Source of the Nile
Chapter 1. Alexandria by Egypt, 60 AD
"Now there's a tumbler I'd like to give a tumble to myself, Lucius."
The centurion nodded toward the nude acrobat doing back flips in the open square in front of one of the innumerable temples that graced the capital of Roman Egypt.
"A street boy, Marcus? Is your purse so flat you cannot afford to rent a lad at one of the boy brothels this city is famous for?"
"Look for yourself, you nitwit. That is, if you can tear your eyes away from that sloe eyed Egyptian lass who has caught your attention. You do realize she probably hopes to lure you into an alley where her friends can roll and pluck you".
"All right, let's have a look at your fancy boy. Hmmm, now that you mention it, he is quite good looking, I'll give you that Marcus."
"Come on, Lucius, admit it. He is the most beautiful boy either of us has ever laid eyes on or likely ever will. Let's see him close up. Here, this will get him to come over to us."
The big soldier flipped a silver drachma into the cup the acrobat had put on the ground for offerings from the public. Like any street boy he could readily distinguish the clear ring of silver from the clink of a copper coin and dropped from the hand stand he had been maintaining to check the coin out, bowing his head to Lucius in gratitude.
"Thank you, kind sir. How may I may serve you further?"
"First tell us your name boy. I am Marcus and my red-headed friend here is Lucius."
"I am called Xenophon or Xeno for short."
"Well named, you are then, Xeno for short, for the top of your head scarcely reaches my breast."
"I cannot help my slight stature, sir. Even though it makes me a better acrobat, I still wish I could add another span to my height, but I fear my growth is over, leaving me nearly a head shorter than other boys of seventeen."
"Seventeen. is it? You hardly look it, more like fifteen at most, so small and slender and smooth."
The two soldiers looked the boy over motioning at one point for him to turn around slowly to display his back and bum.
Actually still two months short of seventeen, Xeno was a comely lad, small for his age and slender. Standing not quite four inches over five feet (162 cm) and weighing only 110 pounds (50 kg) he had a fawn-like physique but with a wiry musculature, toned and taut, as befits an acrobat. Xeno was pretty as a girl with delicate features, a straight nose, high cheekbones, and large green eyes topped by a blond thatch. He had no hair on his body, not even wisps under his arms or at the fork of his legs. Acrobats kept their bodies smooth, an easy task really for a naturally hairless boy like the young acrobat, a condition probably related to his failure to reach full height. His complexion was flawless, probably for the same reason.
From his tiny red nipples to a deeply indented navel, to narrow hips framing a surprisingly generous manhood for one so slight of build, Xeno was real beauty. He carried so little body fat that his flat belly showed a tracery of downward pointing veins just under the skin, and the beat of his heart was visible on the left side of his smooth chest. Reno was sleek and smooth, deeply and evenly tanned all over, the sheen of sweat from his exertions making his skin shine in the bright sunlight. The sweat on his brow dripped off the end of his straight nose or followed the twin arcs of his eyebrows to his temples. Stray wisps of hair were plastered against his temples and forehead, darkened by perspiration as were the tapering sideburns by his ears. It was obviously no razor had ever scraped his cheeks or had needed to. He was naturally beardless, without even a hint of peach fuzz.
Lucius inquired about the boy's background, finding out that he was freeborn, an orphan, originally the bastard son of a German auxiliary in Roman service and a courtesan from Gaul though legitimized later. That explained his blond good looks on the southern shores of the Mediterranean and also his ready command of Latin, the one language his parents had had in common. Most foreigners in Egypt spoke the official language, Greek. Marcus also asked the boy about the city's landmarks. Both soldiers were new to Alexandria and needed a tour guide.
Xeno answered the man's questions readily enough, turning to point toward different public buildings, the principal streets and the four quarters that comprised the city. He spoke animatedly and intelligently showing he knew his way around the city well enough to serve as their guide. He spoke without the diffidence one might expect from a boy of humble station, called before his elders and betters, entirely nude, getting scrutinized intently, with a crowd of onlookers pressing close, chattering, and jostling past.
Xeno did not feel particularly awkward just because he was standing there entirely unclad in the midst of a crowd. Acrobatic showmanship was how he earned his living, and who ever heard of an acrobat who did not perform for the public naked? The idea, after all, was to show off the potential of the human body. He also supplemented the coins tossed by the crowd with money earned for more intimate services he provided to men attracted by the display of his trim body and pretty boy good looks. Around this neighborhood, everyone knew him, had seen him performing, and was aware that he sold himself for coin.
The neighbors had often seen him going about on errands entirely bare. Xeno saw little point in bothering with even the low slung linen kilt which was all that was commonly worn in Egypt. He had nothing to hide, nothing that had not been repeatedly put on public display. He might as well make himself comfortable in the desert heat and stay nude. After all he earned his living while in the nude, slept naked on his rooftop, and exercised bare ass. He often went for weeks at a stretch without ever wearing even the briefest of garments. Anyway, Xeno was hardly the only habitually nude boy in the district what with the numerous boat boys on the canals, servant boys, messengers, and slave boys in general, not to mention vain youths who liked to strut their stuff in public.
Besides, the boy rather liked the kiss of the hot sun on his bare skin, the way it turned his skin a tawny gold, complementing his blond mane. He preferred to live simply, without possessions and often without clothing too, going about just as the gods had made him. So whether performing, running along the strand for exercise, sleeping on the flat roof of his hovel, or just strolling about the district, he typically went naked. He did not mind the occasional pats on the rump or the caresses down in front from strangers in the press of the crowd, taking these as no more than tactile compliments to his comeliness.
For his part Lucius was enthralled by the musicality of the boy's voice, the animation in his face, and the delightful play of muscles as the boy turned this way or that and raised his arms to point or to explain with gestures. The youth's aplomb showed that he was comfortable with nudity even with everyone else around him clothed, indeed that he not only expected to be fully on display but rather relished it.
"You enjoy this don't you Xeno, letting everyone ogle you, to see you completely naked and hairless, putting yourself on public display?"
"Yes, I suppose that is true, sir. I know that makes me a vain boy, being so proud of my pert rump and rippled chest and belly, not to mention my pretty face. But if the gods have graced me this way, who am I to conceal their handiwork? I like to think that showing off my physique is as much an act of generosity on my part as an assertion of vanity. How rude and selfish of me it would be not to share."
The boy's tinkling laughter showed that he did not take himself or his claim terribly seriously. He knew full well that the reason he exhibited himself so readily was that he found it titillating and sexy, and yes, naughty too. And why not, the soldier thought, a youth like that should always be naked, his beauty a gift to everyone whose eye chanced upon the lovely lad. He was sleek and smooth and deeply tanned, his wiry physique the very incarnation of youthful male pulchritude.
When they learned that the boy also spoke common Greek, the lingua franca of the East, plus the native Egyptian language, the two soldiers offered him the job of guiding them around town for the next few days. They had reported a week early to their new posting in Alexandria and wanted to explore the town before formally taking up their duties in the garrison. Xeno accepted, showing up at the barracks in time for breakfast the next morning dressed for the occasion in a linen kilt. Wrapped low about his hips, the minimal garment showed off the flatness of his belly and the roundness of his trim rump. So even dressed the boy drew admiring glances at his physique and elfin features, not to mentioned amused looks and raised eyebrows from the soldiers.
Xenophon showed Lucius and Marcus the port area, and the canals that linked the city to the Nile proper. Alexandria was geographically separate from Egypt proper, lying just west of the Nile Delta. Its founder, Alexander the Great, thought of his new foundation as being 'next to' Egypt rather than a part of that ancient country. Hence its name of Alexandria by Egypt. The two soldiers took in the sights, the old royal palace, the Moon Gate, the Pharos (lighthouse), the famous temples, and the Great Library and Museum. The streets and the buildings of the capital was decorated with public statues depicting gods and emperors and generals as heroic nudes.
"You know Xeno, these physiques captured in stone are surely no more pleasing than your own an actually much less so. Too many of the figures have stern expressions or just too many muscles. And they are made of cold stone, but you are a living and breathing flesh and blood boy. Why not get rid of that kilt altogether and walk around the rest of the city in the nude just as you do in your home district. Look about you. There are many nude boys and men about, like those males slaves working on a road, that runner carrying messages. After all, you said it yourself. It would be rude and selfish not to share your trim body with the public."
"Now Marcus, you and Lucius just want an excuse to get me naked again and to show me off around town as your pretty boy."
