LIST OF PRINCIPAL CHARACTERS
Characters marked with an asterisk were real historical figures. The rest might have been.
Aetius* – Gaius Flavius Aetius, born 398 in the frontier town of Silestria, in modern-day Bulgaria. The son of Gaudentius, Master-General of Cavalry, and himself later Master-General of the Roman Army in the West
Aladar – Hun warrior, son of Chanat, one of Attila’s eight generals
Amalasuntha* – only daughter of King Theodoric of the Visigoths
Andronicus – captain of the Imperial Guard, Constantinople
Arapovian – Count Grigorius Khachadour Arapovian, an Armenian nobleman
Ariobarzanes – Lord of Azimuntium
Athenais* – married to the eastern Emperor Theodosius II, and re-named Eudoxia
Attila* – born 398, King of the Huns
Bela – Hun general
Cadoc – a Briton, son of Lucius
Candac – Hun general
Chanat – Hun general, father of Aladar
Checa* – first wife of Attila
Chrysaphius* – a Byzantine courtier
Csaba – Hun general
Dengizek* – eldest son of Attila
Ellak* – son of Attila
Enkhtuya – a Hun witch
Galla Placidia* – born 388, daughter of Emperor Theodosius the Great, sister of Emperor Honorius, mother of Emperor Valentinian III
Gamaliel – an aged, well-travelled medical man
Genseric* – King of the Vandals
Geukchu – Hun general
Honoria* – daughter of Galla Placidia, sister of Valentinian
Idilico – a Burgundian girl
Jormunreik – Visigothic wolf-lord
Juchi – Hun general
Knuckles – baptised Anastasius, a Rhineland legionary
Leo* – Bishop of Rome
Little Bird – a Hun shaman
Lucius – also Ciddwmtarth, a British leader of his people
Malchus – a captain of cavalry
Marcian* – eastern Emperor, 450-457, married to Pulcheria
Nemesianus – a wealthy man of Aquileia
Nicias – a Cretan alchemist
Noyan – Hun general
Odoacer* – a Gothic warlord
Orestes* – a Greek by birth, Attila’s lifelong companion
Priscus of Panium* – a humble scribe
Pulcheria* – sister of Theodosius II
Romulus Augustulus* – the last emperor
Sabinus – Legionary Legate of the VII at Viminacium
Sangiban* – King of the Alans
Tarasicodissa Rousoumbladeotes* – Isaurian chieftain, also known as Zeno
Tatullus – First Centurion of the VII at Viminacium
Themistius* – an orator
Theodoric* – King of the Visigoths, 419-451
Theodoric* – Visigothic prince, eldest son of King Theodoric
Theodosius* – eastern Emperor, 408-450
Torismond* – Visigothic prince, son of King Theodoric
Valamir – Visigothic wolf-lord
Valentinian* – western Emperor, 425-455
Vigilas* – a Byzantine courtier
The southern banks of the Danube, AD 449
A morning in early summer. The great river meandering slowly through the rich Moesian plains and eastwards to the Euxine Sea. A patchwork of ploughland and meadow, and further away from the town, blossoming orchards and copses of ancient woodland. The smaller River Margus flowing down northwards from the hills to join the majestic Danube.
Darting over the surface of the water, the bright green metallic flash of damselflies, and columns of tiny waterflies rising and falling in the warming summer air. Willows along the banks of the river and alders beside the damp streambeds. Black poplars releasing their fluffy white seeds in clouds, landing and revolving and floating on downstream. Minnows flashing and darting in shoals, trout in among the brown boulders, beautiful grayling. Nodding kingcups reflected in the water, and the meadows all around scattered with the yellow of marsh marigold and yellow flag. No sound but the wind rustling the reeds, or the single peep of a duckling as it raced over the water back to its mother, beating its stubby little wings to no effect.
Riverine nature so peaceful and serene on this morning in early May, that for a brief moment you might think yourself back in Adam’s Eden, long before the Fall.
And then the shadow of a heron over the waters, cruising in silent and low, its cold and passionless yellow eyes swivelling downwards in search of prey.
Come closer to the little town of Margus with its ancient walls and its cathedral tower with its solitary iron bell, and you hear the sound of human bustle and chatter. There are naked children laughing and splashing in the shallows, brown and shiny as pebbles, mischievously opening the sallow-wood fish-traps and letting the fish swim free. There is laughter on the roads, and then in the meadows stretching up to the walls of the town itself, laid out in many colours and resounding with the languages of many different peoples – the great and celebrated Margus fair.
A vast, rowdy, polyglot encampment, teeming with energy, enterprise and greed. Open-sided canvas tents and pied awnings and stalls of carved and painted wood. People buying and selling with clacking tongues and a whole grammar of gestures and winks and hand signals. Buyers slowly producing worn leather purses from inside their robes, and sellers biting coins to test their worth – plenty of bronze coins around that have been washed with arsenic to make them pass for silver. Fur merchants from the far north, from beyond the Roman Empire, selling bearskin and marten, beaver and sable. Bright-eyed songbirds whistling in their osier cages. Everywhere the savour of smoking fish and roasting meat, and girls selling slugs of wine straight from the barrel in wooden cups. More elaborate inns and taverns under canvas. Pickpockets, of course, preying on the drunk and unwary, and women looking for husbands or at least money, walking light-stepped and lazy-eyed, swaying their hips between the groups of men.
Further off, the warm ripe smell of livestock in wooden corrals. Cattle dealers and sheep sellers communicating in their secret language and occult numbers, with barely discernible nods and winks for deals. And the air everywhere filled with greetings and curses, jests and lewd remarks, the high piping cries of excited children, the cackle of geese, and a single screaming monkey in a cage. From the land of the Nubians, so the monkey-seller said, without any great conviction. The monkey reached out its paw and pulled the hair of unwary bystanders. And all this ripe human chaos under the supposed regulation of a handful of frontier troops from the towering legionary fortress of Viminacium, ten miles east.
There was a girl there, a gentle, dreamy girl with a hare-shot lip, because a hare had walked across her mother’s path when she was pregnant with her. So they said. She carried a yoke of wooden pails and sold goat’s milk by the cupful, but she was not in truth a bold or assertive seller and she made little money. She too frequently gave cupfuls of milk away to hungry-eyed, plaintive children pestering her. When she returned at the day’s end, her mother would scold her for not having sold enough, accusing her of daydreaming her days away. And scold her even more for not having found a husband to take her off her poor old mother’s hands.
She disliked jostling crowds, and was drawn to the edge of the fair where the gaudy tents and stalls gave way to open meadows, and then the low line of the hills to the west, and the jut of Mons Aureus, the mountain of gold, with its fabulous mines. The vaults of Viminacium were full of gold, so they said. When it was transported down the great imperial trunk road to the emperor in Constantinople, it went with an escort of a thousand men. And the emperor… the girl always imagined him as made of gold himself, seated on his high throne covered in gold leaf, like a statue, immobile, unapproachable. A living god.
Now she lingered shyly before an old woman’s canopy of grubby canvas supported on gnarled staves.
‘Come you in, girl, come you in. It’s a lover you’ll be wanting at your age!’
The old woman grinned and bobbed about among her strange wares, performing almost a little dance, her white hair in a tight bun, her ringed fingers fluttering. The old woman was no witch, no purveyor of instruments for cruelty, malice and revenge, but only a fortune-teller. A preacher had earlier that morning come out of the town to stand by her tent and preach on the text ‘Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live’, but the people only scowled at him and passed on, leaving the preacher impotent and the old woman alone and unlynched.
The girl hesitantly set down her pails and the old woman took her hand and drew her in. Within the shadows of the tent there were animals’ feet and tails, and strangely shaped stones like seashells, long dyed feathers of heron and bustard, tufts of multicoloured rags tied round sticks topped with small brass bells, leather pouches of herbs, bottles of dubious liquor. Then something else caught the girl’s eye, something very beautiful, which she took at first for a mirror. A little vanity such as rich ladies use to admire themselves when they are carried to dinner in their gilded litters, through the grand wide streets of great cities. Jewelled ladies with their white-chalked faces and forearms and little flattering mirrors.
The old fortune-teller knew at once what she wanted and bobbed over and retrieved it. It was a strange box made from hinged coloured glass, held together with silver wires. It would be very costly and the girl had no money but for the few desultory coppers she had earned so far that morning. But the old woman brought the coloured glass box out into the sunshine anyway and passed it to her without mockery.
‘Look into it,’ she said. ‘Hold it up to the light. Some see the world as it is, though in many pretty colours. But some, who have the gift, see the world as it will be.’
The girl hesitated. She didn’t know that she believed in such things. Not really. Besides, who has the strength to see their own future? Especially a poor goat-girl with a scold of a mother and a hare-shot lip?
The woman nodded encouragingly. ‘Look, child. The future may yet be sweet, and you have the gift.’
Somewhere in the distance there was a boy crying out from the river, drawing up his boat. Yelling, screaming about something. Running towards the fair. It was all the excitement no doubt, nothing more.
So the girl held the little box of coloured glass up before her face and opened one of the delicate little hinges. It was the deep red glass that she held up to her eyes, and she looked through and shuddered. Because she saw the world as if covered in blood. The mountain of gold to the west was a mountain of blood. The screaming of the boy running up from the river grew louder, closer. She saw the straggling meadows leading away along the river bank, groups of people carrying their baskets, pushing their handbarrows, coming through the long grass towards the fair on this gentle summer day. And beyond that, the low line of hills still catching the morning sun, but all red, all clouded red. The future.
She felt the old woman tugging at her sleeve, heard her saying something, and was about to tear her eyes away from this ghastly vision, this world of a blood-red future, when a movement in the far distance caught her eye, and instead of lowering the evil box she continued to stare through its red haze.
Rising up over the crest of the low hills to the west, she saw a line of horsemen. Banners in the breeze and spears against the sky.
Never would the people – those few who survived, stumbling away through the blood-soaked grass to cry their story into horror-stricken ears – never would they forget that day, nor their first sight of the horsemen from the east.
They rode muscular little ponies with big, ungainly heads, brutish and monstrous, like the heads of bulls. Shaggy even at the fetlock, with deep chests and haunches betraying their massive strength and stamina. Hooves and manes were dyed blood-red with crushed insects or dried berries from last autumn, boiled up again in water and fat. The riders had long arms and barrel chests, short legs and narrow, slanting eyes of cunning and glittering cruelty. Some of them, disdaining to wear helmets as they rode down upon the near defenceless fair, seemed to have skulls deformed and domed by some evil practice in infancy. Others wore pointed Scythian caps of leather, kalpaks, fringed with grey wolf ’s fur. Wolves falling on the stricken townspeople not in lean winter but in fat high summer, driven not by the stark necessity of hunger but by the love of destruction for its own sake.
Some had the sides of their heads scarred with burns to kill the hair there, others were crudely shaven, and almost all had their cheeks and the sides of their heads cut and deep dyed with tattoos. The thin, sparse beards on their chins were further garlanded and beribboned, or twisted into little plaits, and in their ears they wore heavy hoops of gold. Some rode barefoot and some wore leather leggings, gripping the sides of their mounts so surely that they seemed one with their horses. They wore barbarian breeches but most rode naked to the waist but for jangling bone jerkins, their dark chests and backs tattooed with snakes and grotesque faces. Their wrists and sinewy arms were wrapped with iron bands, gold bracelets, cloths and strips of leather, and they wore beaded silver torcs and the teeth of wolves and jackals on thongs around their dirty muscular throats. They rode with their reins hung with the flensed skulls of slaughtered enemies, with human scalps or hanks of blood-dried hair.
Each warrior bristled with the tips and points of a multitude of weapons. Short stabbing spears, long steel knives, curved swords slung across squat, powerful backs, curved spiked hatchets, and, clutched in the right fist, the deadly recurved bow of the steppes, with a bunch of arrows clutched alongside. Arrows strung and shot and falling interminably onto the stricken fair.
The people turned and ran among the falling tents and the already blazing stalls, but there was no escape. Already a column of the murderous horde had ridden round and taken the hills to the south, and cut the people off from flight that way. To the north there was only the river. Some fugitives threw themselves in and tried to swim for it, and of these a few survived, carried downstream and crawling back onto the southern shore miles away like half-drowned animals to tell their tale.
Singled out from among the wailing masses was the half-century of bewildered soldiers from Viminacium. The first were cut down where they stood, whirling on the spot in a spray of blood, unable to believe that this little light guard duty at a summer fair had suddenly turned into massacre, and this bright sunshine day to nightmare.
The captain of the guard, a centurion named Pamphilus, registered the numbers of the barbarian horde and immediately bellowed orders to a couple of his riders to head east, straight to Viminacium to call the full legion to arms. As an added precaution he despatched another squadron, an eight-man contubernium, to requisition a boat and make for Viminacium by river, just in case his riders were cut down on the road. Though he doubted very much that barbarians would have the foresight for such things.
But how had they got across the river? What had happened to the Danube lookouts? And the signalling stations that stretched all the way along the imperial frontier from the Euxine to the mouth of the Rhine? How could this have happened without warning? Where was the intelligence? Why hadn’t the exploratores reported back in advance? Raiding parties like this didn’t erupt out of nowhere.
None of it made any sense. All he could do now was drag his men back to the town bridge and form ranks. It was a hard decision.
His optio stared at him.
Pamphilus shook his head. ‘It’s not a general massacre. Most of them will be taken as slaves.’
‘A nice fate.’
‘Button your lip, Optio. We fall back to the town if we can. Otherwise we hold this damn bridge till the legion arrives.’
Whoever this horde might be, however many in number, he still had full confidence in the VII Legion, Claudia Pia Fidelis. ‘Six times brave, six times faithful’ was the legion’s motto. Stationed here for four long centuries on this far northern border, looking out over the Danube and into the wastes of Scythia. Waiting for the barbarians. And meanwhile building the imposing fortress of Viminacium, with wide roads south, east and west, and six miles of fine aqueduct. Good builders like all Roman soldiers, shovel in hand more than sword. The VII wasn’t the force it had been, true enough. None of the legions was. Numbers were down, the best drawn back to the field army based at Marcianopolis, the remainder derided nowadays as no more than an ‘hereditary peasant militia’. Some militia. Holding some fortress.
Still fifteen hundred of them, all told, though half of them would be out at their farms or in their workshops at any one time. Who could blame them? There wasn’t much to do back in the fort but drill and wait, under the stern eyes of the legionary legate. Otherwise they drank, they diced, gambling with the meagre pay too rarely received on time. But a legion was still a legion, or a rump of it, with a legion’s proud memories. And the legate of the VIIth, that big-bellied Gallus Sabinus, was no fool.
Pamphilus set up his men in ranks across the narrow bridge.
‘Barbarians out of the wilderness like these, opportunist raiders, they may be fast but they’ve got no staying power, and no siegecraft.’ Pamphilus was talking to his optio again, knowing he was only trying to reassure himself. ‘And no horse will ever charge a line of pikemen four ranks deep.
‘We hold them here for as long as possible. Fall back on the town if and when we can. They can’t outflank us on this bridge. And we wait for the legion and the cataphracts. We want as many heavy cavalry as possible. See how those naked devils take to being cut up by a line of charging lancers in full armour. Plus mounted archers. And then the good old mincing machine of the infantry. I don’t care how many of them there are, numbers are nothing. Till then, we hold out. It’s no great problem.’
You could see the milling, murderous horde for what they were: common criminals, taking easy pickings from a thinly defended frontier town, before their flight back over the river and into the wastes of Scythia. Terrifying they might look at first sight, but that was all this was: a terror raid. The odd killing, more slave-taking. But they would melt away soon enough when the VIIth came marching down the road.
Pamphilus wondered briefly who this latest horde might be. Gepids? Sarmatians? Alans? All plains curs in breeches. Ex Scythia semper aliquid novi. He smiled grimly to himself. Some tatterdemalion column of looters and plunderers, eaters of raw meat, some vainglorious gang of slavers, rapists and arsonists who fancied themselves great warriors. Rome had encountered such before. Filling the vacuum left by the retreating Huns, he presumed, after the Western Emperor sent out that order to the VIIth for a punitive expedition over the river. Not in His Divine Majesty’s jurisdiction, of course, but the prefect of Pannonia agreed to his request. Ill-advisedly, in Pamphilus’ humble opinion; but it wasn’t for a junior centurion like him to decide on foreign policy, thank the Crucified Christ.
So a couple of cavalry alae from Viminacium had been ferried over by the Danube Fleet and descended on some outlying Hun encampment. Orders were to take prisoners for ingenious execution later, in a vivid and educational tableau or playlet staged back in the arena in Constantinople or Ravenna, featuring stern-eyed and remorseless legionaries slaughtering chained and submissive barbarians, their necks obediently bowed to the Roman blades. A playlet complete with real deaths. People liked that sort of thing: it reassured them in these edgy days.
But the half-naked savages in the encampment had erupted from their tents and attacked the cavalrymen. On foot, barely armed and taken by surprise, they had still put up quite a fight. Clearly not the force they had once been back in old Uldin’s day, when they’d fought as auxiliaries for the great Stilicho. But a fierce remnant of a people all the same. They’d dragged a couple of cavalrymen from their horses and broken their necks with their bare hands, stabbed a couple more. After that the cavalry commander had given the general order of execution. And two days later the rest of the Hun people, so imperial spies reported, upped sticks, folded tents, burned the newly built wooden palace of their king to the ground, and slouched away north and east into the unknown wastes of Scythia, suitably chastened and humiliated.
A messy business, but the price of freedom.
The two troopers from Margus reined in their furious gallop on the hot and dusty road.
The dust slowly cleared, and there ahead of them were the barbarians. Sitting their squat horses in a neat column, six abreast, as orderly as a legion. Arrows strung lightly to their bows. At their head sat a round-faced man on a grubby little pony.
‘Viminacium?’ he asked. And shook his head, smiling, his gold earrings dancing. ‘Alas. Not today.’
The arrow-strings hummed.
The eight-man squadron found the lightest boat they could, a skiff with a tattered sail. They dragged it down to the foreshore, waded out and then set to rowing furiously with the current. They hadn’t gone more than half a mile when their coxwain stopped his bellowing and fell silent. The rowers looked up, saw his expression and stopped rowing. The boat drifted a little and they looked round, blinking the sweat from their eyes.
Being towed into the far bank by a small rowing-boat was one of the hefty barges of the Danube Fleet. From Viminacium. Hanging over the sides where they had been slain were the bodies of the marines, stuck with arrows.
Beyond that, almost incomprehensible at first sight, were countless more barges and flat-bottomed horse-transporters, captured from God knew where, crossing and re-crossing, bringing innumerable men and horses across from the north. A little further down on the southern bank, the black and smoking remains of a wooden observation tower.
The horde of a thousand or two at Margus: that was just a bridgehead. This was no hit and run terror raid. This was a full-scale invasion.
