Vulcan’s Laughter, a work in progress
Foretellings… A Sample
This is an extract, incomplete but representative, taken from the first chapter of my current work-in-progress, Vulcan’s Laughter. The novel is the prequel to my first book, The Skystone, and in it I deal with Publius Varrus’s grandfather Quintus, known in that book as Varrus the Elder, telling the story of how he came to Britain as a young man, and how he discovered the first, original skystone from which he would make a stainless steel dagger more than a millennium before the secret of making stainless steel was discovered.
The story opens in the main dining room of the Varrus family’s villa in Illyricum, which today is the south-western panhandle of Croatia, on the coast of the Adriatic sea, across from Italy. Young Quintus Varrus, ten years old and not yet permitted to sit at the family table for meals, is hiding in his favourite spot, an unused corner cupboard with a fretwork frontal grill that allows him to spy on the adults of his family, who are never boring. On this occasion he is listening to yet another argument between his father, Marcus Varrus, and his still-formidable father, Quintus’s grandfather, Titanius Varrus, who was a boyhood friend of the Emperor Diocletian and had served as Chief of his personal bodyguard throughout Diocletian’s reign.
These father-son arguments are commonplace in the Varrus household, but young Quintus never tires of listening to them, because they are his sole means of learning what is really happening in the outside world, beyond the shores of Illyricum, in Italia and in the new imperial centre of Constantinople. Born with a malformed leg, Quintus is disqualified from service with the legions, and because his is a distinguished military family he is deemed to be defective and is, in consequence, overlooked and largely ignored by his male elders, with the singular exception of his father’s younger brother Marius, who is a naval commander and, as such, is also considered defective by his traditionalist, Legion-oriented family. Marius, Quintus’s sole male ally in the family, is present at the table on this occasion, a mute witness as always, along with his mother, Alexia Seneca, and his brother Marcus’s wife, Quintus’s mother Maris. On this occasion, though, the familiar argument takes an unexpected turn when Quintus’s father Marcus says something about the Christian bishop of Rome, reporting a comment made by the bishop’s about the will of God. Marcus, like his father Titanius before him, has the ear and the confidence of the emperor, and he liaises regularly with the Christian bishops in Italia, on the Emperor Constantine’s behalf, working to appease and mollify the fiery Roman Christians. His father’s emperor and lifelong friend, though, was Diocletian, the last, great persecutor of the upstart Christians, and Titanius himself had stood against them in his role as chief of Diocletian’s personal bodyguard. Now his son’s innocuous comment infuriates the older man, who believes his principles are being challenged, and in trying to make his point, Titanius betrays how troubled he is by talking, without warning, about an event he has never spoken of to any of his family:
Grandfather Titanius turned his head to look at his daughter-in-law, Maris, for whom he had always shown great affection. “What think you, daughter? Do you believe your Jesus god is all-powerful?”
Quintus’s mother tilted her head high. “I do, Father,” she said quietly.
The old man grunted and nodded. “I know you do, girl, and in a strange and alien way I envy you your conviction, for I know it is real and deeply felt. But tell me this: do you believe this meek and humble Jesus god, whom your people call the Christus, would wantonly destroy a large group of men who offered him no offence? Could such a thing occur?”
Maris kept her chin held high, not haughty or defiant, but solemn and secure in her beliefs, but Quintus saw that she was frowning slightly, as though troubled by her father-in-law’s question and he sensed intuitively that she was unwilling to respond too quickly to a query that might have hidden barbs. Not too subtly hidden, either, he realized then, for he himself had detected some kind of strangeness in the deliberate way the question had been phrased. His father, too, was reacting to some sudden tension in the air, frowning in concern as he gazed at his wife, then shifting his eyes suspiciously towards his father.
“Why would you ask Maris that, Father? She has no—”
“Be quiet and listen. This is important… Maris? Could that happen?”