"Yes, that is true, but I think that is what you want too, isn't it? You want people to take you for one of those expensive brothel boys for which the city is famous or a naked slave boy who doesn't own a stitch of clothing. Well from now on, you don't."
Xeno stood there submitting to a public stripping as Lucius pulled the kilt off his hips, handing it over to Marcus who donated it to a beggar boy.
"But that is my only kilt, Marcus. My only garment really. Am I to go about always naked from now on?"
But the boy's aroused nipples told the soldiers that the prospect excited the boy, not just walking around without a stitch on but not even owning a proper garment. The soldiers were so masterful towards him, taking charge of him, stripping him naked, enforcing public nudity on him from now on. No wonder his cock had plumped up and lifted off, pointing away from his body. Passersby smiled at the obviously aroused pretty boy. Xeno clutched himself down there practically shivering with the frisson of his own naughtiness. If these soldiers wanted him totally on display then so be it.
As their tour continued, the soldiers were surprised that the boy was literate in both Latin and Greek and, to a much lesser extent, the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic script. He was better at sounding out the phonetic elements of an Egyptian text than reading the full meaning. Only the priests and scribes could do that and not all of them. It was a dying art. Still he could make out the names of rulers and places and dates on inscriptions on buildings and stelae, that sort of thing.
All in all, the two men were satisfied with their young skills as a tour guide. He captivated them with his steady patter and his boyish sense of humor, and his curiosity about their adventures in the army. He loved to hear tales of far off places. Xeno was a dependable guide, steering them to decent places to eat their midday meal, eateries that matched their purse and their simple tastes. Utterly uninhibited himself and not the least bit body shy, he did not mind if their hands brushed his rump or patted his shoulder or stroked his belly and ribs or tweaked his nipples. If they wanted him to sit on their laps, fine. Letting customers feel him up was all part of the service. If others took him for a naked bum boy, well that is what he was.
There was that one time when their attentions got him aroused enough for his cock to plump up and lift off. That was after they went swimming in the harbor from the shore of the island on which the great Pharos was built. Their swim was a way to cool off after climbing all the way to the top of the great lighthouse, some four hundred feet (120 m) into the sky. The soldiers had pulled rank to get access. Xeno was delighted to finally get to the top of the monument he had seen all his life, regardless of how much he had had to trudge to reach the very top where the flame burned at night. In daylight, bright mirrors provided a beacon for sailors, reflecting the sun's light. After taking in the magnificent view and climbing back down, rather hot and sweaty from their exertions, the two soldiers and Xeno had been happy to strip off and dive into the water.
Could Xeno help it if the sight of the powerfully built and hugely endowed centurions in the nude turned him on? He was a professional pleasure boy, after all, not to mention a randy teenager. No surprise really. What did astonish him was when he heard himself asking the centurions to take him right then and there, no matter who was watching, and at no extra charge. He could hardly believe he had offered himself for free. Pleasure boys never gave free samples. The soldiers were sorry to disappoint the horny lad. Though off duty, they were in uniform, or had been before going in for their swim, and had their professional dignity to maintain. Still it told them something about their young ally, that he genuinely desired them. His arousal was an earnest of his sincerity.
In the evenings, after a tasty supper in a tavern with rooms that rented by the hour, the soldiers took the boy upstairs, and used him for their pleasure. The boy's enthusiasm arose from more than the coins they paid him. He was perfectly happy to frolic with the powerfully built soldiers even when they double teamed him. At first that meant each of them plugging the boy at opposite ends. It gave the two big soldiers a chance to kiss each other as well as the delectable boy they were fucking.
Who would not be aroused by the sight of his delicate features, his trim little body, and the shameless delight he took in male sex. Xenophon loved being sandwiched in between two lusty men. It drove him wild with desire, having a big cock in each orifice. He did his best to pleasure both invading tools, working the muscles of his throat and his ass to squeeze and knead, and excite till the lusty soldiers spilled their seed into his bottom or down his throat. He loved to feel the pulsing of their turgid members as they shot their wet warmth into him.
However, Lucius and Marcus also liked to double penetrate a boy's bottom, that is get both their cocks up his ass at the same time. Xeno's petite physique, narrow hips,and pert rump made that particularly attractive and exciting but also a bit difficult. After all, it was only natural for little Xeno to be a bit apprehensive, given how large the soldiers were. Still Xeno consented though knowing his rump would surely ache the next morning. The prospect of a double penetration was too exciting to turn down. Marcus and Lucius were so terribly sexy, and they had been so nice to him, treating him like a friend, not like an anonymous whore boy.
Not so very experienced at this, Xeno followed instructions. Facing Marcus, he straddled the big soldier who had stretched out full-length, cock rampant. Xeno sank to his knees and sat down on the massive member, slowly sinking back onto his haunches letting the first cock plumb his depths. He rocked back and forth a little, letting Marcus slide easily in his channel. When Marcus was well seated up his chute, Lucius bent him forward, telling him to kiss Marcus and lick his nipples. Meanwhile Lucius forced his own cock up the back door into the tight chute already occupied by Marcus' cock. It was a close fit since they were big men, proportionally endowed, and Xeno was quite small in the hips and rump.
Poor Xeno, his hole always ached from a double penetration, however excited the sex play got him. He did love that impossibly impaled feeling the two soldiers gave him. Gods, when he was with them he found out what it was like to be really and completely fucked. Using his thigh muscles to lift himself up and down on the twin shafts, it didn't take long for all the friction and prodding to set him off. In turn his anal contractions brought both soldiers to a simultaneous climax filling the boy with their manly juices.
The soldier's enthusiasm sometimes threatened to get out of hand. At times Xeno was not sure his anal ring would survive their vigorous double assaults, but it did, somehow, though not without incidental pain. The pair loosened Xeno up so much that his hole sometimes sputtered and farted the next day during their walkabout. The young acrobat did not embarrass easily, but he did blush when teased about anal incontinence. It made him feel so terribly slutty.
Xeno did not question why the soldiers took him together almost as often as they did separately. If they wanted to plug him at both ends, that was fine by him. If they wanted to fill his ass together, OK. Even if it hurt a little it was terribly exciting. The boy did not quite realize that they also had an ulterior motive of their own.
The soldiers knew that the Army was harsh on those who took lovers among their fellow soldiers. It was said to be prejudicial to good order and discipline. Caesar wanted manly aggressive men for soldiers, and that did not include males who allowed others to use them as women. It was fine, though, for a soldier or for any Roman male to poke a boy, taking the active role in the relationship. Double penetration allowed the two friends of feel the other's cock sliding past his own as they double fucked the boy and to enjoy a simultaneous orgasm with the captive cocks throbbing against each other in the warm moist channel of the boy's butt. It was almost like making love to each other via the boy.
That aside, each of them eagerly took the boy separately. He was the prettiest and sexiest thing either of them had ever fucked, male or female. Marcus loved to look at Xeno down on his knees, all humility and submissiveness, pouty lips locked about his member, worshiping Marcus' manhood. The boy gave better head than anyone he had ever known. He was able to take him fully down his throat without gagging. Not many could do that. A natural submissive, he also enjoyed getting his ass plowed. Lucius loved the way his big hands fit so well around the boy's sharp hip bones. He loved to pull back on that small ass while he thrust forward with his cock, feeling the warm flesh enclose it like a glove.
They both loved taking Xeno face to face, on his back, legs and heels in the air. There is nothing so sexy as the face of a pretty boy rising to his climax. With his small body trapped beneath him, Lucius or Marcus could see the boy's arousal build and build, his eyes closing as his mind and body concentrated on the good feelings coursing through him, readying itself to let fly with his spunk.
After his ejaculation, the boy would look at them happily, his face lit up with the post coital look that boys get, comprised half of pride at his own cocksmanship and half of embarrassment for the mess he had made between their bellies. As a joy boy of considerable experience, Xeno knew he must concentrate on his customers' pleasure first, not on his own. It worked out for him anyway since he liked nothing better than to have a man's cock stimulate him to his own orgasm without even touching himself down there. Getting fucked till you shot, that was the best way for a bottom boy like him to get off, and he knew it.
Both men relished ruffling the boy's hair in those moments as a demonstration of their satisfaction with and affection for him. They talked with him too and really listened to what he had to say about his hopes and expectations. Xeno was not used to customers who valued his own pleasure with their own and who wanted to get to know him as a person, not just a sexy body and a pretty face. He realized he could get to like the pair of them a whole lot.
