Maybe it was the heat. Or the dust. Or the flies. Or all three. The sun hammered down and the dust rose up and hell, that’s just how it was in Sicily. Then we got off the ships and looked around and Africa wasn’t any better, especially since we were camping in a ruined city. So we grumbled. Most of us just lay about in whatever shadows we could find and watched them disembarking the machinery and spat whenever another batch of Domitius’s deserters marched in. But some people went poking around the ruins. Looking back, it’s like we all went mad for a while, but it didn’t seem so then.
I don’t remember who I heard it from. I’d say Marcus Canutius, because he’s always the first to hear anything, but he was one of the deserters and I didn’t meet him till we fought the Cyclops in Spain. So it must have been Aulus Rufus or Titus Balbus who said someone had found a cache of ancient geared messenger-pigeons buried in the ruins. That wasn’t the interesting bit. I mean, messenger-pigeons are two-a-quadrans, our machinators had bushels of them to keep communication lines open with Rome. But these weren’t Roman. And they were made of gold.
Gold. You never heard a deeper silence. We’d camped in the ruins of Carthage, see. Everyone knows the Carthaginians never used bronze or iron if they could use gold instead.
Next thing I knew, I had a spade in my hands and I was digging like crazy. Wasn’t just me, either. Everyone was out there. There was dust everywhere, columns of it puffing up from our boots and our digging. It clouded round the military automata, which had been abandoned by their machinators and stood among the tumbled walls like dusty metal ghosts. Everyone was feverish. Gold does that. I remember thinking I could find my fortune here – and not much else.
I don’t know how long it took to dig up Carthage. On the first day, the dragon’s son rushed out of his big tent and stared around, amazed and bewildered. “What the hell are you doing?” he demanded. “Who gave the orders for this?”
The dust was already up to my knees. I’d served with the dragon himself, Ol’ Squinty, in the Marsic War, or I might not have been so quick to sing out, “Looking for Carthaginian gold, sir!”
He turned on me. “Doing what?”
“There’s gold here!” carolled I, half-drunk on heat and greed. “Them Carthaginians buried it so we wouldn’t get it. But we will now!”
And then I raised my shovel and saluted him and got digging again, and whatever else he said, I didn’t hear a thing. Time was, it was asking for a scourging to talk like that to your general. I wouldn’t have said it to Ol’ Squinty. But times change, and so do generals. Besides, everyone else was digging too. No one was paying the dragon’s son any more attention than me.
After that, he didn’t even try to stop us. He strolled through the clouds of stirred-up dust, and shook his head, and laughed. Ol’ Squinty would have raged and roared and tossed about the broken bodies of anyone who got in his way until the army was his again. I guess that’s why we feared and respected him, but loved his golden son.
Just as I don’t remember who started it, I don’t remember who was the first to stop. All I remember is feeling as if I’d woken from a dream. I was standing in the middle of what had been a field, up to my waist in a trench I’d dug myself, my hands blistered and my shoulders aching horribly. The dust was as thick as fog and full of tiny, biting flies. All around stood my fellow soldiers, all peering about, as I was too, their feverish gleams fading into confusion. They didn’t know what they’d been doing, or why, and nor did I.
I saw the dragon’s son nearby, slouched on what remained of a Carthaginian wall. He caught my eye and winked at me. “Well?” he asked. “Find any?”
“What?” I said. “Sir?”
“Gold,” he said. “Carthaginian gold.”
“You won’t,” he said and jumped down from the wall.
The story goes that his mother was a nymph who’d had a run-in with some god before she fell under the dragon’s wing, and seeing the dragon’s son through the dust, I believed it. Oh, he looked human enough, but he had this sort of golden glow and his hair curled like the busts of Alexander you see sometimes. He was Alexander’s age too, they said. I’d followed him since Ol’ Squinty came down with a bad case of Cinnan lightning, back before Sulla the Red returned from the east. He’d declared for Sulla then and called us all to arms, all of us who’d been the dragon’s men. We’d been fighting for the wizard ever since.
He strode onto the churned field. “Look around you,” he told us, as if we weren’t doing that already. He was still laughing. “Africanus destroyed Carthage sixty-five years ago. Tore down the city, had the ground ploughed, swore it wouldn’t be good for anything but pasturing sheep. D’you think he’d have left anything? Or the colonists Gracchus tried to settle here – wouldn’t they have found anything left behind?”
I dropped my spade. Someone else did the same. Then all the spades were thundering to the ground, while I tried to remember what I’d been thinking and could think only that I must have been mad, that we’d all been mad for days. Tearing up perfectly good sheep pasture and thinking we’d find hidden gold. There probably hadn’t been any to start with. It had only ever been a dream.
The dragon’s son grinned. “So,” he said. “Ready to take on Domitius?”
I voted for Domitius’s father to be consul once. But as I say, times change.
© Julia August. First published by Every Day Fiction in 2013.