In terror the eight men tried to turn the skiff round, still being carried forward on the strong current of the Danube. But in their scrabbling panic they were deaf to their coxwain’s orders to coordinate their strokes, portside forwards, starboard back. From downriver, rowing strongly upstream, another boat was coming towards them, long and lean, and dimly they were aware of more of the tattooed warriors appearing on the bank to their right, looming up through the reeds, startling little water-fowl into flight. The soldiers thrashed and beat the bright sunlit water so violently that they never heard the bowstrings hum, and their terror ceased only when the fine iron arrowheads hit home.
In the meadows to the west, Margus fair was collapsing into burning chaos, the people harried and driven before the yowling, tattooed horse-warriors. On the single town bridge, little wider than a haywain, stood Pamphilus and his thirty men. Like Horatius of old, as the schoolboy ballad told it: three of them, then two, then just Horatius himself, keeping the bridge single-handed against the entire army of Lars Porsena. As if. War stories for school-boys.
Behind them, the trembling town of Margus. The frontier had already been redrawn.
Slowly the barbarians started pressing the people back up against the bridge. Now and again they jabbed with their spears, treating the trapped and terrified populace like cattle.
Pamphilus watched grimly.
‘Sir,’ said his optio.
He tightened his grip on his spear.
‘ Sir,’ repeated the optio. ‘Behind us, sir.’
Pamphilus glanced back and cried out.
The barbarians had already broken down the gates and were in the town. Margus was ablaze. Behind its walls, the red-tiled rooftops were smoking, and flames licked up round the narrow tower of St Peter and St Paul. The iron bell would already be glowing red. Pamphilus thought he could hear distant screams.
They must have moved like lightning. How had they crossed the river? Apart from the town bridge, there was no crossing until miles upstream. Was it possible that this howling horde of barbarians was in fact highly organised? That behind this film of blood and chaos, there was some keen, all-commanding mind at work?
Idiot barbarians, though. The keen-eyed watchmen on the walls of Viminacium would have seen the smoke, and already be sending out riders to ascertain the cause. An idle Margus housewife not minding her hearthfire, a street of wooden houses going up in flames? Or something worse? Then one of his riders or one of the refugees would get through, and the legion would be called to arms.
It was good to know that reinforcements were on their way. Meanwhile, they must try to hold their position and survive. Surrounded.
‘Two rear ranks – about face!’
Then on the far ridge of the hills, a mile distant or more, he thought he saw him: the barbarian leader. A group of men gathered closely around him, but that was the king. He held a sword above his head and moved it in precise strokes downwards, left and right and before him. And on the plain before him, his horse-warriors wheeled to order, as disciplined as columns of imperial cavalry. More so. More agile. They wheeled as a flock of starlings wheels in the sky, as one body.
Now gradually they were closing in, herding rather than killing, crushing the people back against the bridge.
He would have fought like Horatius on this bridge, along with his men, against these contemptible horsemen. His blood was up now. Too many of those he had been sent to guard had fallen already. They had watched the savages riding through the fair, whipping and lassoing, destroying and burning, picking off selected victims for sport and target practice. Usually men of fighting age, fools who came at them with pitchfork or stake. But sometimes they had cut down anyone in their path, fleeing girls, infants, and those nursing infants. Those broad-cheeked faces expressionless, those yellow eyes unmoved.
But how could Pamphilus and his men fight back, with this human tide around them? That of course was the plan of this warlord, this king.
He looked again and the warlord had galloped down from the ridge and in among the press of his warriors. Soon the trapped legionaries could see him approaching with his little band of captains, and then reining in. Pamphilus observed him across the heads of the trapped and huddled people, through the haze of drifting smoke. The stony face of the barbarian warlord. Iron-grey hair bound up in a topknot, blue weals on his face, a gold torc round his strong, grimy neck. Dusty leather breeches, deerskin boots. Nothing fancy. Naked to the waist but for spiralling tattoos, quiver and bow and scabbard across his back. No great king, then. Still fighting in the line with his fellow warriors. Beside him, a man with lighter skin, very close-shaven or bald, blue-eyed. Very still, assured and silent.
A hush fell over the people.
Glittering yellow eyes fixed on him.
‘Your name?’ called the warlord.
He gave it.
The warlord stroked his wispy beard. ‘It was forces from Viminacium that executed my people. You would call it a punitive expedition.’ He spoke faultless Latin, with perfect, rather aristocratic pronunciation.
Pamphilus’ head whirled and he glanced sideways at his optio. These were the Huns. Not vanished after that bloody foray at all, as the intelligence had said, but making only a feigned, a Parthian retreat. The cunning devils. For the first time Pamphilus sensed that they were here not for a bit of light raiding and enslaving after all, but for some more memorable act of vengeance. He steeled himself against fear, stemmed his rising panic, gripped the spearshaft tighter in his sweating hand and put from his mind as best he could all rumours of barbarian tortures. Crucifixion, excoriation, impalement. ..
Beside him his optio was shaking. His men were backing into each other. Behind them, the burning town was beginning to roar under the noonday sun. Where was the VIIth, O Jupiter, Mithras, Christ? They must have seen the fires by now. If they could just hold out for a while longer, the first of the cavalry might yet arrive. He prayed for them to come soon.
The warlord was speaking again, his voice low and harsh and grating as old steel. Pamphilus shook his head at what he heard, so the warlord repeated it. ‘Either we kill all these people before you,’ he said, ‘or we kill you.’
He shouted back, ‘The price your people pay then will be terrible.’
The warlord grinned, a horrible, wolfish grin, and his men raised their swords.
‘They will make good slaves!’ blurted out his optio.
‘And you will make good corpses.’
One of the savages struck down his first victim, an old man stumbling before him, penned in by the people around him, eyes staring in blank terror.
‘Let them go!’ bellowed Pamphilus.
Their discipline was instant. Their leader gave the nod, and the encircling horsemen pulled up their bristling weapons. Every ugly little pony took several neat steps backwards on command.
The huddled people remained frozen like prey for a moment. Then the warlord said something more in his low voice, and the people, dazed and stumbling, turned and fled away south into the waiting hills.
The warlord looked back at Pamphilus.
The centurion lowered his spear, couched it under his right arm and set the butt against one of bridge planks. Leaned his weight against it.
‘Well, men,’ he said. ‘Sell yourselves dear.’
The town burned on all through the late summer afternoon and on into evening. No help came. Through the blood-red sunset, the slaughter went on. This was the beginning of vengeance, the beginning of sorrows.
Here a Kutrigur warrior rides down another victim, using a trident for a spear, jabbing it into the back of a fleeing girl.
She stumbles and falls, sinks to her knees, finally dropping the yoke of wooden pails she has carried all the long day, even in the midst of the slaughter. She reaches back to her wound before she slumps and dies. The goat’s milk runs across the hard ground, mingling with her blood. The warrior wrenches his cantering mount round almost on its hind hooves and whacks its rump with the flat of his crude and bloodied trident and grins through the orange firelight and yowls and rides on.
His fellow warriors yowl and grin, too, milling murderously among their last sacrificial victims. Men like wolves, but wolves who love chaos and firelight. Wolves in winter come in from the cold and the snow-bound steppes and from the edges of the great northern forests when the dewdrops harden into glassy unforgiving ice on the resinous needles of the firs. They come hungrily eyeing the well-fed towns and the comfortable firesides with their fathomless yellow eyes, creeping westwards across the wind-frozen plains towards the warm evening glow in the west. They slink down darkened streets, past lamplit taverns and houses where the plump merchants and bankers and well-paid bureaucrats of the empire sit at their ample dinners, joking and feasting and sipping their good Moselle wines shipped down to the Danube to these Eastern provinces of Moesia and Thrace. None knowing that the wolves are coming – indeed, are already come, a tide of grey fur sweeping across the steppes. Yellow eyes gleaming, white teeth ready for the kill.
These wolf-men have come in high summer, but their white teeth gleam in the darkness just the same. They throw back their shaggy heads and laugh to the sky, giving thanks, their copper-banded arms raised to their gods of wind and storm and sky: to Astur the Eagle, and Savash the Lord of War, and the Lady Itugen, each of them a different face of the Maker of the Universe, who loves battle and rides with them and shall remain with them always. They grin in the firelight and their yellow eyes flash with delight as the town goes up in flames, and the helpless people flee before them and fall like mown feathergrass on the steppes, and the loot piles up in one corner of the stricken and burning town as fast as the corpses pile up in another. The church bells still clang in unholy panic, but it is the alien warriors who are ringing them now, in jest and victory. The priests have long since been stripped and slain, amid wailing people and howling dogs and the screams of abandoned children.
So Margus falls.
Afterwards, drunk on wine, they rode out, still rejoicing, past the black charcoal remnants of the once colourful Margus fair and back to the grasslands. They are no townsmen, and the ruins of booths and buildings are already haunted by the ghosts of those they have slain. They retreat to their tents and wagons in the meadows.
Among the many bodies lie an old woman and a girl. The girl with the hare-shot lip, lying still among her pails. She had seen the future truly, as the old woman had said. Truly she had the gift.
Viminacium: at the confluence of the Danube and the Mlava, headquarters of the VII Claudia Pia Fidelis, raised by Julius Caesar himself back in 58 BC to knock hell out of the Gauls and then do the same to their cousins over in Britain as well. An ancient legion with more than five hundred years of memories, stationed here on the Moesian Danube since Trajan’s day. Four long centuries since the crucifixion of Christ.
Gallus Sabinus, legionary legate, veteran of frontier battles and frontier boredom, with a bald bull-head, rolls of fat at the back of his neck and an impressive, solid mound of a belly, but muscles in his arms still strong enough to lift a hundredweight sandbag above his head without noticeable effort. At his rickety ink-stained wooden desk, going through the quartermaster’s monthly returns by the light of a sputtering oil-lamp. Only three times more he’d be doing this bureaucratic donkey-work. Only three more months, and then he’d be off to his Thracian vineyard, complete with neat little villa and courtyard, a fountain and everything, even a bit of mosaic floor, albeit a fairly crap one by some local shyster, featuring a dolphin which looked to him more like an overweight eel. But his Domitilla was very proud of it, out there sweeping it clean every morning at the crack of dawn. The woman he hardly knew, his wife, Domitilla: sharp of tongue, broad of behind, frosty of expression, but serviceable enough, all things considered.
He leaned forwards and his desk wobbled. One day they’d get round to giving it four equal legs.
He’d miss his men. They weren’t so bad, for a motley scrag-end of limitanei: frontier wolves. Dalmatians, Illyrians, Thracians, Teutons, a right gaggle of mongrel geese. But Sabinus looked after his own. No political appointee from a senatorial family, who disdained such Spartan frontier postings anyway nowadays, Sabinus was a soldier to the backbone and proud of the traditions of the VII. The mobile field army might be the glory boys nowadays, the generals’ gilded darlings, an elite force ready to march and fight wherever barbarian incursion threatened. But the frontier wolves were quartered out here permanently, doggedly training and arming and waiting for the day. Reduced in numbers, both rations and armour thinner than before, but still proud to call themselves a legion, with their eagle standard, plus the bull ensign common to all the Caesarian legions. Waiting for the barbarians to come.
In his years here Sabinus had done his best. He couldn’t do squat about their pay, but he’d drilled and trained them and instituted field exercises they’d grumblingly enjoyed. Both weapons and wall artillery were well up to scratch. As for the walls themselves, he just hoped they’d hold. Especially the Porta Praetoria, with its ominous ground-to-battlements crack in the left tower. One day, the prefect would stir himself off his fat arse enough to do a complete rebuild, or maybe far-off Constantinople would realise that the old fort was in need of a lick of paint or two.
Till then, three more months…
He looked up. ‘Well?’
The optio stood hesitantly in the gloom. ‘Margus is still burning, sir.’
Sabinus laid down his pen, sat back and pointed at his own eyes. ‘What are these, Optio?’
‘Correct. And with them I can see that Margus is still burning, in the same way I can see that you are still a useless twat. By “Well” I meant “What news?” Why is it still burning?’
‘We don’t… that is, the riders haven’t returned, sir.’
‘When did they ride out?’
‘About the ninth hour.’
‘What traffic on the road?’
The optio glanced nervously towards the open door.
‘Reports – unconfirmed reports – of incursion, sir. Over the river. Barbarian horsemen, so an old fellow says who crawled out of the river covered in duckweed. Said he’d floated down on driftwood from Margus itself. Babbling and half-mad.’
Sabinus kept his expressionless gaze on the hapless optio. ‘So. .. you’ve ordered the full legion to arms, for safety’s sake?’
‘I will, sir.’
‘Forget it. I will.’ His chair crashed backwards as he stood up. ‘And put yourself on fucking latrine duty.’
The legionary fortress of Viminacium stood square behind thick stone walls thirty feet high, battlemented and bastioned, with twin towers at each gate, north, south, east and west. From the flanks of the fortress ran a much lesser wall, flung out wide and embracing the many acres of the proud town with its churches and chapels, wide streets, richly decorated villas, splendid basilica and porticoed marketplaces and, beyond the walls, its own ten-thousand-seat hippodrome. People came from miles around to see the spectacles there. But now, thought Sabinus with a grim smile, another altogether more real kind of spectacle would drive them many more miles away.
He found a tall young decurion.
‘What’s happening in the town?’
‘People moving out already, heading for the hills.’
As he’d thought. ‘Any asking for refuge here?’
The decurion shook his head.
They both knew what that meant. The people had already judged. They were finished. He smiled again to himself. Like hell they were.
The legate’s bull roar sounded across the darkening fort from where he stood on the tower of the west gate, followed by a distant sound of stirring and then a steady crescendo of slamming doors, footsteps, the slap of leather soles on worn stone stairs, clanging weaponry, voices, heavy weights dragging, winches creaking.
His orders ricocheted around the fortress walls like missiles.
‘Tubernator, sound the recall! Every last soldier still working out in the fields, get him in. Ditto from the farmhouses. Families to the barracks. Muster rolls to be counted. Every other century on the walls! Cavalry alae armed and ready at the south gate. Artillery units on the towers. Four machines to each bastion, two for frontal bombardment, two for enfilading fire, standard set-up, do I have to tell you? All gates double-rammed! And I hope you got those holding-braces repaired on the Praetorian Gate like I ordered, Decurion!
‘We’re expecting a night attack?’
‘We’re expecting the devil himself, like good soldiers should. I want wall artillery fully supplied. Pedites, move your arses! This isn’t a visit from your dear old granny we’ll be getting. Back-up supplies of all missiles up to the walls. First, fourth and seventh centuries at the south gate with the cavalry. Ditch the dice and move it, you lard-arsed layabouts! No sleep till dawn, if then. You’ve got work to do at last! Smiths, get those furnaces fired up if they’re not already. Medics, confirm your supplies to me. Quartermasters, every man on the walls supplied with water and hardtack. And see to it all roof thatch is thoroughly doused. All water butts full to the brim, though I assume for your sake they already are. Primus Pilus, report to me on the west gate. No walking, no talking. ’
‘Concentrate wall troops to the west, sir?’
‘If they’ve already taken Margus they won’t be so stupid. Space troops all round.’
Sabinus marched off down the stone steps to the lower guardroom, where he found everything in a state of wordless, impressive bustle. Except for one poor greenhorn of a boot who’d stacked up a pile of slingballs in such a poor pyramid that they collapsed the moment Sabinus walked past them. So he gave him a good belting and told him to do it again.
‘Even the Egyptians can build pyramids, boy!’ he roared in the quaking novice’s ear. ‘And they fuck their own sisters and worship cats!’
The legate took his place again on the left tower of the west gate along with his useless optio and they gazed out into the setting sun. It was too bright, too red. Just over the horizon, a mere two hours by quick march, Margus was still burning. The leaping flames mingling with the sun’s holocaust.
‘Some incursion, sir,’ said his optio.
The south gate stood open below and families of the farmer-frontiersmen streamed in: women, infants in arms, elderly parents, children running about, wide-eyed, looking more excited than scared. Into the safe brawny arms of the mighty legionary fort. God protect them.
Tatullus appeared silently on the tower. Legionary primus pilus – first spear – his senior centurion. Thank Christ for him at least. Well into his fifth decade but not an ounce of fat on him, his legs taut with sinew and muscle, his arms folded tight across his broad chest. His hard, weather-beaten face and bony nose accentuated by the plain, close-fitting helmet he wore ready for battle, the long, sinister noseguard protecting his deep-set, unblinking eyes, a chainmail aventail to save his neck. A soldier of quality to find in a neglected frontier fort in these ignominious days.
Behind Tatullus stood two more soldiers, one of them dripping copiously.
‘Who the hell are you?’ growled Sabinus, rounding on him.
‘He’s a deserter,’ said Tatullus coldly.
‘I wasn’t asking you, Centurion.’
Damp though this one was – sodden through, in fact – he didn’t tremble.
‘Anastasius, sir,’ said the soldier, his voice so deep and hoarse it sounded like he gargled with gravel. ‘But it’s never suited me, so I been told. Caestus, most people call me. Knuckles.’
Knuckles. Sabinus turned and inspected him more closely. The name suited him better than Anastasius, that was for sure. He still had his caestus, his studded bullhide strap round his meaty forearm. His knuckles were black with hairs, and not that far off the ground. Mind you, had he stood up straight he would have been six feet tall or more. A good recruit for the Legio I Italica in that respect, at least. Though Sabinus doubted Knuckles had quite the right family connections to get into that socially exclusive legion. And he’d frighten the cavalry horses, for another thing. Cause a bloody stampede.
His huge rounded shoulders, one slightly lower than the other, made him look almost like a hunchback but still as powerful as a dray horse. Hands as big as spades. A human mole, Sabinus thought, he could dig a tunnel into the bare earth with those hands. Huge splayed feet, knock knees, a sagging belly, a fifty-four-gallon barrel chest, a muscular tree stump of a neck as broad as his head, a great bony nose, multiply broken, mouth battered about and askew as well, a heavy brow sprouting bushy black eyebrows, but his eyes oddly wide and sincere, although one eyelid sagged over the eye from an old swordcut. Coarse black hair in an inelegant pudding-basin style, and no single square inch of his bare skin free of a scar.
Sabinus liked what he saw. This was what he called a proper soldier. Ugly as hell and almost as long enduring.
‘And you deserted? From Margus?’
‘No, sir. Not deserted. Just on business. But I got caught up at Margus. On unforeseen secondment, you might say.’
Sabinus scowled. ‘You’re wasting my time, soldier. Give it me straight.’
Knuckles straightened a little. ‘Sir. Legionary of the XIVth at Carnuntum. Coming downriver with shipment of wine. A private enterprise.’
Knuckles hurried on. ‘Boat sank at night. Got ashore at Margus. Centurion there, Pamphilus, promptly co-opted me into his guard.’
‘So what happened?’
‘We got wiped out two days later is what happened. Which is to say, this morning. All of ’em except me. They’re Huns, the centurion said.’
Sabinus brooded. What a mess. If you’re going to drive off a barbarian tribe, make sure you do it with a good hard sword-thrust, not a pinprick. Else they’ll be back. Gadfly to a horse’s arse. He blew out air. What a bloody mess.
‘Go on, soldier.’
‘Well, the centurion, he sent out riders back here for reinforcements but… the Huns got to them before they got to you.’
‘Evidently. And then?’
‘Total bloody slaughter.’