"So why aren't you working in a high class brothel, Xeno?" Marcus inquired one day. "Surely you must have had offers."
"I am not sure 'offers' is the word for it. Yes I was dragged into Philotas' place when I was fourteen and forced to work there for a year, but I don't like being cooped up all the time in a dark and dingy brothel. I need fresh air and the sun and the freedom to run and swim, and tumble. Philotas likes to beat on his boys to keep them in line, and he kept most of the take. He didn't like my wild dances either, insisting that everything had to be slow and sultry. I finally made friends with the sergeant of the city watch in this district who protected me when I ran away and went into business for myself."
"And what does the sergeant get in return?"
"Why me, of course. I give him and his men the best sex they have ever had in their lives, the sergeant for free and his men for half price. Say what you will about me, but I don't have a single dissatisfied customer. I always leave them happy." He said with firm nod.
"I can believe that, little Xeno. You are truly delectable. I cannot remember when I had so much fun with a boy before."
"That's because you didn't," the boy countered with impeccable logic, an impish smile, and not a little pride in his voice.
The big soldiers hugged the lad, enjoying his warmth and good humor. Good looks, intelligence, cheery personality, great sex. What was there not to like about the boy? They knew that even after they no longer needed Xeno as a guide around town, they would visit him regularly, as friends as much as customers, though they certainly would not begrudge the boy his hard earned silvers. He had to earn a living after all.
Chapter 2. The Nile, 61 AD
"What do you mean you own me now, Philotas?" Xeno exclaimed to the brothel master. I am a free citizen. I even own this tumble down hovel. Slaves cannot own property. You know that."
"You only passed for a free boy these last two years. I have the bill of sale from when old Sosthenes sold you to me three years ago. Now I am re-taking possession, able once again to offer my customers access to the most beautiful boy in Alexandria."
"You won't get away with this!" the boy shouted as the man's thugs bound his hands behind him and fitted a loop around his neck the better to control him.
"Perhaps you are hoping for intervention by your friend, the sergeant of the watch? I am afraid the poor man has a gambling problem. He owed money to some unsavory characters, and only my timely intervention provided him with the wherewithal to pay off his creditors and save his life."
At a gesture, the thugs bent the boy over and held him in place while Philotas took him roughly, an assertion of ownership as much as an expression of lust, though the brothel keeper did find himself intensely aroused by the blond beauty who had once again fallen into his hands. Yes, if anything the boy was even more delectable than a couple of years earlier with better muscle definition and more experience at pleasuring males. The way he gasped and moaned and writhed in his bondage as Philotas raped him, all the while pinching and twisting his nipples, was so arousing. He was so very much alive, the perfect joy boy.
Looking several years younger than his true age and already at his full height, slight as that was, the boy would give him years of service looking much the same as he did then. The brothel master could pass the youth off as fourteen for the next couple of years and fifteen for the next two. Small, hairless, and girlishly pretty, Xeno could pull it off easily.
Philotas knew he would have to tame the lad properly and break his will before putting him to service, but that would be fun in itself. A man with long experience in keeping his boys in line, Philotas knew ways to inflict pain that left no permanent mark on the boy that would decrease his commercial value. Suspension with ropes in contorted positions soon leads to agonizing pain as cramps wrack the stretched and immobilized limbs. A few hours a day like that over a week reduces even the most rebellious boy to abject servility, agreeable to anything to stop the pain.
To speed things along, a disciplinarian like Philotas would hang weights from a leather thong wrapped around a recalcitrant boy's balls or tie them to small cords ending in fishhooks pushed through a boy's nipples and set to swinging. And that does not count all the things a man with patience and a nasty mind could think to do with a boy's asshole. There are many objects or substances that can be inserted into that orifice, not all of them intended for pleasure.
Oh, young Xeno would put up a good fight. He probably would resist longer than most. Philotas rather liked that thought, to see the boy struggle against his fate, against his bonds, against his own weakening resolve when he realized he was slipping into thrall. His own lusts would work against him, weakening his will, till his mind and body surrendered, slipping into a state of abject obeisance and compliance. It would take time, but Philotas would enjoy the way this exercise of power transformed little Xeno. The boy had spunk, as Philotas had found out when he had first impressed him into service only to have him slip through his fingers. But nobody gets the better of Philotas in the long run, especially not some runt of a bum boy like Xeno.
Although helpless to prevent the rough rape by Philotas and then his thugs, Xeno had no intention of accepting enslavement as a pleasure boy in Philotas' establishment or giving him time to break him again as he had others in his service. All the man held over him was a forged bill of sale. The man did not know that Xeno was literate thanks to old Sosthenes, the begger who had taken him into his home. The date of sale was impossible. Sosthenes had been dead for six months by then. Also his true father had legally acknowledged him as his legitimate son in front of witnesses, some of whom were still in the garrison or retired to Alexandria. If he could get a hearing, Xeno could prove he was freeborn, but who would listen to a naked pleasure boy?
Lucius and Marcus would help if they could. The trio had grown close in the four months they had known each other, but the soldiers had been assigned joint command of an expedition up the Nile. They were leaving at dawn in two days' time and had already said their farewells to their young friend. Suddenly Xeno knew what he must do. He had to get to his soldier friends and ask for their protection.
Xeno's first obstacle was to escape his bondage. Philotas was overconfident of the effect of painful suspension on the boy's body, leaving him alone in a dark cellar overnight. He forgot that Xeno was a acrobat and something of an escape artist too thanks to Sosthenes training. So he found a way to twist and pull himself into position to get at the knots of the ropes that bound him. Once he was loose it was simply a matter of getting away from the premises. Now the boy had been in Philotas' brothel before and he knew of two ways to slip out undetected.
So on the last night before the expedition's departure, in the early hours of the morning, Xeno escaped from the room he had been confined to and ran down to the canal that connected the city to the river. Sure enough he found the expedition just readying itself for departure. The men from two infantry centuries (80 men each, despite the name) plus some auxiliary archers were already filing aboard the five boats that would take them upstream. Marcus was in overall command of the expedition while Lucius was the military commander of the troops.
"Marcus, Lucius," the boy cried out with tears running down his face. "Help me, please."
"Little Xeno, whatever are you doing here?" Marcus asked, puzzled.
The boy explained what had happened, showing the rope burns on wrists and ankles and his collection of bruises and welts. The two soldiers were torn between their desire to help their young friend and correct an injustice and their clear duty to set off on their expedition right away. After some discussion, Marcus made his decision.
"All right, little one, if this man Philotas' claims you are a runaway slave then it is our duty to take you into custody."
"Whaaat!" the boy wailed.
"Indeed," intoned Lucius with mock seriousness. "And you will remain in our custody till we can return you to Alexandria and let the law takes its course. You will be on your parole not to try to escape till then. Is that acceptable, young Xenophon?"
With a big sigh of relief, Xeno hugged his friends fiercely, grateful for their protection.
"So how far are we going up river? You never said all this time that you two were getting ready."
"Well, that is a military secret, but since you are already aboard I think it is safe to tell you. How far upriver? All the way."
"All the way to where?"
"Marcus is just having his little joke, Xeno. What he means is that we are setting off to find the source of the Nile. The emperor Nero wants to control the source for strategic reasons."
"The source of the Nile? What is the point of that? What does it matter that the Nile starts in some particular lake or other in the mountains that must lie far to the south. The river will still flow down to Egypt regardless of where it originates or whose army is encamped at its headwaters, or am I missing something."
"Ah, out of the mouths of babes." Marcus chuckled. "Just what I said to the prefect, but our assignment comes from the emperor himself. We are to follow the river to its source."
"Now let's see. We cannot tolerate idlers on a military expedition, so you will be earning your keep as a cabin boy and body servant to the both of us. You might as well stay naked, at least while we are out on the river. Better for morale that way too, and don't roll your eyes, boy. You know you wouldn't keep your clothes on for very long anyway, shameless show off that you are. Never fear that Lucius and I are going to pass you around to one and all. You will confine your attentions to just the two of us. Now step over there out of the way while we get ready to leave."
"Yes, sir. Reporting for duty, sir. I am yours to command!" the boy flung back, giving a Roman style salute, unabashed joy on his face.
Not only had he escaped torture and sexual slavery, he was off on a glorious adventure with his two soldier friends. Little Xenophon of Alexandria was an explorer. Life doesn't get any better than that!