“Could it—? Let me understand you clearly, Father Titanius. Wantonly, you said. Are you then asking me if my God would wantonly destroy anyone or anything without provocation?”
“I am. Would he?”
She drew herself up to her full height, turning the flap of her stole back over her shoulder with one hand. “No, Father Titanius, my God would never do such a thing.”
“And he is the one, true God, you believe? The only one?”
“That is what we believe.”
“There are no others?”
“Other gods?” Maris shook her head slowly, with conviction. “Men speak of other gods, but they are all false. God is God. A single Being, although with many names. The Creator of all life.”
“And he is triune, is he not? Threefold? Father, Son and Spirit, all in one?”
“So we believe.”
“And what about the threefold deity of Egypt, Osiris, Horus and Isis, that ruled before him? Does that not give you pause?”
“There was no God before Him, father Titanius. God is God. It matters not what names men give to Deity.”
Titanius Varrus shook his head almost imperceptibly and then turned briefly to look at his son Marcus before swinging back abruptly to address his daughter-in-law again. “One more question: Was your God omnipotent when Diocletian ruled the Empire?”
Maris smiled gently, nodding her head as though humouring a child. “He was omnipotent before Rome began, Father, before the Empire came to be. He made this world and all things in it.”
“Of course. I merely wanted to be sure.” He turned again to face his son, who stood nonplussed, his face betraying his lack of understanding as his eyes flicked back and forth between his wife and his father. “So,” the older man continued, “If this god will do no harm unprovoked and there is no other with his supernatural powers, how can we, or anyone, explain what happened to Petronius Provo’s two cohorts in Dacia?”
For a space of heartbeats there was no response, and safe in his hiding place Quintus tensed and leaned forward, one hand cupping his ear towards the men so as not to miss a single syllable of what was to come.
When his father did speak, though, his voice was dull, uncomprehending. “Petronius Provo,” he said. “I know that name, or I used to… But I haven’t heard it in years. Is he not a friend of yours?”
His father grunted. “He was, at one time. He’s a dead man now, though. Long since gone. But he and I were close, once. We grew up together. Him and Diocles and me.”
Marcus was frowning now in concentration, “I remember that, too,” he said. “At least I think I do… A long time ago, and there was something that happened in Dacia… I don’t remember what it was, though from what you say now it’s clear that something happened to his two cohorts. What was it?”
The old man scowled, glowering from beneath his bushy eyebrows as he peered into nothingness, his thoughts obviously far removed at that moment from where he stood.
“No one was ever able to say what it was,” he growled eventually, his eyes regaining focus as his thoughts returned to the here and now.
Quintus squirmed a little as he saw his father assume his affronted look, peering about him theatrically as though expressing official disbelief for the record, in the presence of an audience of his peers. It was an affectation Marcus Varrus employed too often, and even at the age of ten Quintus knew that, but he suspected that his father himself was unaware of the mannerism, or that he used it so obviously.
“What?” The question emerged succinctly, for the benefit of an imaginary audience. “Do you mean that this event, involving damage or detriment to two prime cohorts in the field, went unreported?”
Titanius Varrus straightened up slightly, his eyes narrowing further as he gazed at his son with increasingly withering contempt. “Oh, you love the thought of that, don’t you,” he said softly, his voice suddenly close to being inaudible. “An error of omission in the highest ranks, in the field. A missing tactical report, depriving Constantine’s busy little fact-finders an opportunity to pry into places they should never be allowed to see. That simply sets your little martial heart to fluttering, does it not?” He stopped, then grimaced, sucking air audibly between his teeth before squaring his shoulders and speaking again in his normal voice, the syllables emerging from his mouth crisply and in the tones of a military report.
“If your question was intended to imply that someone there present failed in his duty to record and describe the magnitude of what took place that day, then my answer is that the sole failure of any person in attendance at the events of that day was the failure to survive.”