‘Couldn’t say. Not that many, it didn’t look like, but organised.’
‘Organised,’ repeated Knuckles doggedly.
Sabinus rasped his stubble. He turned and bellowed a fresh couple of orders to his men. Then he asked, ‘And you?’
‘Well, sir, we was on the bridge, trapped and about to get wiped out frontways and backways, if you take my meaning, and we’d already lost formation and the arrows was piling in so to be honest I thought, Stuff this, and decided to take my chances overboard, but then I thought I might as well try and take one of those blue buggers with me.’
‘Tattoos. Black and blue all over. They do it with a needle and soot, apparently. Horrible. No self-respect sir, those fuckin’ barbarians. So, anyhow, I figured I could drown him and I might even get his horse up and off the other bank and away. So up I jumped and got the bugger in a neck-lock and pushed and hung on and we crashed off the side of the bridge and down into the river, the savage still sittin’ on his horse and me sittin’ on him. And by happy chance, and with the blessings of Jupiter, Lord of all Creation and whatnot, I managed to get a hold of his reins floating around in the mucky water and wrap ’em round his neck. What a rumpus, him still fighting and struggling – a real wild one he was, and no spring chicken, neither. But then there was this great pier of the bridge loomin’ at me out of the water. We was still down there with the fish and I was longin’ to get a good lungful, but business had yet to be concluded, so to speak. I had a good grip on his head with his own reins, throttlin’ ’im – the horse was long gone by this time, upped and swum for it, the brute. So I started a good swing with his head – he was in need of a lungful by this time, too, I reckoned, and not at his finest as a fighting man, it’s safe to say, so I swung ’im and yet… I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to swing a man’s head round under water, sir?’
Sabinus had not.
‘But it moves awfully slow, ’cos of all the water, so I banged and banged and banged him into that bloody great oak pier I don’t know how many times until finally after many a hefty bang he stopped hangin’ onto me and I let him go and he sank back very gentle like, and I presume went on down to the bottom to be a dinnertime treat for the fishes. I didn’t hang around to see, to be honest, as I was very nearly drowned myself by this time, so I made for the sunlight and got my lungful after all. Back on the bridge it was a massacre so I let myself be carried downriver and on down here, and if that counts as desertion, well…’
‘It does,’ said Tatullus.
‘The rest of the guard were all killed?’ said Sabinus.
‘All of ’em. The officer’s head, sir, Pamphilus, stuck on the bridgepost at the end as I swam off. And he wasn’t a bad sort.’
‘Then you came downriver?’
‘Yes, sir, by way of a horse.’
‘Don’t bullshit me, man.’
‘Which is to say a dead horse, sir. Dead some three days or more, I reckon, and givin’ off a perfectly horrible smell, though to be honest with you, sir, I’ve known worse in an eight-man mess tent on campaign. Or there was that tavern we used to frequent in Carnuntum, sir, with a lady upstairs, getting on in years though very accommodating in her way-’
‘Less detail, soldier, more pace.’
‘Well, so I hung on to this dead horse, its back legs all slimy and bits slidin’ off in me hands, and its belly all bloated and givin’ off gas like you wouldn’t believe, must have been dead a few days, as I say, and not just killed in the scrap, but it made a good enough float, like an army-issue bladder, and so I came floating on downriver to the fort, sir. Because I thought it was time I got myself behind some decent walls. You know those Huns.’
Sabinus brooded for a moment. Then he told his optio to get the man a cup of wine.
Tatullus started. ‘Sir…’
The legate turned on him. ‘Have a care, Centurion. I’m no spoilt young puppy from some rich senatorial family in Ravenna or Rome. And I don’t need you to question my orders.’
Tatullus’ thin lips were clenched almost to invisibility. After a moment’s pause he said again, very low and soft, ‘Sir.’
Knuckles held up a huge paw.
‘No, sir, anyway, thanking you kindly. No wine for me. Never since that incident in Carnuntum with the fishmonger’s daughter, and my unfortunate accident.’
Sabinus raised his eyebrows. ‘Frontier intelligence never reported that particular incident.’
‘I’m relieved to hear it, sir. An unedifying business altogether. But I’m sworn right off the wine now until the joyous hereafter.’
‘Very well.’ Sabinus looked away and rested his hand on the low walls of the tower. ‘You may be a better storyteller than a soldier, I don’t know. But from now on, you’re in my close guard.’
‘How much is that worth a month, then?’
‘Enough for a water-drinker.’ Then Sabinus turned his attention to the other man, keeping silent at the back, and summoned him forward.
A magnificent fellow, olive-skinned, tall and lean, his erect bearing emphasising his height. An easterner, surely. A long-sword in a damascene scabbard at his side, his fine black moustache immaculately oiled and combed around his mouth, his face smooth, his nose hawklike, his whole bearing supremely aristocratic.
‘And you are?’
‘Count Grigorius Khachadour Arapovian,’ replied the newcomer.
Behind him, Knuckles snorted.
‘Shut it, soldier,’ growled Sabinus. He regarded the newcomer again. ‘Armenian?’
‘Armenia was the land of my birth and sixty generations of my forefathers since the days of Adam. But now I have no country. She has auctioned off her soul to the highest bidder. Now I fight only for Christ, my Lord.’
‘Jesus,’ breathed Sabinus.
‘The same,’ said the Armenian gravely.
‘Right,’ said Sabinus, ‘you’re on the roll. We need every man we can get. For now you’re paired with him on supply, on the south wall. Get to it.’
Arapovian did not glance back at Knuckles, but said simply, ‘I will not keep company with that belching ox. He sickens my senses.’
‘You know each other?’ Sabinus guffawed. ‘Let me guess, you smuggled wine together? You were business partners?’
‘The sons of Arapovian have not soiled their hands with trade in sixty generations,’ said the Armenian crisply. ‘This oaf was merely giving me transport. I had known him for but half a night before we separated again. Yet long enough to wish we might never meet further.’
‘What’s the problem?’
The Armenian curled his thin lips. ‘He is an ape.’
Sabinus glanced at Knuckles. ‘You flatter him.’
Arapovian did not smile. He looked genuinely pained.
But Sabinus was grinning broadly now. ‘That’s it. You’re a pair. Now get to it.’
Slowly, with injured dignity, Arapovian turned and made his way back down the steps. Knuckles lumbered after him.
‘That was no deserter,’ Sabinus said over his shoulder to Tatullus. ‘You know what real desertion looks like. That was retreat.’
The centurion remained steely. ‘No order of retreat was given.’
‘Because there was nowhere to retreat to. Just like now.’
TENS OF THOUSANDS
Knuckles and the Armenian lugged hundred-pound rocks up the narrow steps to the top of the south gate-tower. The latter stopped at the top when they set down their load and wiped the sweat from his long arched eyebrows. He gazed out towards the hills, ghostly under the rising summer moon.
‘That I, Grigorius Khachadour Arapovian, the son of Grigorius Nubar Arapovian, the son of Grigorius Ardzruni Arapovian, should be found carrying rocks like a convict. Teamed with a boor who does not even know who his father was.’
But insulting Knuckles was like insulting a stone statue. ‘True enough,’ he rumbled, wiping his face dry in his own armpit. ‘But I know that my mother was a whore. The daughter of a whore, descended from a long line of the most highly regarded Rhenish whores for sixty generations.’ He belched and grinned.
Arapovian did not smile.
Sabinus paced the twilit battlements of the fort, staring out uneasily into the thickening dusk. Just over the horizon Margus burned on, flames rising and smoke spiralling, the molten orange firelight in a murderous melding with the last glow of the setting sun. In that orange light, the severed heads of his own men, of that good centurion Pamphilus, decorating the wooden posts on the old town bridge.
Different reports, and he’d have despatched his two heavily-armoured cavalry alae, his fearsome cataphracts, to slice through the enemy, save the town and hang the barbarians’ corpses from its walls. But he sensed otherwise this time. It had been a nasty business, the trans-Danube expedition by that self-same cavalry, though orders were orders, and peace might have come of it. But it hadn’t. That clumsy, ill-advised needling of a once-powerful, still troublesome tribe had only brought the Huns back on the crimson path of vengeance.
It wasn’t the numbers that unsettled him, it was the planning. ‘Organised’, that hulking Rhineland brute Knuckles had reported, and Sabinus trusted his judgement. Margus had been assaulted and sacked with great stealth, with judgement and control. Now the enemy held back, not riding on, howling, towards the next town full of vainglory. They were awaiting the right moment, planning. But planning was supposed to be for Romans, not barbarians.
‘So,’ he resumed. ‘Nothing from the hill-stations? Nothing from the signal posts upriver? Nothing from intelligence?’
Tatullus stood with his legs set apart on the platform roof like a bronze statue, gazing out over the darkening plain. ‘Nothing, sir.’
From Margus itself, still nothing. From the imperial trunk road south to Naissus, nothing. From the east by river, pushing up through the dark gorge of the Iron Gates from Ratiaria, headquarters of the Danube Fleet, nothing. And now not even the watch on the hill-stations responding. With Margus burning like a village bonfire at Saturnalia.
To have skirted south unseen and taken each and every station and watchtower in advance, without setting off a single alarm signal – that would have taken intelligence. Organisation.
‘Tell you what, Centurion. I get the unpleasant feeling we’re cut off.’
Tatullus nodded expressionlessly.
Sabinus wished he could stop talking. But something blackly ominous in the air tonight made him talk, even with so unsympathetic a confidant as his iron centurion.
‘Of course, no barbarian horde is ever going to take a legionary fortress. But if we’re going to go down fighting and not come up again – if – it would be good to know that someone would exact a decent revenge in our name. What do you reckon?’
‘I wish I knew, sir.’
Both knew what that meant. Some chance.
The Eastern generals corrupt and squabbling, the field army at Marcianopolis, under that impetuous Easterner Aspar, too little tried and tested – certainly never against an enemy like the Huns. Emperor Theodosius in his gilded chambers at Constantinople, practising his calligraphy.
Tatullus said, ‘It’d be good to have some reinforcements from the west.’
Both knew what that meant, too.
Master-General Aetius. Mistrusted by both emperors equally. The empire’s last best hope.
Another refugee arrived, a rat-faced little man with his hair plastered across his narrow skull, and water still squelching from his sodden leather sandals. He wore the dull brown uniform of the exploratores. A scout.
‘Why is everyone so bloody wet around here?’ demanded Sabinus.
‘Sir,’ gasped the half-drowned man, ‘river was the only refuge from the barbarians. Scythians.’
The little man stared up at the legate. ‘Is it?’ He didn’t look much consoled. ‘Well, their horses don’t take kindly to water. Not used to it off the plains, I reckon.’
Sabinus made a mental note. ‘Anything else?’
‘I’ve heard a thousand. At Margus.’
The man looked pained. ‘No, sir, afraid not. That was only a detachment.’ He wiped the water still dripping from his nose. ‘Maybe even a distraction. More were coming across downriver all the time.’
‘Without being seen?’
‘All observation posts knocked out, sir. Rest of my watch all put to the sword. They know what they’re doing.’
He was beginning to realise that. ‘So: numbers?’
‘In total?’ The man took a deep breath. ‘In a valley up in the hills to the south, saw them myself… ten thousand?’
Sabinus felt Tatullus beside him stir.
‘But other reports say that they’re only one grouping, as it were, sir. One legion, you might say. As many again in… other valleys.’
‘Tens of thousands?’
‘It could be, sir.’
‘But only a third, a quarter of them fighting men.’ Sabinus mused. ‘Always a damn-fool way to move around, with your women and children along for the spectacle.’ He looked at Tatullus. ‘We could try and get through to Singidunum, to-’
The scout dared to interrupt. ‘No, sir. Not this time, not this lot. They’re all males. No families, no women and children, just warriors.’
Sabinus stared at him as the worsening news sank in. ‘Shit.’ He held the back of his hand up to his mouth, then dropped it again. An unseemly gesture.
So their flight north was a feint, after the punitive expedition. It was only to hide their women and children away, somewhere north or east, out in that endless wilderness.
‘We could try tracking them, use special forces, the superventores. Bring them in, hold them for ransom, exchange, treaty.’
But Tatullus was already shaking his head.
No, Sabinus couldn’t see any such trans-Danube operations going ahead, either. Not now. And did he have the men, anyway? No. He did not have the bloody men.
‘Cunning bastards,’ breathed Tatullus. ‘They’ve learned a lot.’
There was a long silence, then Sabinus said to the scout, ‘Go and get some dry kit on.’
Tatullus called after him, ‘And a weapon.’
Sabinus set his clenched fists on the wall. ‘Trying to drive them off the Trans-Pannonian plain with a pinprick. With my cavalry. Damn that fool in Ravenna. Him and his magic.’
‘The Emperor Valentinian. And right now I’d tell him so to his sickly face, and damn the consequences. Sacrificing cockerels under the full moon. Punitive expeditions. He thinks we’re still living back in Trajan’s reign. Today’s barbarians are…’
Sabinus stared out grimly and said nothing.
‘So now we have to face some tens of thousands of Huns. But they know nothing of siegecraft.’
‘True. Though they’re smart enough to use only enough warriors for each job. Any more than a thousand at Margus and they’d have been trampling on each other. But I still don’t rate them against a legion plus heavy cavalry in open battle.’ He leaned his weight forwards on his fists. ‘We need to clear them out. The Huns have been a force to be reckoned with before. I don’t want any more losses like Margus in this province.’
‘Still,’ said Tatullus quietly. ‘Tens of thousands…’
And his centurion was no coward.
They both knew their only option.
Eventually Sabinus leaned back again and said, ‘Very well. We sit here. We keep ’em at bay. We wait for news to get through, they’ll get word soon enough, and the field army will arrive hot-foot from Marcianopolis. Then… we put an end to them.’
‘Easy,’ said Tatullus.
Sabinus glanced sideways at his centurion, but it was impossible to read him.
The legate ate a light supper on the tower roof, standing. Bread, lentils, a few slices of pigeon breast. No booze. Not tonight.
He racked his brains, trying to remember the name. Rumours abounded. Emperor Valentinian’s fearsome old mother, Galla Placidia – the Eastern Emperor’s cousin, come to that – had always had a special thing about the Huns, so they said.
And her master-general – sorry, the emperor’s master-general – Aetius, he spoke Hunnish himself, among other tongues. He’d lived with the Huns for a time as a boy. They should be allies, but some said that was all in the past. The Huns were Rome’s sworn enemies now, and Rome had better get used to it.
What was that leader’s name?
He sent a junior officer back to his office to find the communication.
That was it. He smacked the piece of paper. The new warlord of the Hun tribe.
His uncle, Ruga, had been a sot and a willing client. There was every reason to think Ruga’s eldest nephew, Bleda, would succeed to the same drunken, obedient position. Then a younger brother suddenly appeared out of the wilderness. Vanished for three long decades, but still not forgotten in Rome or Ravenna, apparently. He’d been a captive – hostage, rather – in the capital, in the Imperial Palace itself, back in Honorius’ day. Made repeated escape attempts, and eventually succeeded in fleeing north through Italy at the height of the Gothic invasion. Evaded every attempt at capture, the little tyke, and got back to his homeland. Sabinus remembered the story vaguely. The boy had been all of ten or twelve when he did it. It was said that the emperor’s mother still remembered him bitterly, still wanted him gone. And somehow or other, that old winebag Ruga had helpfully got rid of him, for a few more hogsheads of cheap wine.
But not for ever, it seemed.
Now he was back, and not a bit mellowed by age, apparently. Frontier intelligence said he’d promptly slaughtered his uncle, then his brother, set the crown on his own head, pulled together a whole horde of disparate tribes out of the godforsaken wilderness, and then led the lot of them back over the Carpathians to the Huns’ old pasturelands north of the Danube. A deliberate provocation. That was when Valentinian had ordered a punitive attack. Theodosius agreed. Idiots, both of them, Valentinian stupid and corrupt, Theodosius just stupid. Their most idiotic failing, to underestimate this thorn in Rome’s side since his boyhood. Now the VIIth itself would have to settle the matter.
As always, it was kings and emperors who ran up the bill and the soldiers who paid it.
Sabinus swallowed a last chunk of bread.
Deep night fell.
Attila. That was his name.
The western sky burned on.
MERCY AND TERROR
In a bowl in the hills, a few dozen stragglers huddled. Six or seven families, children and toddlers, dogs, a goat kid, a single handbarrow laden with household goods, kitchen utensils ill-chosen in panic for saving. They lit no fire. They had heard of the terror visited on Margus, and had fled from Viminacium at dusk. Fled from the wrath to come. At Margus, the rumours said, the savages had slaughtered everyone. Every living thing. Dogs and cats, priests and sheep, babes in arms and ancients in their beds. Blood flowed in the gutters. The earthen backstreets were churned to rust-coloured mud.
One refugee from a farm, his bloody arm wrapped in filthy bandages, had come to Viminacium and spread the news. Some had counselled retreat within the walls of the fortress, but the refugee laughed, a horrible, weak laugh. ‘Not with these ones,’ he said. ‘We’d be no more than live bait to a wolf.’
‘With a whole legion to protect us?’
The refugee shook his head. ‘That legion is finished. History. Poor bastards.’
They fled into the hills.
Now it was a chill summer night, but they lit no fire. The fire of Margus away to the west still burned. It would be their own beloved town of Viminacium next, their houses and homes. Now they had nothing but their own families and a few pots and pans. The people could not even look at each other for sorrow. Above them the pure white stars wheeled. All was silent. They prayed and waited for nothing to happen. Only silence and the night. Please God.
In answer there came a distant rumbling. Horsemen. The pagan horsemen.
Mothers clutched their hands over infant mouths. A man pushed the goat kid roughly to the ground and hauled a bag over its head. The rumbling came closer. Many horsemen. They were ascending into the hills all around. The people looked up at the dark rim of the bowl where they lay hidden, eyes wide with terror. Above them the stars shone down. The moon was behind clouds but the vagabond people were brightly lit by starlight.
And then against the starlit nightsky, dark shapes arose. Horses tramped their forefeet and their nostrils steamed. Their riders pulled up their reins and looked down.
The rim of the bowl filled with the silhouettes of the pagan horsemen, spiky with bows and spears. The people below them, trapped and unarmed, groaned low. Mothers clutched infants to their breasts as if that might save them. Some buried their faces in their cloaks. Very young children began to cry, sensing their parents’ terror.
After an agonising time, the line of horsemen parted and a single figure came riding down the slope towards them. The people’s groans died away and they waited. The horseman stopped beside them. He was naked to the waist even in the cold night. His cheeks were deeply grooved and blue with ritual tattoos. He looked over them. Then he spoke, his voice deep and hoarse.
‘See how your army protects you. See how your emperor loves you.’ He shook his head.
One or two of the refugees dared to look up.
‘The army that did not protect you will be destroyed. Your emperor, too, and his empire, will be destroyed. All that you love, will be – must be – destroyed. It is written. But you.’ He shook his head again, and those who dared to look thought they saw him smile. ‘You I will not destroy. Now go your ways. Flee away south. Or east, west, north, it matters not. But remember: I am coming.’