The first part of the trip went easily enough. After negotiating the connecting canal, the five boats reached the river and proceeded south. Although that was upstream and against the current, the wind blows steadily from the north most of the year making navigation on the Nile simplicity itself. Either let the current carry you north, downstream, or the wind south, upstream. The sailors used the oars mainly for daily landings and for steering.
Besides the two hundred soldiers (including archers) there were a hundred sailors and servants. This was a force large enough to protect itself from marauders but too small to look like an invasion to the rulers of the lands to the south. Officially they were an embassy, conveying the emperor's wishes for good relations with the lands to the south of Egypt. One of the boats carried extra supplies, though the other boats would purchase what they needed as long as they were in cultivated lands. Water was obviously no problem, even though the Nile flows across a desert, and the river provided fresh fish in abundance. Xeno was really good with a fish spear. Long practiced in the art, he knew how to correct for refraction of the image of the fish underwater.
Marcus had decided to make sure all the men could swim. If they fell overboard, he wanted them to know how to stay alive long enough for someone to throw them a rope or to bring a boat alongside.(The soldiers were under orders not to wear armor while on the water unless attacked.) The senior centurion enlisted Xeno as a demonstrator. The boy could swim like a porpoise while the archers ensured that crocodiles did not become too nosy. He went among the men training in the shallows, correcting their technique, mostly ignoring the questing hands that roamed all over his delicious body, slipping into his cleavage or squeezing his buttocks.
"Honestly, Sixtus," Xeno complained with some exasperation. "You are supposed to stroke the water, not my ass."
"I cannot help it, little one. You are so very sexy, so close to hand, and so available."
"I am available only to those I give myself to. No free samples, you big oaf." he retorted, splashing the offender in mock outrage, then swam out of reach.
Actually Xeno had developed a fondness for the big soldier who was one of the most appreciative fans of his singing and dancing. Forward he might be but essentially harmless, content for the nonce with Xeno's promise to sleep with him when they got back to civilization. The two mismatched males, one so large and strong, the other so slight and pretty, soon made a game of the soldier's unrequited longing for the blond boy. Xeno joked and teased; Sixtus growled theatrically and copped an occasional feel.
The other members of the expedition found Xeno utterly charming, wondering where their commanders had ever found this lovely creature who graced the expedition with his participation. They readily accepted the blond boy as one of them, though perpetually naked as he was and utterly hairless. For one thing, he was not the only naked boy among them. Several of the servant lads were equally blase about clothing or, for that matter, sharing their charms with the boat captains and sailors. Besides, nudity was so habitual with Xeno that he went about his business unselfconscious of his total exposure to the lustful gazes of the men, oblivious, for the most part, to the feelings he aroused with his lubricious display of concupiscence.
Bending over to reach a coil of rope, he gave no thought to the sailors and soldiers behind him drinking in the curve of his torso punctuated by the bumps of his spine or the split at the top of the taut ass cheeks, the crinkly hole lying in between, or the glimpse of his dangly bits framed by his slender thighs. They watched enthralled as he shinnied up the mast, arms and legs locked around the symbolic phallus that seemingly impaled his entire body, to finally perch on the spar of the mainsail as lookout. From the top, his keen young eyesight could pick out shoals and sandbars and rocks. He could see everything going on and about his boat, and everyone on his boat or the others could see everything about him.
He also won over the men by the way he entertained the company in the evening with his acrobatics, his dancing, and his fine singing voice, a light tenor. With an infectious sense of humor and his outgoing personality, Xeno was soon everyone's favorite. The men particularly respected him for the way the boy pulled his own weight and did his chores uncomplainingly. He did not think himself privileged just because their leaders were his lovers.
For his part, Xeno limited his sexual favors to just Marcus and Lucius so as not to arouse jealousies with the men under their command. The trio carried on their lovemaking as discreetly as possible in the commanders' small tent, though nothing could keep the sounds of lusty sexual congress from carrying all over the camp.
"Yep," Sixtus opined. "They would be plugging him at both ends right about now."
"How can you tell Sixtus?" one of the younger soldiers asked in a conspiratorial stage whisper.
"Didn't you hear the boy? That 'glumph' that came from him just now? That is when his mouth and throat are plugged by one shaft and he is just starting to take the other one up the ass. Quite different, don't you know, when they are both trying to get up his back chute at the same time."
"Oh? In what way?"
"That is when you will hear the hapless lad calling out to the gods for strength," the veteran soldier chuckled.
All in all it was a happy company, at least during the easy first stage of the journey. The soldiers just relaxed on the boats and let the wind and the sailors do all the heavy work. They just had to keep their weapons sharp and practice their individual sword work. There wasn't room on deck for normal drills in formation.
The second stage was passage of the Nile cataracts. They lay south of the last agricultural villages inhabitant by Egyptian peasants. The land there was rich in minerals and the river itself was a vital trade route with central Africa. To protect their trade monopolies, the locals did not talk much of what lay to the south. They did not want the Romans cutting them out of the lucrative trade, which is what they suspected was Nero's real intention for this mission.
The six cataracts of the Nile hindered navigation from Aswan nearly to Khartoum but they were not impassible. Well known to the Ancient Egyptians, only the first, the northernmost, was in modern Egypt; the rest were in the Sudan, in those days called Nubia. The cataracts were not really waterfalls at all but shallow stretches passing around many small rocky islets or where the water's surface is broken by boulders in the river bed. In some places, the cataracts amounted to white water rapids though in others the water flowed smoother. With sailors pushing on poles and professional haulers pulling on ropes, the boats managed to get past the first three cataracts easily enough. Most of the soldiers marched along the bank to lighten the load on the haulers. Marcus stayed with the boats while Lucius took charge on land with Xeno at his side.
Nubia had sometimes been within the dominion of Egypt and sometimes an independent country. For a while Nubia even conquered Egypt and Nubian kings ruled as Pharaoh. Roman rule did not extend as far up river as that of the Pharaohs, certainly not to the sixth cataract as had happened at the height of Egyptian power. More typically Pharaoh's writ ran up to the second cataract.
The Nubians of the region were a tall and dark skinned people and could hardly have expected to see a nude blond boy on the river. Since Xeno wasn't tramping along in armor as the soldiers were the Nubians invited Xeno to add his wiry strength to the towline, which he did. That gave the Nubians a close up view of his deliciously taut body straining on the rope, every muscle bundle defined, buttocks rock hard as he pushed himself forward. The dark skinned men encouraged him with pats on the shoulder and especially his curvaceous rump.
After passing each cataract, the locals invited the boy to spend the night in their young men's lodge, but the Roman commanders had to decline the honor for him. Xeno was relieved. Much as he liked the Nubians, he really did not want to spend the night getting fucked by several dozen of their lustiest lads. For one thing, after a day hauling on the tow rope, he was too tired to enjoy an orgy. Besides it would be unfair to their own soldiers and sailors who longed for the boy themselves. The Nubians had to be satisfied with Xeno's brief song recital at supper time.
Halfway between the third and fourth cataracts the Nile swerves to the northeast then the southeast and finally southwest to the junction of the Blue and While Niles. This deviation is called the Great Bend of the Nile. Since ancient times, a caravan route took the shortcut across the Great Bend of the Nile, bypassing the long loop.
The third stage of the journey started from the southernmost point that the river reached before its course turned northeast into the loop. The whole expedition proceeded overland leaving the boats and a third of the sailors to bivouac against their return. Meanwhile they would provide transport to the local Roman garrisons as needed. The rest of the expedition struck out across the desert landscape. Xeno donned sandals and tunic and a hooded cloak for the crossing, tramping along with the rest. A sandstorm was no place to be caught out in the nude. Donkeys carried water casks for their expedition, this being before the introduction of the camel to North Africa. They were getting into regions that were, if not totally unknown, were scarcely familiar to the Romans or their Egyptian subjects. Xeno's language skills were useful mainly for communicating with the native sailors who had come along with them though he could understand some of the native jabber.
One local merchant asked permission for his small caravan to travel with the Roman party for mutual protection, but Marcus too cautious to let them mingle with his own group on the march. They had to follow close behind. Marcus also insisted on separate camps every evening. The Romans were too few to build a regular fortified campsite, but they did what they could with a modest ditch and earthwork plus the usual staked palisade. Marcus doubled the guard the third night out, the night of a new moon, and quietly roused the whole company to stand to before dawn in expectation of treachery. He was not disappointed. The caravan was a cover for ruthless bandits who liked to mingle with unsuspecting fellow travelers then stab them in the back when their allies attacked the camp from outside. Just at dawn, a force of several hundred charged the Roman palisade.