Quintus, his eyes fixed on his grandfather’s lips, had heard every word, but he had no idea what the old man had actually said, and now his gaze moved to his father’s face, which was slack-jawed and looked as stupefied as Quintus felt. “To—what?” Marcus stopped and swallowed, then began again, shaking his head to indicate his confusion. “I must have misheard what you said there. Did you say, a failure to survive?”
Titanius Varrus nodded. “That is precisely what I said. You heard me correctly. Whatever happened there in Dacia that afternoon, not a single person lived to tell of it.”
“But that’s . . . That is clearly impossible, Father. Some must have survived, no matter what the cause or how great the damage. Two full cohorts? That means there must have been close to two thousand men there.”
“There would have been, normally,” Titanius said, gazing at his son levelly. “I would even say perhaps three thousand, including all the usual adherents—families, retainers, camp followers and the like. In this instance, though, all of those were marching with me in the main body, because Provo and his men were on high alert, carrying their own rations and moving too fast and too urgently to drag along a baggage train and extra bodies… Also, we had been out there for months by then and had taken heavy casualties on two occasions, so there were probably little more than a thousand men in his group, all told… Eleven hundred at most. But they all died, every single one of them.”
He paused, his eyes going blank again, then sniffed and continued, nodding briefly at Marcus in acknowledgment. “Until I saw the place with my own eyes I was like you, unable to believe such a thing could be possible.
“But it happened, and the destruction was absolute. Provo’s cohorts weren’t decimated, they were annihilated.
“When we reached the scene, four days later, we found no signs of life. No survivors; hence, no written reports that could attest to eye-witnessed veracity. We also found no corpses.”
“But—” Again Quintus’s father had to stop, unable to find words to frame the questions he needed to ask, and the boy watched him avidly, willing him to find the words and ask the questions, for he knew they would be the same as his own, had he been able to formulate any.
“So what did you find?” His father finally blurted the question out, all semblance of theatricality forgotten though the tone of disbelief was still clearly audible in his voice. “Someone must have seen it, else how could you know what happened? It happened in the afternoon, you said, four days before you arrived there. How could you possibly know that, if no one saw it and lived to tell of it?”
Titanius Varrus crossed his left arm over his midriff and rested his right elbow on it, stroking his nose with his fingers for a count of three or four heartbeats. “I did not say no one saw it,” he said finally, lowering his hand. “I said no one who was there when it happened survived. I saw it happen myself, and heard it, with my own eyes and ears.”
“Then you were there…”
“So you might think, and I understand why, but no, I was not there.”
A lengthy silence followed that before Marcus Varrus said, in a slow, placatory voice, “Father, believe me, I have no wish to quarrel, or even to disagree with what you say, but that makes no sense at all, of any kind… What you say defies any and all degrees of logical sequence and simple truth.”
“I agree. But I remind you that your objections are based upon human expectations—mortal expectations. There was no human logic and certainly no simple truth in any of what happened that day. Since I began to speak of it, have I once used the word “simple” to apply to any of it?” The old warrior turned his head slowly to look at his wife for the first time. “Alexia, here, has heard this tale before, many years ago, while you were but a child, learning to walk, but we have never spoken of it since. Is that not correct, Alexia?”
His spouse nodded slowly in agreement and acknowledgment, but made no attempt to speak, and Titanius’s eyes moved on from her to settle again on his daughter-in-law, Maris. “There is nothing simple anywhere in this. Nor is there anything underlying it that might be described as natural or human.”
His gaze moved on again, to include the other person at the table, Quintus’s uncle Marius, but Marius sat unmoving, showing no inclination to become involved in any way with what his father and his brother were disputing. Titanius stared at him for long moments, his face betraying nothing of his thoughts, then looked back at his elder son Marcus.
“Forget simplicity,” he said. “That’s what’s confusing you. Attempting to attribute simplicity to any part of this is foolishness, for it renders you unable to imagine what I’m talking about. You fail to understand how I could see something without being there when it happened, so I ask you now to think. Think! How could such a thing be possible? Because I assure you it is, and was, possible… It happened.”