He pulled his horse round and galloped away up over the rim of the bowl, and in seconds every one of his warriors had vanished after him.
The people stared at each other.
The stars shone down.
In a tent of the Huns, a captive from Margus stood blindfolded with his hands roped behind his back. He wore the close-fitting white gown of a priest of the Church and a wooden chi-rho on his chest.
He felt strong hands seize his blindfold and tear it off.
By firelight and the single torch in the tent he saw several barbarian chieftains. Before him, a half-naked savage wearing his hair in a topknot. Big gold earrings danced against his cheeks. The man’s arms and chest were scarred and tattooed and very strong.
The man smiled and, to the priest’s astonishment, spoke in perfect Latin.
‘You are a Christian priest, yes?’
‘You drink the blood of your god and eat his flesh,’ said a strange little man at the back of the tent.
It was Little Bird the shaman. He shook his head and his beribboned topknot danced. ‘What a barbarian you must be.’
The warlord signalled and another of his warriors raised the tent flap. Seated outside by a low campfire were a woman in a grimy red dress and three children, two girls and a boy.
‘And this is your family? The boy’s name is Theophilus, as is yours.’
The priest swallowed. ‘I do not know them.’
‘And three times Peter denied Christ.’
The priest was even more astonished. A savage who spoke Latin and alluded to Holy Scripture.
‘Even the devils in hell believe in God, and tremble.’ The warlord smiled. It was not a smile to comfort anyone. ‘You are not only a priest, you are a bishop. The Bishop of Margus.’
He shook his head. ‘I, I…’
The warlord reached out and put his big right hand round the priest’s throat. He rested it gently there.
‘Do not lie to me again, or I will squeeze your soul out of your gullet.’
‘He will, you know,’ put in Little Bird helpfully. ‘I’ve seen him do it.’
‘You are the Bishop of Margus, and this is your family. She is your wife, or perhaps your concubine. The children are your seed.’
The priest wept. ‘Mine is the family of Christ. I do not have a family. Leave them be.’
The warlord squeezed, briefly.
After the priest had sucked in air and staggered to his feet again, mopping the tears from his eyes, the warlord recommenced.
‘You know her.’ He raised his voice. ‘She is your concubine, your whore. You disdained to marry her.’
Hearing those words the woman looked up. The warlord glanced back, caught her expression of fury, and smiled.
The priest’s shoulders sagged and he hung his head.
The warlord released him.
‘Now listen to me,’ he said. ‘As your god redeemed you, so you can redeem your family. You will go to your emperor in Constantinople, the Calligrapher. I will give you a horse.’
The bishop was looking out at his family again. The warlord signalled and his warrior dropped the tentflap.
‘You must attend,’ he said.
The bishop raised his eyes and looked at him.
‘It is no great task, but you will remember my words. This is a job for a bishop, smooth-tongued and proficient in diplomacy as you are.’
The bishop shivered at his tone.
‘You will ride south down the imperial trunk road for Naissus.’
‘My lord,’ he stammered, ‘do not send me, I implore you. The hills are full of savages.’ The warlord showed his teeth. ‘Of… of bandits, of brigands. I might be killed by Roman detachments, even, reinforcements, uncertain, bewildered-’
‘There are no reinforcements coming.’
‘Or by common cutpurses, bears, wolves-’
‘Life is uncertain,’ admitted the warlord genially.
‘Then why me? Why not send your own?’
‘Because life is uncertain.’ His yellowish eyes glittered with amusement. ‘They might be killed by common cutpurses, bears, wolves.’ More harshly he added, ‘Besides, my warriors are fit for better things than running mere errands.
‘Now, this is your task. You will wear a cloak I give you. My men in the hills about will not molest you: the word has gone out. You will have a good horse – good enough for a Christian bishop, anyway. In Naissus you will report directly to the city prefect. His name is Eustachius. Of course you know him well; he is your cousin.’ The warlord enjoyed his captive’s amazement. ‘You will tell him that Margus is laid waste, but nothing more, and demand immediate escort to Constantinople. There you will demand audience with the emperor.
‘You will speak to him directly, and none other.
‘You will tell him that he has insulted the Hun people. You will tell him that his armies have assaulted and slaughtered our innocents. They have trampled on the grave-mounds of our ancient kings, they have looted our burial grounds.’ The warlord’s voice grated with cold anger. ‘And you will say to the emperor these words from me:
‘“If you ignore me, oppose me or attempt to deceive me, I will destroy you. If you do not admit your guilt in regard to the descration of our burial mounds and the massacre of our people, I will destroy you.”’
‘My lord,’ stammered the messenger, ‘I cannot say these words in person to His Divine Majesty. His anger will be terrible.’
‘His anger will be nothing to mine. Say them. Say them just as I said them to you, word for word. The emperor in his perfumed palace will hear you. He will not destroy you, but if you fail me I will destroy you and your seed for ever. Just as I will destroy him and his empire: every wall, every stone, every man, woman and child left within. Understand me. Look into my eyes. Do I look to you like a liar?’
The priest could not speak.
‘Say to the emperor that if he does not render to me half his empire by way of recompense, I will destroy him.’
‘Half… the empire?’
‘Your ears work well. Of course, I will destroy him anyway, but he need not know that yet. And you can add for him the old Roman motto “ Nemo me impune lacessit – no man insults me with impunity.” Suitable, no?’
The bishop said nothing.
‘I will know if and when you have delivered this message in full, and correctly. If you do, you may return here and be reunited with your family. And then, if you have any sense, you will flee far from this empire doomed to fall. If you do not return – in twenty days – your family will be crucified, the whore and the children both.’
The bishop groaned.
The warlord struck him. He reeled backwards. With his hands tied behind his back he could not wipe his mouth so he licked and leaned aside and spat the blood that welled from his split lip.
The warlord’s voice grew fiercer. ‘How often in your life have you had a chance to redeem your entire family from death by a single act of great bravery? Never. Am I right? Of course I am. You are a provincial priest of a mean frontier diocese. Your family were mere yeoman farmers, slow sons of the soil with clay for blood.’
He looked away.
‘You should go now. Naissus is two days distant, and the capital another ten. So you will need to hurry to be back here in twenty days and collect your prize.’ He laid his hand on the man’s shaking shoulder, almost gentle again. ‘You will need to ride fast. Understand?’
The bishop controlled himself and nodded.
The warlord turned to his warriors. ‘Find him a horse.’
As he departed, the priest looked back. ‘My lord, I still do not know what name I should give.’
‘Attila. My name is Attila.’
Orestes watched him at the doorway to the tent. Great Tanjou. He remembered the day when the two of them had come back to the camp of the Huns, a small and humbled people, before Attila took them in his fists and remade them. And when Attila dug into the grave-mound, grubbing into the very bones of his father, Mundzuk, with a common spade. Now he preached the desecration of the Hun grave-mounds as a pretext for war. Yet Attila was no hypocrite. That was not the word.
One law for the lion and the ox is oppression. That was Attila’s creed, or something like it.
Attila said, ‘Let them use their own to pass on messages of disaster, to issue threats to their emperor.’ He took his place cross-legged at the fireside. ‘Let them use their own cursus to pass on my words.’
Orestes murmured, ‘Like the time we let those Turcoman bandits steal our gold. Heavy wagons of Chinese gold.’
An old warrior with long, greying hair regarded him. It was Chanat. ‘Tell the tale.’
Orestes smiled thinly. ‘We let them drag it over mountain passes, across fast-flowing rivers on rafts, across parched gravel deserts. A terrible journey back to their steppeland home. We trailed them all the way. They never knew. And when they had kindly transported all that Chinese gold for us, safely back to the northern steppes, we fell on them by night and slew them all.’
‘And took back your gold?’
Orestes nodded. ‘And took back our gold.’
Chanat munched happily on his leg of mutton. He liked this story. ‘Will this emperor indeed render up to us half his empire? Is he such a woman? They say he wears perfume, and boots studded with pearls.’
‘I don’t doubt he does,’ said Attila. ‘But as for handing over half his empire, if he does not, I will destroy him. And if he does,’ he smiled, ‘well, I will destroy him anyway. And then… Rome.’
They fell silent. Chanat drank. Memories of China.
‘Whatever else he does, Theodosius will call on the West for aid,’ said Attila. ‘But no aid will come.’
Orestes frowned. ‘The Roman boy, this Master-General, Aetius.. .’
‘I remember him. He would ride to the rescue of any fallen damsel, even Theodosius. But he will not come. I have other plans. Constantinople has strong walls, but the strongest legions remain in the West. Aetius’ own legions are the finest. We could take on both empires at once, but it is easier to divide and rule, as the Romans used to say when they colonised new lands. Divide and destroy, I say.
‘We concentrate first on the East. Soon enough, Theodosius will send out a message by sea to Ravenna. Also to his field army at Marcianopolis, and perhaps to the legionary forts at Sirmium and Singidunum to attack our flank. Such messages will be… disrupted.’
‘The Vandals are masters of much of the Mediterranean now. King Genseric.’
Orestes stared. ‘One of the brothers also held hostage in Rome in your boyhood.’
‘With his sleek ships in that fine harbour of captured Carthage. What irony there.’
‘He is your ally now? I did not know this.’
‘He is not my ally, he is my servant.’ Attila grinned. ‘But he does not know this.’ He took a deep draught of koumiss.
‘You should sleep,’ said Orestes. He had been awake all night, talking, the bloodlust of Margus still coursing in his veins.
Attila ignored him. Orestes laid his hand on his shoulder. No other man could have done this. Attila shrugged him off.
Finally he said, ‘Such dreams I have nowadays. You have no idea. Such dreams…’
‘Such dreams,’ echoed Little Bird from the back of the tent, shaking his head sorrowfully.
Orestes did not know if they were good dreams or bad, if his friend awoke in the cold midnight raging with dreams of world conquest or trembling from other visions altogether.
‘I do not sleep,’ said Attila. ‘I cannot sleep.’
Two more warriors stepped into the tent, Aladar, son of Chanat, and one of the Kutrigur Huns.
‘Another of the Chosen Men is dead,’ said Aladar.
The Kutrigur warrior nodded. ‘You seek the Lord Bela. I saw him go down into the water. One of the Romans, a brute of a man, fell on him and dragged him off the bridge, drowned him.’
Attila gazed at the messenger. First eager Yesukai, doomed to die young. Now Bela, one of the four steadfast brothers.
The king said not a word, made not a sound, but in a single, explosive movement smashed his wooden cup to the ground. Little Bird whimpered. No one else moved.
Attila’s eyes searched the ground splashed with koumiss, muttering. ‘Drowned. What an end for my warrior Bela.’
Bela of the bull-neck and the bull-torso. The strong and silent, slow-witted, immovable Bela. Loyal unto death, like all his Chosen Men.
Chanat said, ‘The brothers will have their revenge, my lord.’
‘I don’t doubt it,’ growled Attila.
Aladar took a deep breath. ‘And Candac is also gone.’
Clever, cautious, round-faced Candac.
‘Then find him. Find his body. He will be given full and honourable-’
‘No, Great Tanjou. He is gone. I saw him go.’
Attila’s scowl was ferocious. Two deep vertical grooves between his brows, his forehead furrowed deep and dark. Three ancient parallel scars just visible, fine and white. His traitor’s mark. His voice was soft and low, always the worst.
‘Not deserted,’ he said. ‘Not my Candac, not my Chosen Man. He would not desert me.’
‘I saw him ride, too, my master,’ said Little Bird, nodding furiously. ‘He rode away north and gone, all wordless into the wilderness.’
Attila’s bewilderment erupted into violence.
Little Bird yelped and scuttled to the darkest side of the tent, where he squatted down and wrapped his arms over his head like a monkey.
Orestes ducked under the wooden stool that the king was flailing wildly, smashing to splinters against the shuddering tentpost. He seized his arm. It was not seemly for a great man to show such passion. Attila froze and looked at Orestes as if unable to recognise him. His blazing eyes were filled with madness. Orestes returned his gaze steadily. Attila gradually grew calm again, dropped the remains of the stool at his feet and turned away.
‘Explain,’ he said eventually. His shoulders seemed to sag. ‘Explain to me the desertion of my Chosen Man, my beloved Candac.’
‘My lord,’ said Aladar gravely, ‘I cannot. Except that…’
‘I heard him speak,’ said Chanat.
Attila looked back.
The old warrior regarded his king gravely. ‘I saw him surveying the killing-field of Margus, and the mounds of dead bodies, and the deeds of the Kutrigur Huns, our brothers-in-arms: taking scalps, debauching the slain, having their usual enjoyments.’
The Kutrigur warrior, messenger of Bela’s death, remained impassive at the tent door.
‘Terror is a fine weapon,’ said Attila. ‘And very cheap.’
Chanat did not argue. ‘Our brothers-in-arms,’ he repeated boldly and bitterly. ‘Our comrades riding with us in the great and glorious conquest of this mighty Empire of Rome. I saw Candac standing among the flames, and I saw him drop his bow to the ground and not retrieve it. He watched them, the Kutrigurs, about their business, their exotic deeds and their violations, with the chieftain of the Kutrigurs, Sky-in-Tatters himself, among them. And I heard the Lord Candac say – I thought to me, though he did not turn his head – I heard him say, “This is not the treasure I fought for.”’
There was a moment of silence. Then, ‘Why did you not tell me this earlier?’
‘You would not have heard this earlier.’
‘Ach,’ murmured Attila. One soft, sad syllable. There was no more to be said.
After a while his warriors rose and retired from his tent. Even Orestes stepped after them, leaving him to his dreams.
Proud tempers breed sad sorrows for themselves.
Orestes searched for Little Bird but he was nowhere to be found. Like Candac, he had gone into the wilderness, though not for ever, only for a little while. He would never desert his master, come what may. He would always go with him through the storm and to the very gates of Hell, joking as he went.
In the hills to the south, looking out over the smouldering ashes of Margus, seated cross-legged upon an outcrop of pale moonlit limestone among the yellow rockroses, was an outlandish, beribboned creature. He wore a string decorated with tiny bird and animal skulls around his neck, and a torn goatskin shirt decorated with little black stick men.
A solitary girl fleeing south, a shepherdess, stumbled on him and gave a cry of terror but he never stirred, never even noticed. She fled onward.
For all his years he still had the face of a child, the colour high and hectic in his broad cheeks. A small fire of sticks burned at his feet and he threw strange seeds into it and leaned forwards to inhale the smoke.
His attention was fixed far beyond the ruined town. He saw turning stars and balefire and black night, and he felt afraid. He rocked back and forth and stirred his hands in the air. He saw his noble master, Lord Widow-Maker, Great Tanjou, Khan of Khans, drawing black night down over the world like a tent to cover and smother all. Not only the hated empire of Rome but the Hun people, too, would be caught in it, would suffocate and die under that dark sky heavy with hatred. He whimpered. The tent of the world twisted and became a monster made up of blood-red flame and black night, which would turn and devour them all.
THE TORTURE SHIP
Sabinus took a cup of wine after all. It wouldn’t make him slow on a night like this, only steady his nerves.
His palms sweated. He calmed his breathing.
Around the battlements he could see the white, strained faces of his men. Down below, the restless cavalry horses were tethered. The cavalrymen resting again, seated in the dust, helmets cradled in their laps. Little campfires burning. No one spoke.
They prayed that it would come soon.
Some already harboured fantasies of hearing the sound of distant hooves and drums, and the cry going up from the south towers overlooking the road east to Ratiaria and Marcianopolis, ‘They’re coming! The field army’s coming! ’
But no such cry came.
From the walls they could see fires in the hills: villages aflame. They could hear the high calls of nightbirds, the bark of a dog-fox. But a terrible feeling of aloneness. As if they were the only living men left on earth, surrounded by darkness and by the forces of darkness.
No one else even knew. The rest of the empire slept peaceful and oblivious tonight. Not one shepherd, not one wandering tinker refugee, had got through to Naissus of the Five Roads or to Ratiaria, with its vast weapons factories, to report the incursion, it seemed. No help was coming for this fight they faced against tens of thousands of savages, streaming down again from the valleys where they had lain hidden. Under Sabinus’ command, no more than two thousand at best, many of them rustic auxiliaries. Properly armoured, equipped and trained, he had all of five hundred men.
Wisps of cloud across the moon, a thickening mist on the river, a terrible unease. Only a few hours ago he’d been sitting doing the legionary accounts. That seemed a long time ago now.
A cry in the night. The legate started, strained his ears. Sounds were getting muffled by the rising mist. Screams still coming from Margus? No, that was impossible. Margus was ten miles distant. Only the cry of a bird, a night-heron over the darkening river.
He turned to speak to Tatullus by his side and then froze.
There came the sound of drums.
There was a stir among the men on the north-west tower. They were pushing forward to see something. Sabinus strode over.
The crossbowmen and artillerymen parted for him. Tatullus trod close behind. There was that hulking brute Knuckles again, both his great bearlike arms and huge fists tightly wrapped round with bull-hide strips studded with lethal bronze studs, and dragging a crude club, like some troglodyte Hercules.
‘Where’s your pike, man?’ demanded Sabinus.
‘Down below, sir. I got an eye on it, don’t you worry. But I lost me last club back on the bridge at Margus, so I been makin’ meself a new one. I like a club, sir, when it gets up close and personal, like. It don’t rust and get caught in your scabbard, it don’t break or get stuck in somebody’s guts, it never gives up on you. You keep a firm grip on it and it won’t let you down. I always swear by a club, sir, when the fightin’ gets messy.’
Knuckles’ club had a special adaptation. Stuck on the end was a great lump of lead solder which one of the smiths had done for him earlier. Most men would have had difficulty even lifting the thing.
‘Once, sir, I had to put a mare out of her misery and me good old club did a clean job of it in one go.’
Sabinus didn’t doubt it.
A flicker of something caught his eye. He looked out over the river and something was wrong. It was on fire.
Out of the darkness still came the sound of drums. Deep, booming barbarian drums.
The night glowed, a flame-red mouth opening up in the darkness, long streaks of reflected flame licking along the surface of the slow-moving river. Then a ship came gliding out of the thin mist.
A galley, wreathed in flames. One of the galleys of the Danube Fleet, captured from God knows where. Gliding downstream like some infernal ghost-ship, sailing into dark eternity unmanned. Silent but for the crackling of the flames and the collapsing spars and showering sparks. Yet there were humans still aboard. Hanging from the masts and yardarms, strangled, dangling, obscene, as if still dancing amid the flames that licked at the soles of their feet, hung the naked bodies of massacred soldiers. They festooned the ship like hellish decorations. Fire danced from their crucified limbs. Their hair flamed. The ship came gliding past, close enough to the north wall of the fort for them to see the victims’ blistering skin, their melting faces.
Sabinus gripped the wall.
‘God’s teeth,’ muttered Knuckles, ‘that’s worthy of a show in the arena, that is.’
Tatullus had his vinestick in his hand in a flash, and struck Knuckles such a blow across the back of his head as would have cracked the skull of a lesser man. Knuckles gasped and reeled and staggered, more bow-legged than ever, his eyes rolling up to the whites before collapsing against the low battlements of the wall. Shaking, in a cold sweat, he sucked in deep lungfuls, gradually letting the pain recede and his vision return.