Xeno took no part in the vicious battle. He was too small, essentially unarmed, and had only a street boy's knowledge of knife fighting. Marcus kept him in the center of the encampment with the sailors and servants where he himself directed the defense. Lucius led the flying platoon that plugged holes in the perimeter as needed. Enemy spearmen and swordsman hurled themselves at the Romans but like all bandits they essentially fought as individuals. The Romans were professional soldiers and fought as a team. They covered the man on their left as well as themselves with their shields. While one man used his shield to block an enemy's swing with a blade the man next to him stabbed into the groin or the belly of that enemy with the gladius or short stabbing sword that the legionary infantry had borrowed from its old enemies in Spain.
Roman armor, weaponry, tactics, and discipline won the day, sending the enemy reeling with heavy losses, a dozen times their own. The Romans lost seven men killed outright with a equal number wounded, only two seriously. Victory or not they were down at least ten fighters out of 160.
After finishing off the enemy wounded (the Romans took no prisoners), scouting for stragglers, cleaning and repairing equipment, sharpening blades, and tending their wounded, the Romans marched out of camp the following day, headed toward the confluence of the Blue Nile and the While Nile.
Chapter 3. White Nile, Blue Nile
The White Nile is called that from the whitish clay suspended in its waters. The Blue Nile drained the highlands of Ethiopia and really should be called the Black Nile. During its flood the water flow was so high its color changes to almost black. In the local Sudanese language the word for black was the same one used for the color blue. (Not every culture splits the light spectrum the same way.) During the summer flood most of the water in the river downstream of the junction came from the Blue Nile, indeed it caused the annual Nile flood downstream in Egypt. In the dry season the main flow was from the White Nile. That is why, when the expedition returned to the river at Khartoum and rented smaller boats and paddlers to go upstream, it followed the course of the White Nile.
It was still a couple of months till the Nile flood so the water level was low. Sometimes the sailors used oars and sometimes they simply poled the boats along. The channel here meandered back and forth across the landscape, adding to the miles they must cover. Sometimes the river spread wide, breaking up into a network of shallow braided channels that hardly floated the boats.
From time to time they passed a town, but none of the local rulers was a proper king. These regions were politically fragmented into dozens of baronies and chiefdoms. A little oratory and a demonstration of Roman arms by marching in formation usually sufficed to overawe the natives. Their warriors were astonished when the Romans demonstrated the rectangular turtle formation with shields locked together on top as well as on all four sides. Roman archers shot arrows at the formation without effect, being careful to aim at the centers of the shields. The turtle was not a static defensive formation either. Thanks to constant drill, the turtle could maneuver back and forth and left and right, maintaining the tightly interlocked shields that kept it impervious to arrow or spear. Its applications to siege warfare were obvious. The mud walls of these towns could not have long resisted Roman arms.
In these low latitudes so close to the Equator, the heat and humidity were oppressive. Xeno happily went back to total nudity though the soldiers did not have that option. He sometimes wondered why people bothered with clothing in the first place. Oh maybe it was understandable for the old or the infirm, and females of course. Xeno was realist enough to recognize the predatory streak in the human male. Better that females cover up rather than attract unwanted attentions, especially women already bonded to another. But why should a comely young male bother with clothing except as defense against the elements. As far as he was concerned, total nudity should be the normal condition when you were young and male and pretty. A pretty boy should be no more concerned about covering himself than a handsome colt or filly. The only covering a lovely lad needed was his bare skin.
"How well they swim, Xeno," Sixtus remarked observing a pod of hippos. "Such big ungainly beasts. You wouldn't think they had it in them. Perhaps there is hope for me yet."
"Good thinking, Sixtus. Actually you already swim well enough for the commander's purpose."
At the big soldier's raised eyebrows, the boy added:
"Marcus doesn't need men to swim like a porpoise. He just does not to want to lose anyone to drowning because they panic or cannot keep afloat for a few minutes if they fall overboard or step into a deep spot when crossing a river on the march. Half the people I have seen drown were no more than the span of their arms from safety: the gunwale of a boat, the shallows of a river, a pier jutting into a stream."
"Unlooked-for wisdom in one of such tender years. Very well then, answer me this, young philosopher. How is it that such inoffensive roly-poly creatures as those river horses, what you Greek speakers call hippopotami, can survive in the midst of these fearsome crocodiles. Why don't the lizards attack them?"
"Because if the crocs attacked, the hippos would kill them, my unobservant friend. Look closely where that big male is yawning. Yes, the mouth is built mostly for grazing on succulent grasses but look at those tusks. See how the long pair in the lower jaw mate with the shorter tusks in the upper jaw. What do you think would happen if a hippo closed that big mouth on a croc?"
"Chomp! Those tusks could puncture my lorica, I'd wager. They could easily punch right through the skin of a crocodile, tough though it is, and deep into the body. You are a bright boy, little one."
"Thanks for the compliment, but I still won't go to bed with you Sixtus, not till we are back in Alexandria. You can let go of my manhood now. I have to answer a call of nature. We wouldn't want an accident now, would we?"
Chuckling the big soldier let his hand fall away from where it had been toying with the boy down in front. Xeno turned to go to the bow of the ship then, on impulse, spun around and planted a big kiss on Sixtus' lips. Surprised and thoroughly pleased, the big soldier gave Xeno a friendly slap on the rump as the boy stepped away. He went back to studying the hippos. Hard to believe they could outrun a man on those stumpy legs, but the boy had said that too. Funny how the hippos tolerated those white birds which were always hopping on their heads and bodies, picking at insects.
The expedition was now well out of lands known to the peoples of the Mediterranean. Far upstream from the joining of the Blue and White Niles they came upon a sizeable lake fed by two substantial rivers. One led west and south into open country swarming with gazelles. This soon proved to be a tributary fed by a range of low mountains extending east and west. They returned to the lake and followed the other stream south. There they encountered the Sudd.
The Sudd was a vast swamp, one of the largest wetlands in the world, a maze of meandering channels, lagoons, and fields of reeds and papyrus where the river lost half of the inflowing water through evaporation and take up by the abundant plant life. The Sudd was really a shallow flat inland delta stretching over some 4 degrees of latitude, easily 300 miles (500 km) north to south and 125 miles (200 km) east to west.
The Sudd is too wet to march across but is also impassible to boats. There is no clear channel to navigate and no landmarks to steer by. Water passes through it so slowly that there is no discernible current to guide a traveler. It could not be flanked either. Further swamps to the east and west fed by the Nile's tributaries formed a barrier hundreds of miles wide. For centuries it had kept men from the north from finding the source of the Nile, and it did the same to the Roman expedition.
After going more than 3,000 miles (5,000 km) upriver from Alexandria in just under a year they had to turn back. Maybe they could find the source of the Blue Nile, but they had reached a dead end on the White Nile. Still those three thousand miles upriver were longer than the full length of all but six other rivers in the world. Even the Congo was not so long.
Actually they were still hundreds of miles even in a straight line from Lake Victoria, whose existence they did not even suspect. Beyond Lake Victoria lay the Great Lakes Region of Africa in the Rift Valley of which they knew nothing. Some of those lakes also fed their waters to the Nile which drained north to the Mediterranean; others sent their waters to the Congo which flowed west to the Atlantic, and still others south to link up with the flow of the Zambesi River into the Indian Ocean, known to the ancients as the Erythraean Sea.
Everyone was happy about the decision to turn back north. They were getting eaten alive by the bugs. Even Xeno, though usually less vulnerable to bugs as a blond, was miserable with pricks and bites from mosquitos and flies. Squeezings from plants deterred but did not stop the flying pests. The worst was the constant loss of soldiers and others to disease. Coughs and fluxes and fevers of all sorts haunted these inundated lands. At least the area was not plagued by the tsetse fly which carried the dreaded sleeping sickness. Sadly, one of the first to die in this inundated region was Sixtus, the big soldier with the roaming hands. Now his promised tryst with Xeno would never happen. The boy wove a garland of flowers and put it on the big man's brow as he lay on his funeral pyre. His tearful eulogy to his friend touched all their hearts.
"Oh, no! First that uncrossable swamp, now an impassable canyon." exclaimed Xeno.