In the profound silence that followed, he took the time to look around him again, slowly, gazing at each of his listeners in turn, and Quintus, watching from his hiding place, found himself wondering how the old man might react if he discovered him there, watching and listening to every word.
“You need to lift your eyes and your minds,” Titanius continued after a while. “You need to liberate your imagination and pay heed to what I said. I told you I arrived at the place four days after the event took place, and yet I saw it happen. And how could that be was all you asked. In truth, that makes you no different from anyone else who ever heard of this, for that was all anyone ever asked who heard of it afterwards. “How could that be?” Well, it could be, and it was, because this incident took place on a more enormous scale than anyone could comprehend.”
He paused, allowing those words to settle in his listeners’ minds before he continued, “I saw it because I was looking up when it took place. In the space of an instant and utterly without warning of any kind, an enormous, indescribable noise filled our whole world, snatching the living breath from our chests and shaking the very air around us, and a gigantic ball of fire shut out the afternoon sky. It came from behind me, screaming across the firmament from west to east and turning the blue of the sky to smoke-roiled blackness in less than the blink of an eye before it vanished as suddenly as it had appeared, far beyond the mountains edging the valley we were in. But then all the world went white in one searing moment of — something… I know not what it was, save that it was some kind of light, and then there came a sound the like of which I have never heard. But that occurrence, whatever it was—the sight and sound of the end of whatever had passed above us, the concussive blast of it—deafened many of my men and blinded others, some of them for days, and others forever…
“Whatever that was, and no matter what caused it, it occurred in a single, blinding flash of what I can only think of as unnatural, even supernatural light, and then for a while the western sky turned red, pulsing like a living heart before it slowly died away into roiling brown and black, smoky darkness.”
He fell silent for a few moments and no one moved or breathed, but then he nodded and continued. “No omens, no harbingers, no time to prepare. It came without warning of any kind. One moment the day was tranquil and all was as it should be, and in the next instant the world was filled with noise and chaos, our entire army reduced to a state of gibbering, mindless terror. The sky in the west was filled with blackness, shot through with fire that engulfed the mountains there, beyond our horizon. My horse spun around and fell dead beneath me, instantly, as the thing passed over us—I have to assume from a fear greater than the poor brute could withstand—and I ended up face down in the mud, groveling like a terror-stricken slave and doubting my own sanity and humanity. But that face-down mud bath might have saved my life, or my vision, for it put my back towards the flash when it happened. All the men who were blinded that day were facing west, looking towards the mountains when that blast of light occurred.”
He sniffed. “As for those who were deafened, no one could tell why some recovered and others did not, or why some men were unaffected by the noise. There was no explanation to be had; no reason, no accountability for anyone or anything.”
He moved to where Maris sat watching and listening in open-mouthed horror, and reached out to take her hand in both of his. “I swear to you, daughter,” he said, “on the honour of my name and that of your children, that every word of what I have said is true.”
He released her hand again and she sat frowning but motionless, her hand upraised still, her wide stretched eyes fixed upon his face, clearly wondering what any of this grotesque tale had to do with her or her children, but her husband was questioning Titanius again.
“It was four days, you said, before you visited the spot where this thing happened. Why did it take you so long?”
“Because we were that far away, with a range of mountains between us and the scene of the carnage. The whole thing happened late in the afternoon, but it was almost as disastrous for us as it was for those poor whoresons who took the brunt of it.” He stopped, blinked again in a way that made young Quintus think his thoughts must be elsewhere, then added, “I know that sounds bizarre, when I have barely finished telling you we were that far away, but it is really no exaggeration. What happened that afternoon came close to destroying my command and my career as a soldier, and to this day I have never really told anyone about it in detail.”
“Never?” his son Marcus asked. “You have never discussed it in detail with anyone?”