Tatullus never raised his voice. There was something in this iron-cold centurion that chilled even Sabinus. ‘Those were your comrades you see tortured and crucified below you, soldier. Talk of them with respect.’
Knuckles, still hanging onto the battlement as if it were a rock in rapids and he were a drowning man, pale and nearly sick with the blow, managed a slow nod. ‘Sir.’
Other soldiers gathered from along the walls to stare aghast. Some had their arms round each other’s shoulders as the torture ship passed by. Four of them stood in a line, silent witnesses to the spectacle, like gladiators summoning esprit de corps before the coming doom. Two brothers, their father and their uncle. Local boys, part-time farmers, the VIIth in all its glory. Soon they would be fighting for their lives.
Another spar on the ship came crashing down to the deck in a flurry of sparks, another piece fell free and sizzled out in the black water. But even that sound was muffled by the mist and the night.
Now they would at last be tested, perhaps beyond endurance. They would fight for themselves and each other, for their families and their farmsteads. They had never even seen Rome or Constantinople. The emperor was far away, the empire a thing of the mind. Today they would fight merely for survival. No reinforcements.
The torture ship passed on eastwards, its ghastly light dimming into the darkness. They imagined it finally drifting down through the shadowy gorge of the Iron Gates, reduced by then to a smoking, blackened wreck, to be dashed to pieces there in the whitewater narrows. Bits of peat-black timber and spar washing up on the strand at Ratiaria. Blackened bones.
Away to the west, the drums ceased.
The oldest of the four men turned to Sabinus as he passed by. ‘Are we finished?’
The legate paused, then laid a hand on the man’s shoulder – an unheard-of familiarity.
‘No, man,’ he said gently, ‘not by a long way. No barbarian force has ever taken a Roman legionary fort. Not in seven long centuries.’
‘To your stations again now, lads,’ said Tatullus behind him. ‘Storm coming.’
Another soldier came running, sweating in the torchlight.
‘Sir! Man below the west gate. I think he comes to parley.’
They hurried down to the first level and along the battlements to the west gate. Sabinus gazed out from the tower.
Under the louring walls of Viminacium sat a single man on a dusty skewbald pony. He was naked to the waist but for a purely decorative breastplate of thin bones, and wore no armour but for a close-fitting helmet that shone in the moonlight.
He must be insane.
The man looked up and fixed his glittering eyes on Sabinus, never doubting he was in command. He looked like he needed sleep. His face was deeply grooved and ashen-grey, with a wisp of an old man’s chinbeard, yet his yellowish eyes still burned. He did not seem to raise his voice, yet on the tower they heard each word distinctly.
‘I do not come to parley,’ he said. ‘I do not come for your words. I come for your lives.’
Sweat beaded down Sabinus’ spine. He felt cold. How had the Hun heard them talk of parleying? How had he known? There was something about their visitor not of this earth. Was this Attila himself?
Close behind him, Sabinus became aware, the Armenian, the one who called himself Count Arapovian, was swiftly and silently nocking an arrow to his bow. A short, powerful eastern bow, a compound bow, like the Scythians themselves used. The legate did not stop him.
It all happened in the blink of an eye. The warlord on his pony remained quite still. Arapovian stepped forward with practised swiftness took aim and loosed his bowstring. In the same instant, another arrow came out of the darkness, a single arrow. It arced through the night and struck home. The Armenian gasped and stepped back, dropping his bow clattering to the floor and clutching his forearm. The arrowhead had punched straight between the two bones of his arm and out the other side, so neatly that he barely bled – not until the arrow-shaft was drawn, at any rate.
It had struck him just a moment before he let fly his own. A hair’s breadth of movement, compounded by distance, and Arapovian’s arrow had hit the ground beside the hooves of that motionless skewbald pony.
Arapovian fell back against the wall.
‘Get him to the medics,’ growled Tatullus.
He was helped down the steps.
‘Then get him back here,’ called Tatullus after them.
‘I will return,’ came the Armenian’s voice. ‘Don’t doubt it.’
‘And no one else try anything.’
As if in commentary on what had just occurred, having seen or foreseen everything, the unmoving man down below said, ‘Fools. The blood of my people is on your heads. I come to destroy you.’
From behind his back he drew a spear, bare but for a single black feather, and drove it into the hard ground before the fort. Then he pulled his workaday mount round and walked it away into the darkness.
Sabinus and his primus pilus exchanged looks. Tatullus rested his hand on his sword-hilt. Now they knew what manner of man their enemy was.
Until they had seen the fire-ship, and the man whose mind had dreamed up such an atrocity, Sabinus had still held out hope of imminent rescue. He had thought of ordering out the boats if all the land-routes were taken. They could have rowed downriver to Ratiaria, to Marcianopolis, have the whole thirty-thousand-strong Eastern Field Army here in a few days… But the fire-ship told them – among other things – ‘We have control of the river too. You will never get through.’
The Huns and their Attila: mastermind of panic, conjuror of hysteria. This barbarian warlord with the mind of a fox. Piling on the pressure, drawing out their deepest fears, destroying their reason and their resolve with monsters and threats both real and imaginary.
The abandoned town of Viminacium within its paltry curtain walls began to burn. No citizens fled from the flames. They had all gone already. The remnant VII Legion in their fortress were utterly alone.
Except for their sworn enemies round about. They could hear faint yowls and shrieks of triumph. In the town the savages were looting anything not yet on fire, and outside the town they were ransacking the chapel in the cemetery. They smashed apart an elaborate grave and prised open the lead sarcophagus within, to steal from the dead a gorgeous cloth threaded with gold. The corpse, the crumbling body of a young man, they left hanging grotesquely half out of the battered sarcophagus. Other corpses were strewn more widely about, so that it looked as if the dead had come back to life. As if they had awoken in the night and danced themselves to death again by moonlight, to collapse again half-putrid where they danced.
Emerging as if from the very heart of destruction, there came again the low, monotonous beat of war. The witch Enkhtuya sitting cross-legged somewhere in the outer darkness, hammering a drumskin with a bone, murmuring low.
‘Weave the crimson web of war,
Raise the bloody banners high,
Make it as it was before,
All men must fight, all men must die.
‘Horror covers all the heath,
Clouds of carnage blot the sun,
Sisters, weave the web of death,
Sisters cease, the work is done.’
Sabinus nodded to his optio, gave orders for the standard-bearers to report, and returned to his principia to put on his armour, and to take one last look around.
One last look. The phrase echoed in his thoughts, but he preferred not to analyse it.
They marched swiftly through the small but elegantly colonnaded courtyard, into the atrium, past the triclinium. Strange to glimpse the comfortable couches still ranged about in there, as if waiting for the next modest banquet with local dignitaries. But the legate’s accommodation was no longer in the best repair. Starlings had made their nests under the eaves, and frogs had colonised the cellars. Soldierly duty kept the place clean and tidy, but its neglect could not be concealed. No fashionably attired dinner guests visited now, few inhabited the frontier towns. All had migrated south towards Constantinople to make themselves and their families rich with courtly patronage. Senatorial families dreamed of imperial donatives and sinecures, ignorantly at ease in their plush villas in Naissus, Marcianopolis, Adrianople, or the gleaming golden capital itself. The old provincial dutifulness was gone. Only the poor paid taxes, they joked. And how it showed. But the rich would pay for their selfishness in time. In a currency red as blood.
As Tatullus had said: ‘Storm coming.’
After his optio had strapped on his armour, Sabinus took his splendid helmet with its nodding plumes, then led his standard-bearers into the chapel. There stood the central shrine, the eagle, the bull ensign and the lesser centurial banners. Beneath the shrine, beneath the altar itself, lay the fort’s strongroom, packed with stamped gold ingots from the mines of Mons Aurea.
One of centurial banner-bearers shook so badly that he nearly dropped the staff as Sabinus handed it to him. A mere lad, sixteen or seventeen, a once-weekly shaver, scarce dry from the egg. His name was Julianus. Sabinus spoke to him gravely but not unkindly. ‘Hold it steady, lad,’ he said evenly. ‘Yes, we are cut off. Yes, there are a lot of them. But this is a still a legionary fort. It’s stood for four centuries now, against barbarians just as vile as these.’ He told the lad – he told all of them – to hate their enemies. ‘Think of your families. Think of what will become of them… and swear hatred of the barbarians,’ he said. ‘Your hatred will drive out fear, and then you will fight like lions.’
As the legionary bull standard was lowered and passed out of the door of the chapel into the night, he gave it a brief, idolatrous bow.
Alone he visited the hospital and saw that all was in good order. The medics stood to attention. Only four patients in there now, one clearly dying. Another with leg sores, being cleaned up nicely by hard-working maggots collected fresh from horse-dung. Poultices, bandages and dressings, copper pots steaming on the stoves, jars of grey-green willow-leaf infusion for wounds.
He resumed his place on the west tower beside Tatullus. The centurion did not stir. A fortress of a man.
The waiting was always the worst. Oh, let it begin soon.
But they were kept waiting. They waited all night until the dawnlight came up behind them.
A low morning mist, thickest over the silent river to the north. Smoke sitting heavily over the lost town, where it had once stood proud on the green summer plain. Smoke slowly drifting eastwards towards the fort, mingling with wraiths of mist in the cold shadows of the north wall.
All night long the stars had burned, and, out on the plain around, myriad campfires like a starry floor. Their enemy, of course, but a strange feeling of company. Then towards dawn, with the temperature still dropping sharply from the warm day, the mist had risen from the river and the marshy meadows round about and thickened towards sunrise. Now it lay dense and milk-white around them, Sabinus on the tower like the captain on the deck of some ghost ship abandoned in remote uncharted seas.
‘This visibility is bad,’ he said.
‘Bad for us,’ said Tatullus pointedly. ‘Not for our attackers. ’
The attack must come soon. The soldiers on the walls stamped their feet, blew into cupped hands. How their tensed bones ached in their chill coats of mail. The mist clung to them, beaded dewdrops on cold metal.
All wore their heavy helmets through the long night so that their necks ached. Leather straps cut into throats. Feet were white cold. The wall artillery was primed and loaded. The swords were ground sharp. The world was silent around them. No birds sang.
On the north-west tower, a legionary gazed out towards the river, trying to judge whether the mist was thinning in the rising sun, and how fast. Still no sight of the opposite bank. Then he frowned. Something was wrong. The mist was darkening, close to. Shadows moving within it. Over the tributary channel, just along the wall. Something was happening. Coming nearer.
The chain was across the entrance back by the river watchtowers, wasn’t it? They’d talked about the waterways last night. Apparently, the refugees had reported the invaders using horse-transporters of some sort: rafts. But if any bone-headed barbarians seriously tried attacking downriver they’d get in a right bloody mess. The emperor-chain would be across the Iron Gorge, with auxiliaries stationed on the cliffs above, and the marines of the Danube Fleet ready to row out of Ratiaria if necessary and finish them off. There was no chance there.
But presumably their plan, assuming they had a plan, was to take Viminacium and then head on south down the imperial trunk road to Naissus and the rich pickings of Sardica. Like they’d ever get that far. Not with a legionary fortress in the way, and their knowledge of missile technology extending as far as an arrow dipped in flaming tar. The walls of Viminacium should be able to withstand a few of those.
‘Sir?’ he said to his decurion.
‘Hm?’ The junior officer had his helmet off, resting it on the top of the battlements, polishing it with his woollen neckerchief, so that the first arrow punched straight into his head. His helmet rolled over the wall and fell silently and he slumped forwards across the wall.
The soldier opened his mouth to shout in terror but instead gargled blood as another arrow passed up through his throat and into his skull. Still scrabbling at his throat, he stumbled and rolled down the stone steps to the battlements.
The artillerymen stared around, bewildered.
Then one of them saw what was happening. Out of the mist were coming high-sided boats, drifting slowly down the tributary channel. No, not the Danube Fleet from Ratiaria, come to the rescue. These were other boats entirely, captured from God knows where, moving slow and serene as great swans in the white summer mist. Each one was filled with archers, ready to rain down arrows on the fortress walls.
‘Enemy at the north wall!’
But along the west wall they already had their own concerns.
Sabinus heard his centurion grunt. He himself took a step forward in fascinated horror, his whole body trembling. He saw but did not immediately understand. He reached out to steady himself.
The barbarians had no siegecraft. He said it to himself again. The barbarians had no siegecraft.
Tatullus spoke for him. ‘What the hell is this, civil war?’ Then ducked and took cover as a single arrow clattered into the stone beside him. Covering fire for the Sabinus did not duck. He stamped his heavy sandals, the hobnails thudding on the thick wooden planks. This was no dream.
This was real. And this was the day he would die.
The mist cleared a little more. There was the lone horseman’s spear from last night, decorated with the single black feather, still stuck in the ground before the west gate. A cool, light wind blew, a very light wind, and the mist drifted away off the wet meadows towards the river. Except they could not see the wet meadows. They were covered in horsemen.
At their head sat a group of long-haired, half-naked, tattooed Hun noblemen, generals, perhaps, gold gleaming around their arms and necks; and another man of different race, fair with close-cropped or thinning hair. At the head of them in turn, gazing up at the walls of Viminacium, smiling cheerfully, sword dangling loosely in his right hand as if ready to ride up and attack the fortress with bare steel, was their leader. The one from the night before. Attila.
‘Sir, boats passing along the north wall. Men taking fire.’
Sabinus ignored him. What was emerging before their horror-stricken eyes out of the mist to the west was everything now. For it was not the vast horde of savagely armed and decorated horse-warriors standing before them that chilled the blood, so much as the weaponry they brought with them. Against all intelligence and expectation. Among the horde, still half veiled in thin mist, stood two huge wooden siege-towers on great solid wheels, two mighty torsion-spring onagers with boulders already set back in their basins, a bronze-headed battering ram expertly protected under a moveable steep-sided tortoise of strong wooden planks and iron plates, and, scattered among the horsemen, a number of other smaller artillery pieces, sling-machines and ballistas. Things that barbarians should not have.
Around the onagers was a busy commerce of men and oxen and wagons, and the distant creaking of ropes and winches and leather slings. Soon would come the nerve-shredding, ascending screech of twisted torsion springs tuned to screaming pitch, and then the snap and thud of release, the loosed beam flying up and hitting the padded crossbeam, and the boulder hurtling through the air towards the walls of Viminacium.
‘Now we’ve got a fight on our hands,’ murmured Tatullus.
Sabinus shook off his trance of horror. ‘Turn the catapults! ’ he roared. ‘Wall artillery! Every unit on the towers. Do it now!’
Suddenly the U-shaped bastions were alive with panic and the noise of the light wall-artillery, the ballistas and the crossbow machines, being scraped round on their solid iron frames and ranged for the initial shots. Windlasses winding up a ferocious amount of energy in the thick reels of sinew, cranked back with mighty force on a long wooden lever and ratchet, men’s arms bulging, the sinew stretching tighter and tighter still, the high-pitched creak as it was wound back and back more, the bowstring drawn back and a heavy iron-headed bolt laid in the groove before it. When the trigger was released, all that pent-up energy discharged the bolt with lethal force. One bolt was good, but a whole bank of such machines discharging their bolts in a volley could bring down an entire line of cavalry, dragging down those in the rear in a bewildered jumble. The Huns would not have encountered such a thing before.
‘Long fire-bolts loaded! Buckets of tar on every bastion. Light ’em up!’
The pedites, the military runners, ran.
‘And bales, rocks, overturned wagons, anything, stacked up inside the west gate. We won’t be using it for a while.’
There weren’t enough men.
‘The question is,’ said Sabinus, looking out again, ‘those onagers: do they know how to use them?’
And then out of the mist, unrangeable, unreachable, the onagers started firing. They heard the muffled shock of massive beam clunking up into padded crossbeam, and the eerie, almost inaudibly low hum of the great missiles gliding in low, expertly aimed for the foundation stones of the fort. Each of the two machines required precisely one ranging shot. A big boulder fell short and slewed to a halt in the dust, its weight and force such that the ground creased up in wavelets before it. Sabinus waited, barely breathing. The second boulder hit the south-west tower a minute later. The sound seemed to come out of the bowels of the earth, like subterranean thunder. Men staggered atop, clutching their spears.
‘Question answered,’ said Tatullus stonily. ‘Yes, they know how to use them.’
The onagers halted. Out on the plain the vast Hun war-machine was beginning to roll forward again. And the Huns, ignorant and unlettered barbarians though they were, their very language no more than a series of unwriteable growls and grunts, knew better than to try and use onagers at the same time as their own lines were advancing in front of them. Yes, they knew exactly what they were doing. They must have formed an alliance with some power skilled in siegecraft. Who? Could it be treachery? Master-General Aetius had been close to the Huns as a boy. Could he have allied with his old friends, to conquer the Eastern Empire for himself?
But no. Not Aetius. Then who?
Huge solid wooden wheels creaked and groaned under the inertia of their giant loads. Oxen were lashed beneath their wooden canopies. Squeals and rumbles of animal, man and machine horribly commingled. And coming to the fore the two siege-towers. The braying of war trumpets, thunderous mounted kettle-drums, each blow with a bone drumstick like a punch in the guts, the crashing of Hunnish zils or cymbals, the earth itself trembling.
Sabinus bellowed another order: ‘All non-combatants to the dungeons, all current prisoners to the execution dungeon.’
A soldier blanched. ‘Families, sir? Children?’
Sabinus looked at him. ‘You have family?’
‘A sister, sir, in VI Barrack, and her two young ones.’
‘Then believe me, man, you’ll thank me soon enough.’ He looked back over the plain. ‘The dungeons are the best place for them.’
On the battlements just below, an archer drew back his bowstring, though the oncoming horde were still far out of range. It was Arapovian again, the impossible, indefatigable Armenian, his self-possession absolute amid the noise and panic of the artillery. His left arm, his bow-arm, had been tightly bandaged by the medics, but there still showed through on his forearm a small circle of deep dark blood. The man’s olive-skinned aquiline face was beaded with droplets of sweat but expressionless. No order had been given to fire, but Arapovian was clearly a kind of free-lance in his own estimation, and not subject to the orders of ordinary mortals. Sabinus watched, intrigued despite himself. Even as Arapovian pulled back his bowstring, Sabinus thought he could see that small circle of blood spreading. What it must have cost him. His biceps bunched as he drew back the sinew string of that lethal eastern bow, sinuously curved and then recurved at each end. The arrowhead was ablaze with a blob of pitch. He sighted along the arrow and fired.
Other soldiers turned in surprise to watch its arc.
The arrow struck the ground at the foot of the Hunnish spear, which still stood like an insult and a judgement before the west gate, its black feather bobbing in the light breeze. Then it went out. There was wisp of smoke, then nothing. He had fired too hard, the burning arrowhead had buried itself in the dusty ground and been snuffed out. An unfortunate omen. But there came another wisp of smoke and the pitch blazed again. A lean tongue of flame licked up the Hun spearshaft and it began to burn.
On the towers, the relentless activity of the ballistas and sling-machines faltered as men paused to watch. Let ’em, thought Sabinus. Moments like this were worth an extra cohort.