Xeno articulated for all the members of the expedition their intense disappointment. After laboriously retracing their steps for five hundred miles (800 km) to the confluence of the two main branches of the Nile, they had sailed upstream through dry grasslands, pushing nearly four hundred miles (640 km) up the Blue Nile, into the forested highlands of Ethiopia.
Now two months from the day they turned back from the Sudd, they realized that the river ran through a series of gorges thousands of feet deep and apparently hundreds of miles long, to hear the natives tell it. Its rapids were unnavigable especially against the current. Nor was there room at the bottom of the canyons to march along the river bed. Even had there been, there was too much risk of being caught by the river flood and drowned like rats.
For this reason, the Blue Nile has never been an avenue of commerce. The great trench it carves in the landscape cuts northern Ethiopia off from the rest of the country even in modern times. It was only in the twenty-first century that men managed to paddle its length in modern rubber boats. The natives did report that the river originated in a deep lake only to flow over a spectacular cascade a short distance downstream.
"Another dead end then." Marcus mused. "We will just have to report the bad news back to Alexandria. At least there is no strategic threat from either branch of the river. No army could move downstream past the swamps or the canyons."
"Maybe we don't have to admit defeat and just turn around and retreat to Egypt, Marcus. The local tribe says that the river flows in a great loop from a lake which lies due east of here. We could march straight to the lake much like we took the shortcut across the Great Bend of the Nile."
"Very chancy Lucius, and how can we be sure any lake we found was feeding the Blue Nile? Aside from what the natives told us."
Suddenly Xeno had a thought and piped up.
"Why not mark big chips of wood with 'SPQR' and throw them into the river below the falls that drain the lake you mentioned? If we march back here afterwards, across the mouth of the loop, we should get here in time to spot at least some of the wood chips floating by. That would be confirmation wouldn't it?"
"By the gods, I think the boy has it. Clever lad!" Marcus exclaimed.
No one in central Africa, or Libya, as the Romans called it, used the Latin alphabet much less the characteristic tetragram SPQR for Senatus Populusque Romanus, the Senate and the Roman People.
The test of a good plan is the execution. A march cross country meant abandoning the boats to the care of the remaining sailors and a small force of guards. The remaining two hundred or so would push east, forced to live off the land. They had gold to purchase food and numbers enough to discourage hostiles from simply seizing their wealth. It was a balancing act. They had to present enough of a threat to protect themselves but not enough to alarm whoever ruled these uplands. It was a test of diplomacy as well as of logistics and military skill.
Xeno came into his own on the march as a forward scout. Unencumbered by armor or clothing, small and agile, he could cover ground faster than any of the other scouts. Marcus kept three scouts deployed ahead of him to search for the most negotiable paths ahead, to find good places to camp at night, and to keep an eye out for villages or hostile tribesman. Xeno had long since traded in his Roman javelin for a native spear with a leaf shaped blade of steel at the end of a strong handle. That was much more suitable as an all round weapon. By contrast, the Roman javelin was designed to be used only once, thrown at the enemy line of battle, just before a legionnaire drew his sword and waded in to hand to hand combat.
So Xeno was often the first from the expedition to contact the natives, usually at the young men's lodge on the edge of the village, Xeno's appearance was an earnest of their peaceful intentions. He approached openly, alone and armed only with a light spear, entirely naked like their own young men and boys. His blond locks, grown long during the voyage, gave potentially hostile tribes pause. They wanted to know where this girlish visitor with hair the color of the sun had come from.
Many of the unmarried men and boys wanted to hustle him into their lodge to get better acquainted. They found his exotic good looks terribly sexy. Physically and socially isolated from their young women, restricted by custom to narrow windows of opportunity for courtship only after they reached their mid-twenties, these young males had only each other for sexual relief in the meanwhile. Perpetually nude themselves like their young visitor, the young tribesmen buzzed around the attractive young stranger like bees around a fragrant blossom.
Alas, for all his devotion to duty, Xeno could not always refuse their suit. So sometimes the main column arrived in a village only to discover their forward scout in the mist of a tangle of limbs and bodies, engaged in an exercise in personal diplomacy, as he later called it. Marcus shook his head tolerantly. He could hardly fault the boy. The young men of these Nilotic tribes were stunning physical specimens, tall and well built if slender, and generously endowed. No wonder a randy boy like Xeno succumbed to their charms.
After all, theirs was a diplomatic mission. So if the boy arrived in a village and surrendered his spear as a sign of good will, well there he was, utterly naked and supremely desirable. It was only natural for his interlocutors to be enthralled by his extraordinary physical beauty, to explore his exquisite physique, to touch him in a manner calculated to arouse. Surrounded by a crowd of nude young males, Xeno felt their hands on him everywhere, caressing his rump, delving into his cleavage, tweaking his nipples. Soon his cock was fully erect and dripping. Little Xeno was in no position to decline the tribute to his sexuality that the young males of the tribes proffered to him.
"I am sorry, Marcus and Lucius," he tried to explain. "But I wanted to show that we were friends not invaders or raiders. What better way then than to deliver myself to them completely, unarmed and totally naked, hiding nothing from them, neither a holdout weapon nor any part of my body. So I let them take my spear from me. Well there I was in their midst, entirely naked, as all the young men were. They were kissing me and smelling me, their hands roaming all over me, stimulating and stroking and touching. My cock got hard which they took as I consent for what they wanted to do with me. I was carried away, literally. They lifted me off the ground, legs drawn wide apart. One boy stepped between them and thrust into me while another slapped my face with his member before presenting it to me to suck. Almost before I knew it, I was being passed from cock to cock to cock. I really cannot remember particulars after that. I know I deserve punishment, sir, wanton boy that I am."
But Marcus was wise enough to put his chagrin aside and to look at it rationally. A youth barely eighteen, a naked acrobat and pleasure boy no less, how could he not be tempted beyond his ability to resist. It is not like little Xeno was a soldier subject to military discipline. He was a horny teenager. Who could blame him for doing what came naturally when seized by a crowd of randy young males? No surprise then that at the next village, the more enthusiastic youths led Xeno around by his hard prick, letting everyone get a good look at him, giving them a chance to run their hands over him and into his cleavage before bending him over their big log drum to be fucked at both ends at the same time. It went a long way to demonstrating their good intentions to the inhabitants of these regions.
Chapter 4. Maneaters
And then came Xeno's display of courage during his encounter with maneating lions, the incident that saw him acclaimed by the tribes as the Lion Boy.
It began with a small party of native hunters finally tracking down a pair of maneaters who had been plaguing the district. The full grown cats were brothers from the same litter, big males with white coats. Not really albinos, they had the yellow eyes of their tawny cousins. Already twenty-seven people had been killed and carried off to be devoured. No one knew why the big cats had turned maneater. Both appeared to be in the prime of life, in excellent health, easily able to take their normal prey. Yet they had developed a taste for human flesh and lost their fear of human beings. The inhabitants of eight villages belonging to three different tribes huddled in terror every night, fearful that anyone who answered a call of nature would not make it back to his hut. Children gathering roots or herding cattle had been taken in broad daylight. No one felt safe. The lions had twice attacked men hunting them. The trouble was finding them in the vast range they roamed over.
The afternoon of Xeno's confrontation with the big cats became indelibly engraved in their collective memories. The sun was still two hours above the horizon formed by the hills to the west. Well out in front of the column, Xeno dropped below the brow of a ridge coming to a stop atop some rocks. From his vantage point he could see two groups of hunters down the hill following a trail in chest high grass. The first group were two trackers and two spearmen to protect them. A second group of five was about forty paces behind, close enough to rush up in support yet with room to maneuver if the lions attacked the leaders. From his perch Xeno could see that the pair of lions must have doubled back on their pursuers and were poised to pounce on the trailing group. Ambush was ever the favorite tactic of the feline.
The lions were too intent on their targets to notice him. With no way to communicate his meaning in words, Xeno silently waved his spear in the air to attract the attention of the hunters, pointed it to where the lions lay in wait, then pantomimed a lion attack. Setting his spear aside, he raised his arms spreading the fingers like claws, slashing the air in an exaggerated fashion, and rolling his head as if biting and rending. The natives got the message and formed a hedgehog of spears just in time to fend off the attack of the killer lions. One lion was wounded badly in the fierce attack then cornered by the lead party of trackers and warriors and killed, but the other one bounded up the hill past the lead group headed right toward Xeno.