His father looked at him, and in his quiet hiding place young Quintus was astonished to realize that there was no anger, no impatience, in the old man’s gaze and there had been no goading challenge in his father’s question. More noteworthy that that, he realized, and far more surprising, was the fact that he could detect none of the usual rancour, the omnipresent overtones and undertones of discontent and bitterness, that he was so accustomed to hearing and seeing when his father and grandfather clashed, and he tried without success to remember when he had last heard the two men speak to each other with genuine civility.
“Never,” Titanius Varrus said. “What would there have been to discuss, with someone who had not been there? Judge from your own reaction to what you are hearing now, and believe me when I tell you that no one who had not been there and witnessed the aftermath of what happened could ever begin to imagine the scope or the extent of it. And as for trying to explain it or describe it…” His voice died and he thought for a moment before grunting a sound that might have been a dismissive laugh and adding, “There are no words powerful enough… Not in my mind, and not in all the books ever written. There are no words…”
He fell silent again, frowning at his own thoughts, then walked to the head of the table and resumed the seat he had been using earlier, waving Quintus’s father to his own chair as he did so.
“Sit down,” he said. “I don’t know if I can talk much more about this even now, after so many years, but at this moment I am willing to try, at least, and if I am to try, it will take time, so sit down and listen. We might as well be comfortable.”
He turned then to his wife.
“Alexia, you might not wish to hear this, so if you wish to leave I will not be offended.”
The old lady stirred slightly and turned to face her husband, and Quintus wondered how she would respond, for she was notoriously sharp-tongued and venomous, but all she did was shrug and for one incredulous moment it looked to her grandson as if that rigid mask of hers might crack into a smile.
That was not to be, though. Alexia merely nodded and made herself more comfortable in her cushioned chair before she said, “No, I shall stay. I have never really heard this entire tale before.”
Her husband nodded. “As you wish,” he said, then drew a deep breath and began talking again.
“I always detested Dacia. It’s a foul, unfriendly place, unfit for human habitation, and we were deep in the heart of it, in the region the locals call Carpathia, after the Carpathian mountains there. We had been there for more than two months, a half-strength legionary force of five cohorts. Our Army Group Staff didn’t think the opposition we were facing merited the attention of a full legion, and so we were sent instead, as a special task force. Each of our five cohorts had a full complement of six hundred fighting men—ten 60-man maniples—with appropriate support staff. We had a full century of auxilliaries, too, as skirmishers, specially-trained locals recruited from the surrounding region and thoroughly familiar with the techniques of fighting in that kind of terrain. We numbered more than six thousand personnel, with ancillary dogsbodies, and I commanded, as Legate designate.”
“Six thousand… That seems like a lot of men,” Marcus mused. “I’ve known legions smaller than that.”
“Not in any army I ever served in,” his father growled. “We were half a legion—a strong half, mind you, but nowhere near strong enough for the conditions we found there when we arrived.”
“So you made the best of it…”
“Aye, we did. It had been a brutal campaign from the outset, against a force we thought made up of Visigoths and Vandals—I say we thought that’s what they were, because we never came close enough to them for long enough to discover whether it was true or not. They were mountain fighters, though, and they were on their home ground, hitting us hard and withdrawing before we could react. They had started raiding south into our jurisdiction from the Danube territories towards the end of May that year, and they had been leading us on a chase ever since, using hit-and-run tactics that we were almost powerless to fight.
“They would hide from our sight for several weeks—an easy thing to do in those endless, forested hills up there—and then they would hit us from all sides at once, striking hard and inflicting heavy casualties on two occasions, then disappearing like smoke before we could form our battle lines. Among those trees, we were practically helpless, as you can imagine. Our hundred auxiliaries were a godsend, but we only had a hundred of them at the outset, and we had no replacements for them as they fell.