It was an astonishing shot, first time.
Now arrow-shaft and spearshaft burned together. After only a few seconds the tar-fuelled flames reached the long black feather dancing on top and reduced it to a few motes of ash. What had seemed like so powerful a symbol of intimidation had vanished in a lick of flame, a puff of wind.
He was an impossible one, this Armenian. But not altogether stupid. A great cheer went up from the ramparts. Arapovian neither turned, acknowledged it nor reacted in any way.
‘Stuck-up son of a bitch,’ growled Knuckles nearby.
He deserved a decoration for that flamboyant act. Sabinus called over to him, ‘When this is over, you’ll walk away with a corona obsidionalis.’
‘When this is over,’ said Arapovian, never shifting his gaze from the approaching horde, ‘I’ll be glad to walk away with my life.’
He nocked another arrow to his bow and rested his injured arm on the battlements and waited.
The enemy rolled nearer.
They could see now that the Hun siege-towers were serious constructions, frontages padded with huge sewn bolsters of rawhide, stuffed with riverweed and horsehair and thoroughly soaked against fire-arrows. They rolled in unison towards the west wall, one to the left and one to the right. Good dispositon. The supporting lines of horse-warriors slowed and stopped, still out of effective range.
Sabinus bellowed to his artillery, ‘Concentrate on the towers!’
To the north, report came of the drifting boats on the slow-moving tributary laying down a deadly rain of arrows. Anchoring themselves there with supreme confidence for the long stay. So Sabinus gave the order to clear the north walls and abandon them. The water would save them there.
From the eastern gate, the Porta Praetoria, leading down the Via Lederatea to Ratiaria, only the empty road. No dust-cloud. Shadows of buzzards in the morning sky. No help coming.
The two men on the west gate-tower, the legate and his primus pilus, regarded the approaching towers steadily. Then, ‘You see what I see?’ said Tatullus softly.
‘I do,’ said Sabinus, and he gave a faint smile. ‘Amateurs.’
Though the massive towers looked impressive enough, the Huns, or their enslaved builders and carpenters, perhaps deliberately, had failed to give them a low enough skirt. The four big wooden wheels on which each tower rolled forward were hopelessly exposed.
‘Let’s get ’em in close first,’ said the legate. ‘False shooting to start.’
He quit the west gate-tower and made for the south-west. ‘Unit III, get your slingshots down! Decurion, lower the trajectory. I want flat slings hitting the head of the tower. Slingshots on the level. I want the towers under bombardment at two hundred yards. What angle’s that?’
‘Around twelve degrees from the horizontal, sir.’
‘Then give the order.’
‘I could do you five degrees, sir, hit ’em at only a hundred yards, but harder still.’
Sabinus shook his head. ‘Too damn near. Give it ten degrees, then.’
The machines were ratcheted.
‘And never mind the whole tower, just take out the head. We’ll fire up the rest.’
He ordered the same for the north-west tower, giving the unit there a rapid inspection. They had two big crossbow machines and two iron-frame slings. He gave calm words of advice to the young unit commander, then returned to take his stand in the western gate-tower. Face on to the enemy.
At two hundred yards the first slingshots and bolts were loosed against the towers. There was a satisfyingly curt brutality to the flight. Long-distance shots might look impressive as they arced up high and fell over half a mile away, but most of the impulsive power was lost by then, and the missile travelled so slowly – as much as ten seconds from shot to landfall – that there was ample time for the enemy to see it coming and dodge it. But under Sabinus’ orders there was the low, vibrating twang of horsehair rope, the snap of torsion springs, the smack of sling-beam, and only a second or two later the weighty lead and stone slingshots flew out almost horizontal from the machines and thumped violently into the flanks of the approaching towers. The well-trained artillerymen bent down and adjusted the ratchets a fraction more. The nerve-shredding creak of torsion springs, further shots. Satisfyingly loud claps of impact, the cracking report as balls and bolts hit their target. Not much damage to the great towers yet, though, until a lucky strike passed straight through one of the narrow slits in the tower and a scream from within suggested a direct hit.
The towers weren’t going to be brought down, nor even knocked headless. Already the great wickerwork drawbridges were being lowered, like dark and hungry jaws opening upon the battlements of the fort.
Sabinus waited a little longer, judging the moment, hands clenched on the wall. Then, finally, ‘Now! Lower units, hit the wheels!’
With instant discipline, the artillery units on the first level of the towers set up a punishing crossfire, hitting the wheels of the siege-engines at the widest angle they could. Medium-weight slingballs and heavy iron-tipped ballista bolts cut across each other’s trajectories from the corner towers before slamming in low. Almost immediately one good shot chipped off the edge of a front wheel.
Tatullus nodded and murmured, ‘It’s deliberate, a bad build. Cunning. But pity the poor sods when their Hun masters realise it.’
Sabinus said nothing. There would be too many dead to pity by today’s end.
He ordered a single eight-man unit of his heavy cavalry to stand ready inside the south gate with all but one of the braces drawn back ready. Tatullus glanced at him.
More careful adjustments to the arc. The pounding was relentless. Within the towers the slave-driven captives moaned, sweating and heaving at the drive-posts. And there came a deeper moaning too. A bellowing…
‘ Amateurs!’ said Sabinus again, smacking a fist into his palm. ‘Listen to that!’
He was right. Against all the rules, the Huns had roped up oxen inside the siege-towers to provide the drive power. It might have seemed a good idea in the cool, rational calm before the battle started, but battles didn’t stay that way. And roped-up oxen could start causing no end of trouble to their own side once the missiles started piling in, men started screaming, noxious tar-fires started burning out of control…
Sabinus gave the order at once. ‘Fire and tar, get some flames around them! That’ll soon have the brutes breaking free.’
The tower coming in on the right stubbornly refused to burn, but curls of smoke soon told a different story from the other. And as soon as they smelled the smoke, sure enough, the oxen within began to bellow and panic and heave themselves sideways in their yokes. Terrible studded flails fell across the creatures’ bony backs, but the maddened pair, one already feeling the heat of the flames on its tawny flank, only wrenched away the harder, their fear of fire far greater than any whip. Both of them giving a simultaneous lurch in chance harmony was enough to break one of the yoke straps so that they staggered awkwardly and one tripped to its knees where it could no longer move. The entire tower was wrenched round to one side, the captives inside heaving desperately at the drive poles, naked and blinded with their own sweat, their backs beribboned by the long whips wielded by the small team of Hun warriors walking their horses close behind them in the shelter of the tower. But to no avail. The unbalanced tower, one wheel-rim already chipped and dragging down in the earth, was pulled further out of kilter by the miscreant oxen and suddenly the unprotected flank of the great tower and the two huge, uncurtained wooden wheels were exposed to direct Roman attack.
‘OK!’ roared Sabinus, the infectious note of victory in his voice. ‘Artillery units: both towers – take ’em out and fire ’em up! I want the wheels in splinters and the towers in cinders! Go! ’
Pedites communicated the order to the corner towers. A further flurry of resolute activity and soon all eight machines on the bastions were venting their missiles in low, short flights against the unprotected wheels. A sling-ball or a bolt was hitting the nearest every five seconds in a ruthless rhythm. Splinters flew from the rim, one of the centreboards split, the axle-boss itself gave off a fine spray of sparks as an iron-tipped bolt clanged off it.
‘Bull’s-eye!’ yelled the artillerymen, guffawing.
‘Waste of time!’ roared Sabinus. ‘Split the boards!’
In came more shots. In the shelter of the faltering tower, the Hun horsemen in their fury had just whipped one captive to death, hanging still shackled from the drive pole shiny with his own blood.
But still more ruthlessness was called for. If they were going to beat off this horde, no quarter could be given. Not for a second.
Sabinus brought a crossbow squadron up close. Pedites dragged up more chests of bolts behind.
‘There’s a gang of ’em behind, driving it forward. Draw a line on the back of the tower. Any glimpse of one of those naked bastards and you take him out. But not until you see him. I want a dead shot off every bolt you fire.’
The crossbowmen crouched at the battlements, squat bows of chestnut and ash cranked back and tight with explosive power. One Hun pony stepped back from the shelter of the siege-tower a little too far and promptly lost the use of a rear leg. It fell back and tilted, the rider rolled in the dust. Three more bolts from the battlements hit him instantly. The other Hun horsemen now crammed together for shelter in the lea of the creaking and damaged tower.
All the while Sabinus kept one eye long-range on the Hunnish cavalry. They were approaching again, slow and orderly but still a long way off. For some reason that stone-faced warlord – he could pick him out clearly enough still amid the dust-clouds of twenty thousand tramping hooves – was letting the towers do what they could alone. Maybe he had no great faith in them. Not yet. He was prepared to let them be destroyed, so that he could watch from a distance, and learn.
The towers might be done for, but the battle was far from won. Those ten thousand horsemen with their murderous rain of arrows would come soon enough.
Finally a slingshot, or possibly a lucky double shot striking simultaneously, hit the already splintered wheel and one of the central planks was knocked out completely, hanging free. The entire tower seemed to hesitate for a moment, gave a slow, creaking lurch, the axletree craning and trembling. Then the damaged wheel collapsed abruptly into its constituent planks, shattered back to the boss, and the clumsy structure shuddered, leaned at a precipitous angle, and came to uncertain rest on the corner where the wheel had been. Within, one of the tormented oxen was almost strangled in its yoke as it was lifted off the ground by the counterpull. It roared and kicked out, and the rest of the broad leather yoke straps finally tore asunder. The terrified beast managed to squeeze itself round in its narrow stall and erupted, bellowing, out of the back of the tower into the melee of livid and bewildered Hun horsemen. The ox charged through them, oblivious of a last few whiplashes, and stumbled away. The men milled back and broke, and immediately a further ruthless volley of crossbow bolts from the battlements drove into them. At least half were hit. The tattered remainder turned and fled back to their own ranks in disgrace. Slow flames licked up the side of the broken tower, and, up above, the light wickerwork drawbridge roared. Within, the shackled captives were too exhausted to scream.
‘Now the other one!’ roared Sabinus, banging his fists victoriously on the wall. ‘No slacking. Get those ballistas loaded up afresh. Pedites, keep running. I want to see you sweat blood!’
He gave it a short while, then halted the artillery again with a downward slice of his hand. ‘Crossbowmen, stay trained. Anyone comes down from the tower, take ’em. Guards, open the gate! Cavalry’ – he grinned and swung his big, meaty arm forward through the air – ‘it’s all yours.’
The last brace was drawn, the heavy twin gates swung back easily on their huge greased hinges and the eight heavy cavalrymen drove their big mounts forward furiously, from stationary into canter and then flat gallop in the blink of an eye.
The rear pair of lancers split off and disappeared behind the back of the burning siege-tower. Now they really would be clibanarii, ‘boiler boys’, their long mailcoats and solid bronze helms as hot as ovens. But they did their stuff, hacking and levering at the shackles in the gloom, gagging on the dense smoke, fighting off the clawing and blinded captives even as they worked so hard for their release.
At last the wretched, beaten, slave-driven creatures staggered free and stumbled, still half blinded, back towards the open gate.
All the while Sabinus kept up his double vision. At any moment that stone-faced warlord might release a company of his lethal archers to gallop across the plain and descend on the little pack of heavy cavalry. But he still stayed his hand. In fact, the Hun lines seemed to have halted altogether, still a good half a mile off, maybe more. Not necessarily good news, in the long term. They were watching. Learning.
The second tower to their right, barely scathed yet, lightly smouldering, was still rolling forwards when the Hun horsemen behind it suddenly realised what was happening. Eight of them, armed with flails and lassos, bows still across their backs, heard the approaching thunder and looked around to see six, then eight, iron-mailed, bronze-helmeted lancers at full gallop almost upon them, long ashen lances couched low. It was the first time these Hun warriors had ever encountered anything like a Roman heavy cavalry charge, and they were powerless. They pulled their mounts round, heeled them into a rearing gallop, spurted forward – and the iron wave slammed into their flank. The light Hun ponies were punched sideways and thrown clear of the ground, their hooves scrabbling in the air, before crashing back winded and half broken. Riders were flung free, one in a spectacular arc through the dusty air, back concave, until he fell to earth again and was immediately despatched by single thrust of a long cavalry sword.
Not one Hun arrow was fired, not one curved yatagan was drawn, not a single battle-cry was given. The shock and force of the charge flattened them like a stormwind. The iron soldiers wielded their swords in silence, and eight warriors soon lay dead. The commander, a captain called Malchus, reined in and pushed back his helmet and scanned the middle distance, sweat coursing, raven hair plastered to his brow, his vision blurred. He blinked hard. At any moment, the savages would ride down in vengeance… but no, the Hun lines hadn’t moved. So they roped up the surviving ponies, freed the shackled captives, slew the two ungovernable oxen where they roared in their yokes and then tethered the cadavers behind them, and smashed the rear axle-tree of the tower. Malchus kicked his horse back and sliced his arm down towards the ruined tower. Let the fire come down.
They rode back at a strong trot, dragging the dead beasts, leaving the flames to finish the work of destruction.
Riotous cheers went up from the battlements.
‘Roast ox tonight!’
‘Let’s hear it for the Boiler Boys!’
The south gate was safely slammed shut and bolted, and Malchus bounded up the steps to the legate’s platform, helmet couched beneath his arm.
‘Second tower out of action, sir!’
The Hun line did not stir. A gentle breeze, black banners, no movement. Stone-faced thousands. A terrifying enemy, so silent and disciplined.
But Sabinus felt good. A stir of hope. Now the enemy had seen how Romans could still fight.
On the tower to Sabinus’ right, one of the tar barrels used to set fire to the siege-tower started burning out of control, guffing up big clouds of black, oily smoke and then, without warning, roaring into flame. Men fell back from the intense heat, shielding their eyes.
‘Damp that fucking thing down now!’ roared Tatullus, striding over. ‘Pedites, get buckets of water up here!’
It blazed furiously. The water arrived too slowly. Tatullus sent more men, including Knuckles, to bring up two massive iron-bound pails on a wooden yoke. But it got worse. Flames licked up, flourished, shook off any buckets of water thrown at them, spat them back in clouds of burning steam, and then suddenly engulfed the open-sided wooden roof, the only protection the men there had from falling arrows.
Sabinus roared further orders. And then, with his double vision still working, he saw a stir. On the plain below, the warlord with the eyes of a hawk, and the heart of a hawk, too, turned his head. If Sabinus had been any closer, he’d have seen his yellow eyes gleam. But he saw his signal well enough. His copper-banded arm stretched out, and a little band of horse-warriors began to gallop in.
‘What in the name of Light…?’
There was another surprise. Two of them dragged a little piece of field artillery. The rest broke into their lethal circling gallop and began to fire arrows onto the burning tower, through the flames. The men up there, choking on smoke and blinded by the rebellious flames, starting taking hits as well. The protective wooden roof began to sag and collapse.
A second group of warriors reined in some hundred yards off, set up their field-machine with unbelievable speed and efficiency, and started sending in hard, fist-sized rocks at the wall of the burning tower. They re-angled the beam and the next shot came curving in leanly over the wall and smacked straight into the side of the flaming tar barrel. They were trying to demolish it. Molten tar would run all over the place, the wooden boards burn, and that tower, that essential corner bastion, would be as good as finished.
The crossbow units started taking them out one by one, but every time they scored a hit, another tattooed warrior came galloping in and took his place.
Damn that warlord and his ruthless cunning. Every stumble, every weakness or misfortune, would be exploited.
Two, three more auxiliaries trying to damp out the flames were shot through. One fell forwards into the burning tar itself. He was dragged out by the legs, dead. Two more still tried to damp it. One fell back choking on foul smoke, lungs scorched. The situation was getting desperate. Even Tatullus seemed momentarily lost.
‘Fuck this,’ rumbled Knuckles, shoving his way through. ‘I’m gettin’ a headache. That barrel’s gotta go.’
He squatted down and put his shoulder to the edge of the blazing barrel, tipped it so it leaned against the low stone wall, slid his meaty hands beneath the rim and then, slowly, unbelievably, began to stand straight again. The barrel scraped up the wall. He peered blearily through the pitchy smoke to the ground below.
‘Right, which one of you bloody hooligans wants this on his head?’
He gave one final, terrific heave, and the barrel, blazing more furiously than ever, the very spars beginning to darken into charcoal from within and disintegrate, was sent over the side. No direct hit – that would have been too lucky – but it crashed to the earth with the force of an explosion, spitting burning splinters and flecks of blazing tar into the rumps of two or three terrified horses, which reared and then rolled to the ground, screaming, to extinguish their burning hides. The stench of singed horsehair filled the air. The Hun riders slipped free, staggered to their feet in a daze, looked around – and one, then two were struck through with arrows. They pitched forward and died. The third had begun to run, a fellow warrior galloping in close to scoop him up onto the back of his own sturdy little mount. But another arrow hit him square in the back and he dropped down dead. His would-be rescuer wheeled dismissively and galloped out of range again.
It was Arapovian, shooting without mercy from the battlements. He ducked as a riposte of Hun arrows clattered around him. Then the horsemen below galloped into a full retreat. The little field-machine was dragged away behind.
‘Now douse the roof, what’s left of it!’ shouted Sabinus. ‘Clean up that tower and get it back in order. Jump to it!’
Knuckles shambled over to the Armenian and hit him on the back.
‘Not bad, that,’ he growled.
Arapovian turned to look at him, saying nothing. His eyes widened a little. Knuckles’s complexion was charcoal. Half an eyebrow was burned away. His shaggy fringe was noticeably shorter than before, and his hair appeared to be smouldering. The Armenian glanced down and saw worse: those giant, spade-like hands were badly blistered and seeping blood. He silently produced a little bottle from within his robes and passed it to him.
‘One mouthful,’ he said. ‘Armenian brandy. The finest.’
Knuckles grunted and obediently took the delicate little bottle, looking like a giant holding a lady’s thimble. Sipped delicately. It was good.
‘That’s it, is it?’
Arapovian took the bottle back. ‘That’s it.’ He pushed the cork in and stowed the bottle back in his robes. ‘We’re going to need more later.’
‘“We”, is it now?’
Arapovian looked back over the plains of war. Perhaps the shadow of a smile passed over his aquiline features. He cranked his injured left arm up and down, blood oozing through the bandages again, but his face betraying no hint of pain. Then he nocked another arrow to the bow and waited.
Knuckles made his way back along the battlements, until Tatullus stood in his way.
The centurion regarded him. ‘Not bad,’ he said, ‘for a deserter.’
‘Thank you kindly, Your Honour.’
‘Show me your hands.’
Knuckles showed him, with commentary. ‘I don’t need medical attention, sir, really I don’t. I got a bit of a problem with doctors, the truth be told, ever since that time back in Colonia, when I caught a nasty dose off of a certain young lady of nevertheless very obligin’ disposition, and the doctor there made me-’
‘To the hospital,’ said Tatullus. ‘That’s an order.’
Looking anxious for the first time that day, Knuckles made his slow and reluctant way down to the hospital.
