," replied Johnathan, exquisitely truthful, as ever.
"Good, good," the man nodded. "How is it, then, you speak no Latin?"
"A good question," Johnathan appended to his translation, "Any ideas, ladies?"
Beth sighed. "I fear a history lesson and a treatise on the Church of England would only confuse matters. Perhaps you should tell him we have little contact with those who speak Latin. It's certainly true, and doesn't leave us trying to tell him he's obsolete."
Johnathan passed along Beth's words of wisdom to the centurion.
"But surely Latin is still the language of the Empire?" he asked, "And as citizens you must speak it."
"Oh, dear," said Beth. "Do we have any choice but to try to explain the situation as we see it?"
"I really don't think that's wise," replied Johnathan, "Perhaps I can try another tack ..."
To the Centurion, Johnathan explained, "No, that's not the case. Coming as we do from the edge of the Empire, not everyone speaks Latin as their normal tongue. Although we all know a smattering of it, we use a language known as English for everyday use."
"Well done," said Beth.
"Ah," said the Centurion, and seemed satisfied.
Travelling by paths visible only to themselves, the party made quick progress. As night fell, they arrived at what looked like a small permanent structure - a stone fort. A detachment of cavalry which had ridden ahead rode out and reported to the Centurion who nodded.
With incredible efficiency the cavalry installed themselves in the fort and the Centurion put them into a pair of rooms, one for the ladies and one for the men. "I am sorry I can not offer you the amenity of a bath," he said. "Water must be hauled to this fort and we cannot spare any for bathing. The evening meal will be prepared soon." He left, leaving the English alone in their suite.
The suite was spartan, but clean, with small windows and a door that could be barred from the outside.
Johnathan paced aorund their suite, pausing to look out the window and survey the view. "Well, this is a fine situation," he announced to all, "what do you think we'll find?"
"Well, the Romans seem to be treating us with some measure of respect. I take comfort in that," said Elizabeth, brushing her finger across a window sill as she looked out. "Do you suppose these Centurions are descendants who don't realise their empire is fallen? Could the Romans have come here and never communicated with their capitol city?"
She paused. "Has anyone seen any women?"
Godfrey shook his head.
"Not I," said Rose. "This seems to be a military party."
"I fear the idea of descendants falls apart, then."
"Why Beth?" asked Johnathan, "They are obviously taking us somewhere - I had assumed it would be their home - a city of somesort, perhaps. I am sure that we will see their womenfolk there ..."
"Good thinking, Sandy. I'm not quite ready to accept time travel or ghost legions. The possibility of a stranded army is much easier to fathom."
"And if that's the case," continued Johnathan, "Surely it's our duty to bring them into the delights of the nineteenth century ... isn't it? Beth, Rose, what do you think? should we tell them the truth?"
"True. I also wonder if they might not be quite so courteous if they think we're mad. Is there any way to prove this to them if they question our sanity -- or motives?"
"I think it would be unfeasibly difficult ..." mused Johnathan. "Perhaps it would be wiser to continue the pretence for now until such time as we know their intent towards us."
"Status quo, then," said Beth. "My Latin gets better the longer we're here."
"Superb!" replied Johnathan, "I only wish mine did too!"
After a wait of nearly an hour, a trooper opened the door. He indicated that they were to follow, but apparently did not speak Swahili. He had exchanged his armour for a toga and sandals and carried only a knife. The English followed him down a flight of stairs into a dining room where a simple, but sufficient, repast had been prepared. The centurion, also togate, greeted them and invited them to sit and refresh themselves.
Dinner was plain and conversation was general, limited as it was by the language barrier. After dinner, the Centurion summoned the Trooper. "Darius will show you to your rooms. We leave shortly after dawn."
"Will you ask him where we're going, Sandy?"
"But of course," replied Johnathan and he asked the Centurion what the group's destination was and how long the trip would take.
"We travel to Kanum, our city. We should be there in three days," said the Centurion. "It will be good to be home."
"Kanum?" asked Elizabeth. "I wonder if we're headed back to our Kano... I don't recall Kanum on the map."
"I doesn't seem likely," said Rose. "Although, perhaps the names are related."
Their host watched their jibber-jabber politely, though without comprehension.
"I hope the Roman guard doesn't think us rude," said Beth, blushing. "Please translate for him, Sandy. It's inconsequential, but at least he'll know it for himself."
Johnathan translated for the group's host, trying to explain about Kano as he did so.
Their host nodded and smiled, "Barbarians often corrupt the true Latin names of places into their local tongues. But I do not think this Kano of which you speak is Kanum, we would have seen you were that so."
The next morning, true to the centurion's words, they were on the road early. They travelled all day in much the same mode as they had the day before, with patrols ranging ahead and to the sides of the main body. Late afternoon brought them to another small stone fort in the desert, and with the efficiecy the company was beginning to expect, the fort was made ready for habitation.
This fort was built around an oasis, which meant it boasted a bath and the Centurion invited the company to join him in a soak after dinner. "We have no slaves and stirgils, so we cannot offer you every amenity, but a warm soak will go a long way toward easing the pains of the road."
"Thank the gentleman for me -- us -- would you, Sandy? They are treating us very well for captives, don't you think?"
"They certainly are," replied Johnathan, "which is a good sign, I think. But what is a stirgil?"
"I believe it is a scraper that removes perspiration and dirt from a body," said Beth. "Sandy, I can't believe we didn't think of this before! Our captors seem friendly enough -- respectful, at lease -- perhaps we could ask our Centurion about the lost city. And maybe we could ask what they intend for us once we reach Kanum as well."
Johnathan asked the Centurion what they could expect when they reached their destination
"Kanum is as modern a city as any in the Empire," said the man. "And more beautiful than many, for the local stone from which it is built is of high quality. There are aquaducts, baths, a theatre and all things neccessary for a full life."
"What is our role to be in this marvelous city?" prompted Elizabeth, nudging Sandy gently.
After Sandy translated, the Centurion answered, "That is up to the Consul. Since you are citizens, I would assume you will be our guests until you choose to depart. What was your goal in seeking us?"
"We were seeking the city in which you found us. It was only by good fortune that we met you," said Beth to Sandy to translate.
"You sought the ruins? Why? What interest could they be to you?" he asked.
"Because Rose's parents found them on a trip and wished us to return to explore them," prompted Beth.
The centurion nodded sagely, "Duty to parents. Most suitable. Where are your parents now?"
"They are no more," said Rose. The centurion made appropriate noises of consolation. "I am fatigued. I think I shall retire." Rose rose to depart.
"Of course," the Centurion said. "We shall wake you in the morning."
Beth made her excuses and followed Rose. "We're far from the Lost City," she said, "but it is fascinating to be in the company of a long-lost civilisation."