“Eventually, though, we grew familiar with the terrain and we worked out a plan to bring the bastards to bay. It involved splitting our force in two, to catch them between a hammer and an anvil at the southern end of a chain of mountains high enough to stop them from running away once we were in position. I took three cohorts along the main road south on the left, eastern flank of the mountains—though “main road” is too generous for what was little more than a goat track—while Provo took his force down along the western flank, to our right, on the other side of the range. Theirs was the more difficult route, for they had no road at all and they had to traverse cliffs and slopes that were sometimes close to vertical, but they were able to make better progress than us at first, because we had their baggage and extra personnel with us.
“But then some kind of pestilence broke out among them, less than a week after they had set out, and whatever it was, it was virulent, decimating them in a matter of days, according to what I heard from Provo’s scouts who had finally caught up to us after days of searching for us.
“My force was close to the south end of the mountain range by that time, about five miles from our goal and apparently about fifteen miles south of where Provo had been forced to make camp and allow his men to rest, and knowing I would be wondering what had happened to him, he had dispatched scouts out to find us and let me know what had happened. He sent word that he would come to me in person to report his situation, because he was afraid that his men were unfit to fight and he wanted to talk to me directly… He would head east the morning after his scouts got back and told him where to find us, and he’d come directly across the mountain separating us.”
“And did he?”
Titanius shrugged. “No. I never saw him or heard from him again. He never crossed the mountain, so he must have died with his people.”
A brief silence settled over the group, lasting until Marcus Varrus said, musingly, “No one ever speaks of Dacia nowadays. I don’t even know where it is.”
“And that is as it should be,” his father said. It’s an abominable place, as I said before; mostly untracked forests and unclimbable mountains. The Black Sea is its eastern border and its southern one is the north bank of the Danube. And in the north and west, it’s shut in by the mountains they call the Carpathians, the home of a rag tag scattering of local tribes called the Carpi. The entire country is covered in impenetrable forests, with scarcely a usable road in the whole god-forsaken place. We were glad when we abandoned it to the Goths, back in the thousand and twenty-fifth year of Rome—what the christians now call 272 in the year of their lord.”
“That was three years before I was born,” Marcus said. “Five years before Marius came along.”
His father quirked one eyebrow upward, as though that had not occurred to him. “Aye,” he growled. “I suppose it was… Anyway, we were there two years prior to that—were there for five years, in fact, before they called us home—but it would have been late in 270 when the thunderbolt fell.”
Another pause ensued, and Quintus tried vainly to hitch himself closer to the partition between himself and the speakers, but his face was already pressed against the fretted carving of the screen that concealed him and he heard his father say, “The thunderbolt. Is that what you said?”
Titanius nodded, his expression sober. “That is what I said. The thunderbolt.”
“A thunderbolt the likes of which the gods would hurl in ancient times? Is that what you mean?”
Another nod and no change in the older man’s judicious facial expression. “Precisely the same, though you might think me mad for even thinking it. Had you seen what I saw that afternoon, though, you would have no thought of questioning the name.”
“It . . . fell, you said. Did you see it fall?”
“No. I saw it pass above my head, but I didn’t see it strike with my own eyes because as I told you, my horse went mad with fear and fell dead under me, for which, as I have also said, I am thankful. Too many of my men lost their sight forever after seeing that damned thing strike.”
Everyone at the table sat silent after that, and to Quintus it seemed as though they had all been stricken mute, incapable of asking what he himself was on the point of crying out to know: *What was a thunderbolt, and where had this one come from?*
“So what did you do then,” his father asked eventually. “After the thing had fallen, I mean?”