He needn’t have worried. The legionary doctor, a young and apparently diffident fellow from Thessaly, knew his stuff. He larded Knuckles’ hands with goose fat infused with garlic to prevent the blisters becoming putrid. Stung like hell at first, but then, he had to admit, felt not so bad. Less like his palms were about to split open to the bone at any moment. Altogether very different from that unfortunate experience back in Colonia.
There was little time for self-congratulation.
Sabinus called Tatullus over and they watched as the Hun lines began to move forward again. The front ranks broke out into two huge loops, revolving circles of galloping archers spiralling in closer.
‘Very pretty,’ muttered Tatullus.
Light cavalry? Arrows? Sabinus was puzzled. ‘What are they up to? You don’t take a Roman fort with horsemen. ’
The Huns came wheeling in, and then as one body loosed a volley of arrows. They flew in high arcs, none of them aimed for anything in particular, just the fort in general. But there were thousands of them, darkening the sky like strange birds. The air was filled with iron sleet.
They came arcing down onto the wooden roofs of the towers, the exposed battlements, the scrambling men. Cries rang out. An unlucky crossbowman rolled down the narrow stone steps.
‘Another volley coming in!’
Some dashed for the towers, others huddled tight in against the low wall, shields pulled over heads and shoulders. Safe enough, for now, but rendered useless: pinned down, unable to return fire or lob so much as a rock. The artillery were as good as spayed, too. The south-west unit tried to fire heavy bolts into the whirlwind of horse-warriors, but were immediately picked off over the low battlements. Hun archers were able to take careful aim, even at full gallop, and fire flat shots straight through the narrow niches of the towers. There were distant screams. Christ, they were good. Sabinus had heard that a Hun warrior loosed his arrow only in the moment all four hooves of his horse were off the ground, to fly smooth and straight. Absurd, of course. But now he saw them in action…
Another soldier, an artilleryman, fell forwards over the wall. A Hun horseman immediately rode in and lassoed him, and dragged him away across the plain, yowling, the body swerving and flayed in the dust. Hector before the walls of Troy. Sabinus saw even the brute Knuckles cross himself at the sight, and prayed the soldier was dead already. He gave the order for the artillery to cease firing.
The iron sleet did not cease, and those who sent it into the air and over the walls did not cease moving. They made an impossible target. It was an appalling revelation. Two vast, galloping circles, well spaced, gracefully avoiding the twin obstacles of the ruined, still-smouldering siege-towers. The Roman crossbow units crouched below in the guard towers, protected better at their narrow niches, did their professional best, but too few of their bolts struck anything but whirling dust. And there was a limit to how many bolts they had in store. Sabinus gave them the ceasefire, too, and pondered. No, you don’t take a Roman fort with cavalry. But you clear its walls and neuter its defenders with arrow-fire this intense.
Then the next stage of the battle became clear. The galloping horde below the walls had them immobilised, unlike previously with the towers. They stopped firing and galloped three or four hundred yards off again, out of effective range. They could be back in a flash once they’d reloaded their quivers from the wagons. If any of the defenders stood, tried to fire back, he would be stuck with a dozen arrows. With only five hundred good men to lose, that was bad maths. Meanwhile, there was still another machine to come. And it was coming now.
They had a ram.
Sabinus thanked the stars the west gate was well bagged up. He ordered the pedites to bag up the south gate too, in case they switched direction. The east gate they must keep free for their own cavalry.
As the pedites ran across to the gate, a detachment of horsemen came galloping in fast by the wall, and another slew of arrows went up and came down almost vertically. How did they know? The very ground of the fortress was studded with feathered barbarian arrows. So too were several pedites, struck down or screaming. Too many. Sabinus winced. The poor runners dragged bags and lumber into the shadow of the south gate as best they could, but still the arrows fell. Finally he gave the order for them to run for cover again. Of the twenty who had gone out, eight came back. He ground his teeth in anger.
The horsemen turned and wheeled away as one, like a flock of starlings, before they could take any damage. They vanished into the last of the morning mist, shot through with eastern sunlight.
The legate took a quick tour of the north wall. Out there on the river, not far from the shore, lay the stolen ships manned by Hun archers. He kept low. His north wall was secure. No need to man it. They couldn’t get out that way, and flee downriver to Ratiaria. Nor could the Huns get in. He’d done the right thing to neglect it. The battle would take place at the south and west walls, and out on the flat plain. They didn’t like water. And, he reflected, they wouldn’t like mountain warfare, either.
Now here came the ram – an altogether more threatening proposition than the tall, unwieldy towers. It was a low-slung beam shaped from a single fir, with a brutish bronze head, and sheltered under what looked, from this distance, like an expertly shaped and crafted iron-plated tortoise. Already, Sabinus could see that this time the big wheels were entirely sheltered. Then he could see that they weren’t wheels at all this time, but solid rollers made from single trunks of fir. Unbreakable.
No one came in support. He guessed that the Hun way was to force a breach in the gate, and then the cavalry, having waited safely out of range until then, would come zigzagging in like lightning.
The great engine turned and the monstrous ram under its armoured shelter began to trundle towards them. The west gate was strong but not that strong, even with its double oak bars. Bagged up though it was, it needed more. Sabinus looked around in desperation.
‘Every auxiliary off the walls. Stack up the west gate as much as you can, low-angled. Find column drums, barrels of sand, anything. I want that gate rock-solid. Move it!’
Without the auxiliaries, the legionaries ranged around the walls looked sparse indeed.
Tatullus grimaced. ‘We can’t afford to lose any more.’
On the tower roofs, one scorched and blackened but the other still intact for now, the artillery units worked tirelessly. Fat hanks of twisted skein were cranked back on mighty torsion springs. Barrels of tar burned low – carefully supervised. The long bow-arms of the arrow-firing machines were taut in readiness. An iron-tipped bolt from one of those sleek machines could go through armour plate, if it struck at a right-angle.
Then, to Sabinus’ surprise, came the distant, dull clunk as the two Hun onagers kicked back and spewed forth their titanic loads again. The long, low hum of their missiles. And twin thunks into the dust. Activity out there, as they ranged again, shooting as their own men advanced. They must be damnably confident of their accuracy.
‘Skilled?’ he muttered. ‘Or stupid?’
Arapovian nearby interrupted. ‘The Huns have never been stupid. Ask King Chorsabian.’
‘Never heard of him.’
‘Quite,’ said Arapovian, tight-lipped. ‘He had a kingdom once, in the Zagros Mountains. And then the Huns came.’
Yet Sabinus had hope now. The ratio of his men to the enemy was ridiculous, but what did that matter? Rome had always been outnumbered by her enemies, and never dismayed by it. They were winning so far. No barbarian had ever taken a legionary fortress, and he was damned if his was going to be the first.
As for their siegecraft, it was there, but wanting. Tatullus suggested they had formed an alliance with a bunch of Alan mercenaries, some wandering Iranian or Sarmatian people. Or perhaps renegade Vandals, a motley crowd of deserters. There had even been talk of the Huns forming a dark confederacy with King Genseric and his people in North Africa, who had learned so quickly the arts of both sailing and siegecraft from their own enemies.
Perhaps. Well, let ’em come. The VII Legion was ready for the next wave, all five hundred of them – perhaps down to four eighty or four sixty now. The army of an entire people was besieging the fort – an entire nomad empire. And fate, or the gods, or whoever, had appointed the VIIth to fight them off on its own.
He called for another glass of wine, well-watered.
Tatullus drank nothing.
The great shorn trunk of fir with its crude but doubtless brutally effective bronze head – no more than a lump of dully shining metal – reminded Sabinus of Knuckles’ club. No elaborate carving of real rams’ heads for this army on the move.
He ordered a first volley. The Roman arrows clattered uselessly off the iron plates of the tortoise – what else, at this angle? – and Sabinus raised a thick forearm to hold fire again. The ram came on.
The Hun onagers thunked again. This time the south-west tower took a huge hit near the base. The entire west wall shivered at the shock. Hell.
‘Decurion! Gimme damage and bag it up!’
The second onager wasn’t far off target, either, now.
Time to reply.
He ordered a couple of the sling-machines to lob a few missiles in a high trajectory and drop them on the waiting Hun cavalry quarter of a mile off, just to keep them on their toes. The slingballs flew up and over in rainbow arcs, and the horsemen watched them coming and skittered aside. Some of the slingballs were painted pale blue so they wouldn’t be so easily seen against the sky as they came, but the keen-eyed steppe warriors still followed them all. The slingballs fell to earth. He told the men to fire again.
What would a heavy cavalry charge do to those light, unarmoured horsemen, though? An iron wedge punching into them at full gallop? Seeing what it did to the drivers behind the siege-towers…
Here was the gang of Hun horsemen driving forward the ram-tortoise. Their leader was a snake-haired, wild-eyed young fellow on a white gelding. He encouraged the captives with song, and a whip. Those dragging the ram against the fortress that had once been their greatest protection were, once again, the enslaved and expendable captives of Viminacium town, panting at the drive poles, bloody under the flail.
Arapovian stepped near. ‘You need to take that out.’
‘I know it.’ Sabinus eyed him. ‘You fit, man?’
‘Still draw a bow?’
‘Never better. Pain concentrates the mind wonderfully. ’
‘I take their leader?’
Sabinus shook his head. ‘Wait. Bring ’em in close. We will have them at the gates. They’ve got no chance there.’
And for the enslaved captives, alas, it would be another bad day.
But the tortoise was changing tack again, pulled round from the inside. Away from the massively baulked west gate. The cunning swine. Sabinus was momentarily nonplussed.
‘Crossbow unit III only,’ he roared. ‘Pick off what you can. Whichever way they go, keep at ’em.’
He had few men, but plenty of arrows. Storehouses full of ’em.
‘And pedites, I want to see you sweat!’
Poor buggers looked exhausted already. But they’d look a whole lot worse if that ram came though the gates, followed by ten thousand tattooed horsemen.
The tortoise shifted slowly and clumsily to the right, towards the trajectory of one of the Hun’s own onagers, smacking boulders into the south-west tower. Idiot barbarians. They’d smash their own ram at this rate.
But no. As Arapovian had cautioned, they weren’t fools.
The tortoise straightened up again and the ram was aimed dead centre at the bottom of the fortress wall, only twenty yards or so from where the onager was hitting. They were indeed damnably confident in the accuracy of their own artillery, and they knew about rams and stone walls.
During the Persian wars against that hard nut Shapur, the Eastern Army had quickly discovered, to their surprise, that the walls of fortresses on the Euphrates, like Nisibis, held well against rams. Built of no more than cheap bricks of mud and straw, baked hard in the Mesopotamian sun, they gave off clouds of red dust, but they absorbed the shock. Whereas beautifully laid walls of finely dressed stone shivered and shattered: far more expensive, a lot better looking – and vulnerable.
Like the walls of Viminacium. Finest dressed Illyrian limestone facing a rubble hardcore. As soon as the facing was gone, the core would collapse, leaking out of the ruptured stonework like grey gore. But how did they know? That scarred and tattooed leader. He knew too damn much.
So they were concentrating their attack on the corner. Not bad strategy. The onager missiles were coming into the south-west tower at a steady rate, fifty or sixty pounds of missile every minute or two, from maybe four hundred yards. As the ram came closer, Sabinus could see how well built it was. Even the brutish great lump of ram’s-head was protected by a projecting roof. A common mistake to forget that feature. The Goths always used to get it wrong. Bring a ram up to the enemies’ walls, all beautifully shaped and slung, beneath a steep, sloping roof – and with the ram’s head sticking out the front. It comes in close, ready for the first swing, and your men roll a big rock over the wall. It smashes down onto the protruding ram’s-head, the head drops down, the rest of the beam flips up, probably kills a couple of the team with it, slams upwards into its own protecting roof, often half demolishes it. Or snaps its own ropes, or gets tangled coming down again – all sorts of trouble. But not this time. The ram was perfectly protected. They were already swinging her back on good long suspension ropes, all very expert. Sabinus could almost have cursed the grandstand view he had from this damn west gate-tower.
A sharp thud, distant trembling, cries from down below. The stones held for now. But not for long. He sent what pedites he could spare. The wall needed baulking up behind – rubble, sandbags, anything. They were running out of materials, so he told them to take sledgehammers to the nearest barrack blocks and use what materials they could get from the ruins. He reckoned his men would sleep well enough under the open stars after this was over.
Soon, another thud. A lot of dust. The stones were going.
An onager missile sliced over the top of the south-west tower. There was a terrible crash and unearthly screams. Not one of the crossbowmen so much as glanced to the left. With the ram still hitting and that concentrated onager assault, that whole corner of the fort was going to go soon. And then they would be in.
Time to reply.
If only he had a squad of superventores – special forces, ‘over-comers’ – but they were all with the field army nowadays. Or a few cohorts of Aetius’ superb, reformed Palatine Legion from the West. The frontier legions were expected to look after themselves. And so they would.
But it was looking bad. The arrow-machines on the south-west tower had both been smashed by that onager strike. The planking sagged. Most of the men had been smashed, too. It was carnage up there. He looked away. The north-west tower was charcoal. What fire-arrows the archers could get in were too few, and the tortoise well protected with iron plates.
Below galloped the commander of the ram, flailing his whip, oblivious of stray arrows. Still ordering his captives to draw back the ram and slam into the walls again, even as they were under attack.
Sabinus would have to send men down.
Tatullus read his mind. ‘The bear with the club will be no good. You need fast movers.’
‘I will go,’ said a voice behind. ‘I have experience.’
It was the Armenian again.
Arapovian did not deign to repeat himself.
Malchus was desperate to volunteer, too. It seemed mad to send his best cavalry officer, but Sabinus had seen the man’s joyful ruthlessness in a fight. He loved fighting, that one. The more men he slew, the more of his own blood he shed, the more he loved it. He was a pure, grinning predator.
Tatullus stepped forward.
Sabinus nodded. ‘Coronas and medals for all of you, whether you come back or not.’ He glared at them. ‘But you better fucking had. I’m short of men.’
Small gangs of Hun horsemen were darting in towards the walls in lethal forays, letting off light, unpredictable little showers of arrows over the exposed battlements, covering fire for the ram. The three defenders bowed their heads low and ran. They didn’t need to speak. It was obvious what they had to do, and that was keep low, move fast, and do as much damage as they could. The last thing Arapovian did was unsling his beloved eastern bow and shove it into Knuckles’ bandaged hands. Then they were in close behind the low battlements, just above the tortoise, the narrow wall shivering beneath their hobnailed boots at the shocks of the ram, yells from below, and rising clouds of powdery dust. Another titanic thud as an onager bowled another long-range rock into the tower to their left, and another spray of feathered arrows clattered around them. They’d been spotted. There was the briefest pause in the iron-tipped shower, a single breath, and then they were up and rolling over the battlements and gone. The distant Hun horsemen were already galloping towards them. They would have to move at blinding speed.
‘Crossbow units, hit the horsemen!’ roared Sabinus. ‘Forget the ram! Take out any horsemen coming!’
The finely trained crossbowmen, bows already primed, knelt swiftly at their niches and let fly. The bolts cut through the air and hit the approaching horsemen hard. Several tumbled. The others pulled up in dismay. One or two trained their arrows on the battlements but it was useless. They were already learning. No one shot that well, not from that distance. They began backing off. Another volley of bolts ploughed into them. A rider’s head lolled, half severed, and his horse fled.
‘Keep at it,’ said Sabinus. ‘Don’t let ’em get close.’
Malchus, Tatullus and Arapovian had dropped down onto the ridge of the tortoise on their hands and feet, knives between their teeth. The Hun commander spotted them immediately and came galloping round, flailing his whip. Malchus and Tatullus managed to prise off a couple of the big iron plates from the crest of the tortoise and send them slithering to the ground. Then they followed, rolling down the steep side away from the oncoming Hun horsemen, protected from incoming fire by the tortoise itself. They hit the earth oblivious of bruises and came up again like cats. The Hun commander promptly lashed out with his whip and caught Tatullus round the neck. The centurion simply gripped the rawhide, slashed it through with his sword, unwrapped it from his throat and tossed it back. The Hun warrior gave a strange howl.
Arapovian was at the end of the ridge, crouched down, gripping the edge of the planking and rolling over. He landed on the rump of a Hun driver’s horse. The Hun felt his horse buckle, wondered what had hit him. Then someone grasped his hair from behind and pulled his head back, and he felt the warm gush of blood down his bare chest as his throat gaped open. Arapovian rolled off the horse, ducked under a wild blow from another warrior, and brought his dagger up hard into the Hun horse’s belly. The agonised creature reared up, screaming. Tatullus appeared at the back of the tortoise, then Malchus, too, swords slashing, and all hell broke loose.
Out on the plain, the stone-faced leader himself was coming, with a couple of hundred warriors bristling with lances and swords. The three defenders had about half a minute to finish the job before they were as good as dead. And that was impossible.
‘Crossbow volley at the main body coming in, on my command,’ said Sabinus, his eye steady on the approaching horsemen. ‘And any man who takes out the warlord with the fancy sword gets an extra biscuit for his dinner.’
He waited. Sweat beaded on furrowed brows, dripped down noses. Clenched knuckles whitened. They were almost at the ram. Sabinus stood immobile. Sweat dripped onto oiled bowstocks, gleamed there like dew.
‘Steady your aim,’ said Sabinus. ‘And… fire!’
Eight bolts raked into the close-packed horsemen and each one found a target. Sabinus kept his eyes so closely fixed on the grey-haired warlord that he thought he saw him bare his teeth like a wolf. Then the warlord raised a brazen arm and hazed his men back out of range again. He even seemed momentarily nonplussed. Behind their retreating hooves they left eight of their comrades stone dead in the dust.
Sabinus grunted with satisfaction.
The savages were indeed learning.
Then screaming started inside the tortoise.
Sabinus saw with approval that the three had managed to loosen some of the iron plates, and so gave the order, ‘Fire it up.’ The pedites began rolling small flaming tar barrels over the battlements onto the ridge of the tortoise, trying to hit it where the iron plates had gone. A barrel smashed down onto the ridge and broke open. Spars scattered, and flaming tar spattered down the sides.
It was a start.
Sabinus turned his crossbow unit back to the drivers behind the ram. ‘Take ’em when you can.’
In the melee, two Hun warriors broke cover, then arched back, crying out, their backs stuck with bolts. Their horses reared and panicked.
‘Reload and aim.’
‘Sir,’ nodded his optio.
They had dropped a net over the wall above the ram so that the three comrades could scramble back to safety once they had done their work. If they were still alive. Now a Hun warrior came galloping in between the tortoise and the wall, ducking down low and flat along his pony’s back, and with a circus rider’s skill vaulted from his horse onto the net. He scrambled towards the top, a knife in his teeth.
Sabinus nodded. ‘Take him.’
The fancy rider dropped back, dead.
Across the plain, the formation of riders had gone very wide, and there were a lot more of them. A thousand were coming in now. Open-spaced, galloping, circling, determined not to let their ram fail in its task.
‘Tubernator, call our three back.’
The bugle went to his lips.
‘Sir,’ said the optio, ‘the rope’s still not cut.’