The boy had nowhere to run and nowhere to hide. There he was a small nude youth, tawny and lovely as a faun, facing a lion four times his mass, a mankiller armed with sharp claws and fearsome fangs. Xeno was but a slip of a lad, a city boy entirely without experience of the hunt. Nevertheless he stood his ground, his heart in his throat, screwing his courage up but inwardly feeling like he was no more than naked prey for the great carnivore. His scrotum pulled up to the fork of his legs as he faced what he thought was his doom, but he never wavered, never gave in to the temptation to turn and flee in panic. Naked prey or not, the steel point of his spear gave him a pretty effective claw or fang of his own. He would give the best account of himself that he could.
Taking what advantage he could of the terrain, Xeno placed himself among a group of boulders that would force the lion to attack him frontally. Bracing himself with his rear foot against the boulder directly behind him, he readied himself for the lion's attack.
Marcus and Lucius reached the top of the ridge just in time to see the lion close with the boy. The two soldiers were sick with the thought that the warm and welcoming body of their young lover might be torn apart before their very eyes, transformed into so much dead meat. They might not even be able to prevent the lion from carrying the body off into the wilds to devour at his leisure. Their hearts went out to the brave boy who stood there strong and proud despite his understandable fear. Barely eighteen, yes, but a man in spirit, if not quite in body.
Xeno had heard his lovers' shout but knew the issue would be decided before they could intervene. There wasn't even time for archers to spread out and try to put a shaft into the maneater. The boy's nether pucker spasmed. It was all he could do to control his sphincters. He felt chagrined that he might die disgracing himself in front of the men he loved. He hoped they would avenge him and kill the lion for everything he was taking from the boy, all the years he would forfeit, all the experiences he would never have.
The tawny eyes of the great cat flashed as he charged the boy, standing there so still and small and vulnerable. Xeno stared intently as he set himself. Maybe he would die in a moment, but he tried to put defiance and pride in his demeanor and his stance. Xeno received the beast's attack, leaning forward at the last moment and thrusting the shaft of the spear with both hands, pointing it straight at the charging lion, aiming the spearpoint for the lion's breast. The cat sprang from two body lengths away, front paws spread wide. It filled Xeno's field of vision, and its roars rang in his ears.
As luck would have it, or maybe the superb muscular coordination of a trained acrobat, Xeno managed to force the point of his spear between the lion's throat and its ribs straight into its body cavity. Aided by the beast's own momentum, the blade tore through the lion's heart and lungs. Even as he slashed at his naked prey, the lion was dying, so his claws lacked their normal force. True, one paw slashed the boy's ribs on the left side in the back and went on to cut twin furrows into his left buttcheek, but those were flesh wounds only. They lacked the force to dismember or disembowel. Nevertheless, Xeno went down under the impetus of the charge, half covered by the dead feline.
"Xeno!" Marcus cried, anguish in his voice as he and Lucius ran down to the scene of Xeno's brave stand.
They stabbed down into the dreadful beast making sure it was dead then rolled it off the boy. Xeno had had the wind knocked out of him and he was bleeding from the wounds inflicted by the beast's claws, but most of the blood on him was the beast's own.
"Am I alive then?" the boy asked shaken and confused.
"Very much so, my brave little Xeno" Lucius replied.
Marcus and Lucius had tears in their eyes, tears of joy and relief, as they examined the boy's injuries, none of which were life threatening or disfiguring. The army surgeon cleaned the wounds applying a solution of distilled spirits to them to prevent corruption. He simply bandaged the wound on the buttocks but had to take stitches to the slashes to the ribs, one of which exposed the bone. Xeno bit on a stick while the surgeon fixed him up, whimpering at the pain from the man's ministrations but not complaining. He knew the surgeon was doing his level best to fix him up. As the man told him:
"The cuts on your butt should heal clean boy. In time you will have a pair of white lines that will look more like beauty marks than scars. The tears on your back will leave scars but those will blend with the furrows of your ribs in back. You got off lucky, Xeno, not only alive but with your looks essentially intact."
Meanwhile the leader of the native hunters came up to pay his respects. He could hardly believe that their savior was so small and young, just eighteen, not to mention so very pretty, looking more like a girl than a young man. Still he was properly grateful for Xeno's timely warning and for killing the larger of the two lions. He and the others had washed their spears in the blood of the other lion, so honors were earned all around.
Through a chain of two interpreters the chief hunter gave the Romans to understand the extent of the depredations of the maneaters who had been considered as ghosts by many villagers from their coloring, as veritable devils by others. The hunters who tracked their spoor never shared that belief. Anything that left paw prints in the earth and scat where the animals bedded down was flesh and blood all right. But they were elusive and uncannily dangerous beasts, the worst maneaters in generations. But for the boy's actions, the pair of them would have ambushed the hunters and gotten clean away to continue their killing spree.
"Lion Boy." Marcus exclaimed. "That's what they are calling you, Xeno, or maybe Lion Cub. Hard to tell with a chain of translation like this. The chief hunter has invited all of us to a celebration at the meeting grounds of the three tribes who took part in the hunt. They want to honor you and their own successful hunters."
"But all I did was stick my spear out and let the lion run onto it. Don't they understand that I was basically trying to hide behind the spear point? It wasn't courage, really. I was too terrified to run. I certainly am not some brave hunter or fierce warrior to be celebrated in song and story, just a boy who got lucky."
"Ah, but you are too modest, Xeno. Making your stand despite your terror, that is what took courage. And you did give the natives timely warning of the ambush the lions had set up. I am afraid you really are a hero. Besides, for diplomatic reasons, you have to play one. Understand?"
"Sure, Marcus. A bit of playacting, like putting on one of my shows. Count me in, but if I start to get too swelled a head, just spank me."
"I'd like to do that anyway, as soon as you are healed back there, but yes, of course."
The celebration was a big success. The country all around was relieved at the destruction of the monsters. Theirs was a fertile land, and life could be good for its inhabitants, better than in many other regions of Africa. Good soils, adequate rainfall and drainage, and lower temperatures due to their elevation all made for a contented, healthy, and prosperous populace.
With the assistance of the confederation of three tribes, the expedition finished its march to the lake said to be the source of the Blue Nile, arriving at Lake Tana at midmorning of a beautiful sunny day. From the surrounding heights, they could see clear across the broad lake which measures some fifty miles (84 km) long by forty miles wide (66 km). They noted that the lake was fed by several short rivers that flowed into it, but for all intents and purposes Lake Tana was the source of the Nile. The great waterfall of the Blue Nile lay thirty kilometers downstream. Nearly as high as Niagara Falls and some 400 yards wide when in flood, the spray from the falling waters generated a nearly permanent rainbow that enthralled the Romans. Surely this was where the gods bade the Nile to come forth to water the lands downstream.
Still they had to prove it. Marcus set the soldiers to felling moderate sized trees and sawing out sections of the trunks and main branches for Xeno's wood chips, making them generally a hand-span wide (nine or ten inches) and thick as a finger. The armorer had fashioned a double set of brands that burned SP then QR into the wood on both sides, almost like an early form of printing. It took some days, but eventually they had hundreds of wood chips which they threw into the river, a few at a time, day and night, for three days. That would ensure that at least some of them would float by the western end of the great loop during daylight hours.
Retracing their steps, they found that the natives had by then cured the hide of the lion that Xeno had killed. They presented it to him in a formal ceremony. There the boy stood atop a Roman shield held aloft by two men, spear in hand, clad in the lion skin though otherwise nude. The head of the beast served as a hood worn on the back of the head, the great canines framing the boy's face as the skin itself fell like a cloak or cape down his back, the tail trailing on the ground. Nude but for the lion skin, the boy looked like a youthful Hercules to the Romans. To the natives, he was simply the Lion Boy, sent by the gods in their time of need. Xeno said appropriate words to show his gratitude for the gift and the tribute to his courage that it represented. He gave credit to the hunters for having tracked both beasts down and killing one of them themselves.
Sure enough, when the expedition arrived where they had left the boats, they had to wait only a couple of days before sharp eyed sailors in boats floating in mid stream spotted Xeno's wood chips bobbing in the current. Their light color stood out against the dark waters of the flood. Fishing the chips out with a net, the sailors presented them to the leaders of the expedition. The SPQR inscribed on the chips proved that they had indeed reached the source of the Blue Nile at Lake Tana.