Titanius shook his head. “I have no idea. I can’t remember…” He raised a hand, palm outward as though to deflect objections, and added, “I know that must sound like dereliction of my duty, but I swear that is not so. I’ve tried ever since that day to recall what happened in the time that followed immediately after the strike, but I have no memories of it at all. I simply do not know. But I suspect the truest answer to your question would be nothing… We did nothing for the longest time, but I have no idea how long that was, or how much time went by before we began to gather ourselves together and regain our wits and start to organize ourselves again. We had plunged from tranquility into chaos in less than the space of a single heartbeat, our formations destroyed and our military readiness wiped out as though it had never been. My own horse fell dead, but every other beast there reacted, too. Our pack animals all ran amok, in mortal terror, and most of the wagons they had been pulling were overturned and shattered beyond repair…”
He paused, remembering, then continued. “It was the screams of the men that frightened me most, though. I must have been deafened to some extent, for I remember my hearing coming back to me very gradually. When first I looked up from the mud into which I had fallen when my horse went down, the whole world was silent… Insane, but silent. There were empty-faced people walking and staggering everywhere I looked, most of them in armour but none of them in control of themselves or anything else. They all looked demented. There were animals among them, too, some of them horses, though for the most part they were pack animals—mules and asses and oxen and even camels. But it was the people I noticed mainly, because even though I could hear nothing, I could see they were all as mindlessly terrified as the beasts, and I was no exception. That knowledge, that awareness, frightened me even more when it came than I had been until then, for I had been more stunned than anything else up to that point. But seeing the men closest to me, my own soldiers, so lost and demoralized appalled me to the depths of my being. And they were all the same, officers and men alike, lost and uncomprehending and bereft of hope and pride and all sense of identity…
“And then my hearing started to return and all the horror of the screaming settled over me—the screams of maimed and mutilated men and animals and the unhinged, mindless screams of men demented by deep-rooted fears they had been ill-equipped to handle. For it had seemed to all of us when the thing, whatever it was, came down on us, that the world itself was ending.”
He stopped again, staring into nothingness, then added, “And the thing most difficult to understand, even now, after so long, is that, terrified and demoralized as we were, we were yet several days of hard marching removed from where the thing actually landed…”
He looked back at his son, his head tilted slightly to one side. “And so, having heard that after so many years of silence, perhaps you can understand now why I chose never to speak of the event with anyone. What could I have said? How could I explain it? There had never been anything like it that any of us knew of. Our chief surgeon was a Greek, Andronikos. He came up with a Greek word for it, long afterwards, one night when some of us had been drinking. Called it *cataklusmos;* a kind of unimaginable disaster. No one tried to argue with him… And once we began to regain our senses that afternoon—for believe me, we had all been driven out of our wits with the fear of death, myself included—no one had the slightest idea of how we might even begin to clean up the mess around us…”
“So you made no move to look for Provo at that time?”
“Look for him?” Titanius looked for a moment as though he might smile, then shook his head with finality. “No one so much as thought about him. Provo was somewhere else, far removed from what had happened to us there and then. We had enough troubles of our own to keep us all sleepless and hard at work throughout that night, and all of them of a kind we had never before experienced. It was only after our recovery efforts started, for example, that we began to discover we had more than a hundred men who had been maimed in ways few soldiers even had before—blinded and deafened. How were we to deal with that? Our surgeons were trained to deal with battle wounds, not with lost sight and hearing, so they were completely ignorant of what to do to help those people. And that was just one minor detail of the chaos we had to resolve…”
He fell silent for a while, his eyes closed, and no one sought to disturb him, but after a few moments he opened them again and shook his head, then resumed speaking. “No, we didn’t even think about Provo and his people until the afternoon of the following day, once we were satisfied we had returned everything in our own camp back into some kind of order. At that point, we began to think about things that lay beyond our immediate reach, and Provo’s party was one of those. Understand, though, that it never occurred to any of us, from myself down, that any harm might have come to them. We knew they were somewhere to the north and west of us, about fifteen miles away on the other side of the nearest mountain, and fifteen miles is a long way, to a man on foot. So we thought them safe and far from harm. It never occurred to any of us that they might have been in danger. We had come to harm, because of where we were. But Provo’s people, fifteen miles away behind a mountain? That was unthinkable. It wasn’t until much later, when two of our outlying scouts came in from the west side, bringing stories that would have been unbelievable the day before, that we began to suspect anything different.”