Mission accomplished, the expedition set off downstream, retracing their path to Egypt.
Chapter 5. Alexandria 62 AD
The Romans sailed all the way down the river, ignoring the short cut across the Great Bend of the Nile. Better to just float down all the way, negotiating all six cataracts. With the river in flood, the waters carried their boats right over the rapids and shallow spots. They linked up with the large boats they had left behind upstream of the third cataract and made excellent progress, arriving in Alexandria seventeen months after they had set out.
As it was, their company was much diminished by disease, accidents, drownings, snakebite, the bandit attack, and even two men taken by crocodiles. Of nearly three hundred who set out, only 180 returned. The prefect was on an inspection trip of the garrisons on the east side of the delta when they arrived so Marcus and Lucius saw to the comfort of their men and sat down to write up their report. When he returned to the city, the prefect was pleasantly surprised to find them in Alexandria. He had nearly given them up as lost.
He received both leaders in private, getting their written report and an oral explanation of other matters like Xeno's status and legal problems. The prefect arranged to have them present their findings to the whole court in a few days' time. He specifically requested Xeno be there in his Lion Boy regalia and nothing else. He wanted to see for himself the beauty that had caused all the contention over possession of the lad. Meanwhile he had his scribes check out the boy's story. In the official records they found the transfer of the hovel to Xeno, the signed statement of witnesses to his father's declaration of paternity, and the record of Sosthenes' death. Satisfied with these findings, the prefect summoned Philotas to attend, promising a hearing on his claim for the boy which he had renewed as soon as he heard Xeno was back in Alexandria.
Some of the scholars from the Great Library and Museum challenged the reports of the expedition. Armchair experts to a man, they were sure that the River Nile must arise in the southern Atlas Mountains in North Africa and flow east through the Sahara to eventually turn north as the Nile. Hadn't Herodetus said as much in his history five centuries earlier? The soldiers, after all, had not actually followed the Blue Nile all the way to its source. And they had turned back from the impassable swamp, the Sudd, still ignorant of the origins of the White Nile. The prefect dismissed their reservations.
"Who cares what some Greek graybeard guessed at from traveler's tales centuries ago? These were intrepid Romans who went to the ends of the earth and returned to tell the tale. The swamp on the White Nile lies due south of Egypt at a distance greater than the length of the Mediterranean. That is much too far south to be fed by a hypothetical river originating far west of Egypt. Also I am convinced that the wood chips floating downstream proved that the lake they found was indeed the source of the Blue Nile. Water flows downhill, and wood floats on water, as any simpleton knows.
I commend the boy Xeno who thought that strategm up and commend the commanders who were not too proud to take their cue from a naked pleasure boy when what he said made sense. From their report, the Blue Nile is also the source of the annual flood of the river. Indeed they floated downstream on that flood making excellent time too. That is good enough for me, and I trust the news will please Nero in Rome too. These men have found a source of the Nile, if not the only one."
"In the name of the Senate and the People of Rome, I hereby present laurel wreaths of victory to Marcus Crassus, Lucius Claudius, and young Xenophon too. Both soldiers are hereby promoted to the rank of military tribune. I am also awarding a donative of three gold pieces to each soldier and sailor who completed the trip."
"Now as to the boy Xeno. First let me commend you once more, young Xenophon, on your cleverness in aiding our expedition to reach its goal. Your stratagem proved it had indeed reached the source of the Blue Nile. I also take public cognizance of the extraordinary story behind your acquisition of that lion cape you are wearing. Let it be known that this boy single handedly slew a large man eating lion with a single thrust of his spear. He is wearing the skin of that beast. Judge for yourself its size to his. Xeno's act speaks well of his courage. As if intelligence and bravery were not enough, Xeno, you are blessed with great physical beauty as well. I do no doubt that you are the loveliest boy I have ever set eyes upon. No wonder men contend for your favors."
"Philotas wrote in his petition to the court that, as a matter of law, this exquisite boy belongs to him, sold by his old master Sosthenes as documented by a bill of sale. On the other side, are the sworn statements of several soldiers and retired soldiers, notably that of one Quintus Rufus recently retired from the Legio XXII Deiotariana right here in Alexandria. They confirm the boy's story."
"The man lied!" called out Philotas, indignant that the prefect had had his claims investigated.
"Whom am I to believe, Philotas?" the prefect said shaking his head. "A brothel keeper who has a direct pecuniary interest in the boy as a sex slave or the sworn statements of several upstanding veteran soldiers who have nothing to gain by an untruth. Oh, and did I mention that when I was a young tribune, Quintus Rufus was my centurion and that he saved my life in battle? Twice no less."
"That is him scowling at you, the big man over there in the dark blue tunic with his trademark spatha in the scabbard by his side. He always scorned the regulation gladius as too small for a man of his dimensions."
Deliberately studying his fingernails to draw out the suspense, the wily prefect added, ever so casually:
"Out of respect for the court, I believe that Quintus can be persuaded not to cut your head off for calling him a liar."
Philotas deflated at this revelation, suddenly apprehensive at the wicked grin flashed to him by Qunitus who put his hand to the hilt of his long cavalry saber or spatha, though he did not draw it.
"Added to the weight of credible witnesses" the prefect continued, "is the court's indignation at a clumsy forgery presented as a bill of sale. Bless the Ptolomies, the administrative system they set up here in Egypt is a model for the empire. Official records show that old Sosthenes died six months before the date of the spurious sale."
He continued in the most severe of tones, the one he reserved for pronouncements and sentences.
"The court finds that the boy Xenophon is and always has been a free person and not a slave. No one has any claim on him."
"Know then Philotas son of Miltiades, that as prefect of Egypt and plenipotentiary for the divine Nero I could have you executed or cast into slavery yourself for perjury and false claims. All your wealth would then be forfeit to the state. Count yourself lucky that, valuing the taxes you have paid over the years and will continue to pay in the future, I consider you something of an ongoing asset to the public fisc. So instead of the harsh sentence you really deserve this court levies on you a fine of fifteen talents, to be paid to the free boy Xenophon, the injured party in all this.
"Fifteen talents! But that is a fortune." Philotas wailed.
"Yes, and now it is his fortune. You are fortuntate that I did not make it fifty. Fifteen talents in gold to Xenophon, no later than the day after tomorrow or explain why to Quintus and his friends."
Nodding to the official scribe he added the formulaic pronouncement:
"So let it be written. So let it be done."
That made it official. Philotas could only bow his head in acquiescence, knowing he dared not cross the prefect or the big swordsman either. He consoled himself with the thought that at least he had kept his head and his freedom, and the fine had not been fifty talents, which would have wiped him out.
"That sum should set you up nicely for the rest of your life, Xeno," Lucius observed.
On the advice of one of the prefect's friends and political clients, a successful merchant, Xeno invested the bulk of his windfall in shares in shipping ventures, always spreading the risk by taking only a minority share in any one ship or voyage and reinvesting all the proceeds. He allowed his capital to accumulate so it grew prodigiously over the years. Despite occasional losses from shipwrecks or piracy this strategy of diversification of investment worked out well for the boy. In fifteen years his small fortune grew into a fairly large one.
For a while Xeno continued his career as a street acrobat and pleasure boy but only as a sideline. It wasn't for the money. It gave him a chance to show himself off. Though he took occasional clients to bed, it was only those whom he found attractive, and he donated the proceeds to an orphanage.
The prefect granted Xeno full access to the Museum and Library. The scholars there soon warmed to the lad's genuine curiosity and hunger to learn. He spent many happy hours reading the classics or travel narratives like the tale in Herodetus of the circumnavigation of the Libyan continent seven centuries earlier under the Pharaoh Necho II. It made him speculate whether someday a future explorer would reach the source of the White Nile by a southern approach, marching inland from the Erythraean Sea, the name the Ancients gave to the Indian Ocean. Actually it would be left to the late nineteenth century before the American explorer Henry Morton Stanley to do just that, circling Lake Victoria to find the outlet that he called the Victoria Nile, the real start of the river.
Marcus and Lucius rented a comfortable house near the barracks; Xeno settled in with them in a menage a trois. No idler, Xeno rejected the role of pampered strumpet, insisting on managing their household as well as managing his own finances. Their salaries and his own increasing wealth made possible a comfortable existence for the three of them, though with their simple tastes they avoided extravagance and ostentation. Their triple relationship endured, the bonds forged during their search for the source of the Nile lasting a lifetime.
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