Inside the tent-shaped tortoise, which was beginning to fill with smoke, Arapovian was astraddle the beam itself, hacking alternately at a big Hun horseman coming at him from below and at the thick suspension ropes of the ram. The point of the Hun’s lance pierced the Armenian’s thigh and he cried out. He slipped his leg back and took cover behind the ram, hanging by one arm, still hacking wildly at the rope. The thing was fraying slightly but no more. In the distance, the faltering note of a bugle, and the thundering of hooves. A lot of hooves.
‘Fire the fucking thing!’ bellowed Sabinus at his pedites in frustration. He was going to lose three good men for nothing. Three very good men. Those thousand horsemen would be here in seconds. Already the first, wild arrows were clattering against the walls. Sabinus ran from the guardroom to the battlements. One of his men offered him his shield but he brushed it aside. Another arrow clattered nearby. Absent-mindedly he picked it up and snapped it across a burly thigh. ‘Fire it now!
‘Pedites, get more tar barrels up here. I don’t give a fuck if there’s arrows, man! Of course there’s arrows, we’re in the middle of a fucking siege. Now get ’em up here! Crossbow squadron, to me.’ He ducked down, the low battlements barely sufficient to shield his bulk.
The eight men crouched likewise.
‘I want everything that moves in and around that tortoise, except our three men, stretched out in the dirt. You hear me?’
Bows were cranked. They stood, aimed, fired, and crouched again in one clean, swift movement.
‘Now you, pedites! Get those tar barrels fired up and over the side.’
The arrows thickened to an iron rain. One of his crossbowmen lost a cheek. Another started to help him down the steps.
‘He hasn’t lost his eyes, and you’re needed here on the wall, soldier! Let go of his hand!’ He said to the wounded man, more gently, ‘Good work, soldier. Now get to the hospital and have that stitched. The whores will go crazy for the scar.’
The deserted south-west tower shivered again.
He was like a rock, this legionary legate who swore like a common trooper. Nothing seemed to make him afraid. The men cranked back their bows.
A good thing they thought him a rock. Sabinus knew well enough he was as scared as any of them. But a better actor. That’s why he kept his hands gripped into fists: to stop them shaking. He grinned and punched a man on the shoulder. ‘Kill ’em all.’
He stood up again, hitching back the straps of his bronze cuirass on his bullish shoulders, impervious to arrows.
‘Loose the rest of the tar barrels! There’s got to be more than that!’
The pedites sweated blood. Fire-arrows ignited more tar. The off-side of the shell was burning steadily.
He turned and watched the wild long-haired rider down below, screaming barbaric verses.
‘I want him dead. That one, the poet.’ He hawked and spat. ‘No fucking poet besieges my fortress.’
Again in a swift and perfect rank they stood, stepped forwards, clocked their target through the lethal oncoming arrow shower, fired, and dropped back. None of them was hit.
Sabinus squinnied through the embrasure. ‘Biscuits all round,’ he grunted.
Three bolts missed. One hit the Hun’s horse. Three hit the warrior in the thigh, one in the side, one in his shoulder. He and his horse screamed in unison, a hellish duet, horse rearing, forelegs paddling in the air. The warrior wrenched it savagely down, blood running in a thin trickle from the bolt-tail in its muscular haunch. He pulled round and shouted, flailing his whip left-handed, his right arm across his chest, hand clamped over his shoulder, fingers reddening. But the bolt had already broken in and leaked blood into his lungs, and his voice was wild and weak and desperate.
‘Kill them! Draw back the ram! Astur will utterly destroy all the earth in the day of his fierce anger! Work, slaves!’
But he was mad. There were no slaves left to obey him.
‘Second volley,’ said Sabinus. ‘Take him this time.’
The deranged rider was stuck by two more bolts, his horse likewise. He was a madman. One bolt glanced off his round iron helmet. He shook his head. His long black hair flew and scattered drops of bright red blood – Sabinus thought of Medusa. Then he flung down his whip and drew his long curved sabre. To the horror of the watchers on the wall, in his blood-madness he rode in and began to slaughter the captives tethered beneath the now-blazing tortoise. They fell apart, crying, hands held over their sliced heads. Arapovian found himself trapped between the captives roped to the ram and the insane Hun, trying to protect them as the rider tried to kill them. Arapovian cut free what captives he could who were still alive, only for the warrior to wheel round and scythe through them as they fled, riding them down. Arapovian gritted his teeth in a white fury and launched himself at another Hun driver, driving his blade straight through him. Then he was up on the beam again, slashing at the suspension ropes. At last one of the great ropes frayed and twisted and snapped, and the ram thumped down into the dust, the heavy ramshead half buried where it hit. Arapovian was thrown off the end as from an unbroken horse. He rolled smoothly, picked himself up and grimaced.
‘It’s done!’ roared Sabinus. ‘Tubernator, get the men back! Blow your guts out, man!’
He turned the other way. ‘Every tar barrel over the wall. I want to see that tortoise melt down!’
The Hun warrior was maddened still further by the defeat, dying, flailing his sabre. He rode into the walls, spurring his bloody horse. The creature turned alongside, the warrior slashed at the stonework, rode through his own shower of sparks. Someone dropped a stone on him. He reeled and stared upwards sightlessly through a mask of blood, eyes rolling back to the whites. He tottered forwards again, still in the high-fronted wooden saddle, and spurred and pulled away. An adolescent boy emerged, blackened, from under the tortoise: the last of the enslaved captives, hoping to make his escape. The warrior cut him down as he passed by without a second thought, and galloped away across the plain back to his army, still alive somehow, his body lolling, his head to one side, sabre hanging down from his left hand.
The men on the walls fell silent.
‘God’s teeth,’ growled Sabinus.
‘By St Peter’s holy Jewish foreskin,’ agreed Knuckles.
Tatullus and Arapovian were back on the walls by the time the tortoise, smouldering and half wrecked, tottered and sank down useless into the dust. The ram beneath it blazed. Then they realised to their horror that Malchus had not followed them. Tatullus roared an order to the young cavalry officer, who stood dazed and bloodied near the smoking wreckage, but he appeared not to hear.
The horsemen came galloping in. Malchus had left it too late. He could barely walk. He grinned. He had lost too much blood to climb past the savaged remnants of the tortoise and vault back over the battlements.
Arapovian reached down a futile arm, crying out to him, his face angry and already sorrowful. ‘Move yourself, man!’
Malchus turned his head and smiled dimly up at him through a mist of blood. He raised a red forearm, and touched the flat of his sword to his bare forehead. He turned away from them and looked out across the plain.
A barked order sounded in Arapovian’s ears, the voice of the legate, but he did not hear or understand. He was up over the wall and down the net like a cat. Malchus was oblivious. He stood alone before the fortress. No, he walked away from it. Tottering, he walked towards the oncoming horde of thousands, barely able to lift his sword.
Arapovian dodged round the ruined tortoise and ran to him, but the horsemen were coming in faster. It was impossible.
Malchus settled his helmet more firmly on his head and waited. He would have liked to end by running towards them. Even walking purposefully would be something. But he was too tired, so he simply stood his ground. At least he was still on his feet. He took a deep breath and raised his sword above his head one last time. Then the horde came down upon him and he was gone.
Arapovian skidded to a halt. Another few breaths and they would be on him, too, but incredibly, he seemed to pause and consider for a moment or two. He hefted his sword in his right hand, and with his left drew his fine dagger with its jewelled handle. Eyed the horde. Then he re-sheathed both, turned and dashed for the wall. The instant he did so, some of the horsemen sheathed their swords and swept their bows from their shoulders, nocked arrows and fired, faster than the eye could see. Arrows clattered into the stonework. Arapovian crawled up the net as best he could with his lanced leg. The crossbowmen above stepped forward and hit the nearest horsemen. Men howled with rage and pain, horses tumbled.
Arapovian, clinging to the top of the net with one arm, stopped and looked back. He was as crazed as that Hun poet, this Armenian. More orders roared in his ears. He drew his dagger from its sheath again, and hazed the bright little blade out over the army of horseman until he found his target. He pointed the point of the dagger straight at the stone-faced warlord and smiled a rare smile. Then he clamped his teeth on the blade again and was up and over the battlements, pulling the weighty hemp net up behind him. Knuckles seized the other end, then more men came to help. One acrobatic Hun vaulted and clung to it, so they hauled him up to the top, where Knuckles leaned over and cuffed him off again with a massive blow to the head, as you might swipe away a fly. The warrior cartwheeled back to the ground. The net came safely up over the battlements, and the rest of the horsemen faced blank fortress walls again.
In a surge of victorious energy, arrows, ballista bolts, slingballs, even rocks hurled by hand, struck the Hun horsemen in a single, brutal volley. From the unit again operating at full capacity on the half-burned north-west tower, there came a pummelling onslaught from the well-drilled artillerymen. Two big ballista bolts and two medium-weight slingshots were fired hard and almost horizontal, arcing down fast into the fleeing horsemen. The four missiles took out four riders, sending them tumbling to the earth at breakneck speed. You could hear the vertebrae snap. The riders behind tumbled into them, and more fell. Some lay stunned beneath their whinnying horses or entangled in their reins. Arrows sang from the battlements, and each arrow told. The rest of the horsemen fled.
Arapovian sank down behind the low wall and sheathed his dagger. He removed his helmet, swept back the long black hair plastered to his brow and bowed his head in grief for a brave lost comrade.
Knuckles handed him back his bow. ‘Nutter,’ he said.
‘Hero, surely?’ said Arapovian bitterly.
‘Same thing,’ said Knuckles.
Below them, the great structure of the burning tortoise gave one last groan, like some primeval animal in its last throes, then leaned, tottered, and collapsed in a huge eruption of soot and sparks. Hot iron plates clanged down on each other, and amid the smoke and flame, and the acrid stench of burning rope, was the worse stench of bodies roasting. The bronze head of the great ram, half buried, shone dimly up through the flames. One last wounded warrior crawled out of the chaos, arms flailing as if he was trying to swim through sand. He got to his knees and made a grab for a riderless horse which milled around and snorted with surprise.
‘Finish it,’ said Tatullus irritably.
A bolt stilled him. The dust settled. The men breathed again.
It was not yet noon. The pedites brought round water.
Sabinus was coming along the battlements. Arapovian got to his feet.
Tatullus saluted. ‘Sir. Ram out of action.’
Sabinus would have smiled, but Malchus was gone, and he couldn’t afford to lose men like that. He nodded and went back to the west tower.
There was a brief respite in the Hun onslaught. The horsemen were pulled way back against the crest of hills to the west. Their onagers fell silent. A feeling of temporary hesitation. This undermanned and isolated fortress wouldn’t be so easy a nut to crack after all. But Sabinus and his officers remembered well enough the demeanour of that grim-faced, tattooed warlord on his grubby little skewbald pony. He would be back. Any respite would be short.
He ordered Tatullus to make a discreet head-count, and the answer was a shock. They were down to fewer than four hundred front-rank soldiers: already a fifth of his men were casualties, wounded or slain. The pedites and medical orderlies had taken it even worse. There was no shelter from those bitter arrow-storms, and the Huns would soon come again. Many thousands of them.
If the gods were just, and rewarded ordinary men who fought like heroes, then surely reinforcements must come soon. Or perhaps some goddess, the grey-eyed Pallas Athena, as she came down from Olympus to the windy plains of Troy to protect her beloved Odysseus. Sabinus’ lip curled sardonically. Fat chance. The old gods were dead. The emperor and his bishops had declared it so, and the Altar of Victory no longer stood in the Senate House. From now on, men must fight on their own, with only a symbolic fish or a wooden cross for succour.
There were six thousand men under arms at Ratiaria. Another thirty or forty thousand at Marcianopolis: the Eastern Field Army in all its glory. But the horizon all around was empty and still.
The summer sun burned down. In the blue sky overhead, swifts and martins wheeled and hawked through the mild air as if this was a day like any other. From the river the men on the walls could hear the distant cry of a heron. Here they died, while life went dumbly on.
The Romans drank water with a dash of vinegary wine, gnawed barley-flour biscuits and salt-pork, rested in the shade of the towers or barrack blocks. Tatullus paced around tirelessly, inspecting weapons and wounds, giving quiet orders. He made sure his men’s shields were properly stowed with a full complement of mattiobarbuli, lead-weighted darts which were the perfect weapon for defending heights against attackers below. He paused to watch one young slinger carefully carving insults onto his slingballs, one by one, sitting cross-legged, tongue out between his teeth, concentrating like the finest goldsmith on his craft.
Tatullus peered over his shoulder. ‘ Hoc ede, equifutuor,’ read the lyrical inscription. ‘ Eat this, horse-fucker.’
‘Very witty, soldier,’ growled the centurion. The slinger jumped to his feet and saluted. ‘And if you come out of this in one piece, I’m sure you could get a nice job as a stonemason inscribing fancy headstones with lies for rich dead people. But until then, do some useful fucking work!’
The next soldier to arouse his centurion’s wrath owned a shield that was all wrong. Tatullus plucked it out of the man’s hand and twirled it round to stare at the back.
‘A Roman shield has a sturdy central handgrip behind the boss,’ he said. ‘So what’s this? An armstrap, with a handgrip near the edge. What use is that, shit-for-brains?’
The soldier stared dumbly.
‘Is your shield offensive or defensive?’
‘Balls! It’s both. Take incoming arrow-fire, sure, and then close in and knock your man off the battlements with a good blow from the boss. But what are you going to do to a man with a feeble side-swipe? Tickle him? Strip that armstrap off right now, soldier. Refix the handgrip alone, right behind the boss. Decurion! See to it that none of the other men have shields with armstraps. They’re for pansies. You get tired holding it, you rest the rim on the ground and squat. Look to it.’
He reported back to Sabinus, showing a sympathy for his men he’d never dream of showing to their faces.
‘They’re dog-tired. Only mortal. No man can fight for ever. They’ve fought for five, six hours already now, after a night without sleep.’
Sabinus knew what he was suggesting, his iron-hearted centurion: rest for half, duty for half. But the walls could not be manned with just two hundred men. Even four hundred was ludicrously inadequate. And in truth, his primus pilus knew it as well as he. All four hundred must rise to fight again. The legate’s anger and weariness made him brutal.
‘They can kip on Charon’s ferry.’
Some of them were almost asleep with exhaustion, when there came a distant thunk and, two or three seconds later, another terrific shudder from the south-west tower. Bang on target yet again.
‘To your stations, on the double!’
Dry, sleepless, dust-filled eyes once more flared wide. Men once more dragged grimy, exhausted limbs up stone steps and along battlemented walls to their places of thankless duty.
THE BOILER BOYS
This time, the Hun warlord was in cold control. He held his numberless horsemen back out of range and did not use them. For half an hour or more, there was merely the screech and ratchet of the gigantic torsion springs, the juddering release of beam against padded crossbeam, and the south-west tower and its surrounding walls, weakened if not brought down by the ram, continued their slow-motion fall.
Thus began the long afternoon of attrition.
The VII Legion had triumphed over the siege-towers and the ram, yes. Helped by the fact that the Huns had started wrong, attacking piecemeal instead of along a single, concerted front. Had they brought up the siege-towers and ram together, against different walls, while giving the machines full, coordinated covering fire from horseback, Viminacium might have already fallen, and the legionaries would all be on Charon’s ferry across the Styx by now. But over the onagers the VIIth could not triumph. They were hopelessly out of range. Even the Romans’ best ballistas and sling-machines were nothing like the size and power of the besiegers’.
The tension of waiting could drive a man mad.
‘Pennants!’ a young voice screamed. ‘I see pennants! Windsocks and dragon banners!’
It was a signifer, the young boy Sabinus had tried to steady in the legionary chapel. He sat astride the battlements like a sunstruck fool, gesticulating wildly. ‘I think it might be the Ioviani Seniores. Or the Cornuti. Look, to the east! From Ratiaria!’
The boy had imagination, certainly.
Tatullus strode over, dragged him back from the battlements, looked into his eyes and saw the frantic, burning light in them. The boy continued to gibber, so he cuffed him senseless and ordered him lugged down to the hospital.
The centurion scanned the eastern horizon.
There were no pennants.
Whumpff. Another hundredweight ball hit the south-west tower. Plumes of dust rose high into the still summer air.
And then out of the west, the tide of horse-warriors came surging in.
Knuckles came slouching by, a stubby little crossbow clutched in his huge paw.
‘You look like a bear trying to peel a grape,’ said Sabinus.
Knuckles stopped and wiped his brow. ‘If only I could get at ’em with me club, sir, I could do a power of good for Rome and the Lord Jesus Christ, sir.’
‘You’ll have your chance for a bit of face-to-face yet, soldier. Don’t doubt it.’
There came a blizzard of arrows arcing in high.
‘You need to get off the wall, sir, under the canopy.’
Sabinus moved. Around him, cries of stricken men. The clatter of arrows, sometimes the soft thock as they hit flesh. Outlandish screams. They couldn’t afford to lose any. But they were. The walls had to be manned.
They couldn’t just wait and be picked off by those lethal arrow-storms. Somehow they would have to attack.
He gave the order to pull the men back off the east wall, manning only the south and west. The attack remained concentrated there, and Sabinus reckoned it would stay that way.
They must counter-attack soon. They must do something.
Down in the yard, the heavy cavalry stirred.
From the artillery units still working on the southern gate-towers, ballista bolts cut through Hunnish warriors and their horses alike. A perpendicular hit could go through three men in a line, it was said. Sabinus called up every last crossbow unit to the battlements. Densely packed volleys proved murderous to the ranks of the unarmoured horse-warriors, however loosely spaced and fast. They died by the dozen. Eventually they pulled back out range again.
‘They’re not invincible,’ said Tatullus quietly.
‘I never thought they were,’ said Sabinus.
‘Mad as fuckin’ badgers, though,’ said Knuckles.
Arapovian sat and rebandaged his arm, then took up his bow again.
Centurion and legate departed.
‘Tell me about Armenia, then,’ said Knuckles. ‘I could do with a laugh.’
‘Armenia?’ The look in Arapovian’s eyes gave even Knuckles pause. ‘One day I will tell you about Armenia. For now, I kill Huns.’
The onagers started up once more. And with them, looping round wide, came the horse-archers. You could almost hear the collective sigh of exhausted men stumbling to their feet again, cranking back their bows, hefting their shields, stowing a new row of lead darts.
The onslaught recommenced.
Soon a decurion came running. ‘First-floor guardroom, sir. Stone came straight through the wall. Tower still holding but roof’s beginning to pitch badly.’
‘Bag it up. Give ’em covering fire.’
‘No archers, sir.’
‘What do you mean, “No archers”? They’re your unit; where are they?’
‘My unit’s gone, sir. In heaven or hell, wouldn’t like to say. Enemy arrows are coming in like rain.’ He gasped for breath, waving his empty hands. ‘Their cavalry below the walls. Continuous stream of them. Every man on the open roof was caught out. Lying up there like sticklebacks, sir.’
Tatullus reviewed the situation for his commanding officer. ‘The siege-towers weren’t a problem. Light cavalry, obviously not, however many arrows they drop on us. The ram’s finished. It’s the onagers that we have to take out, and fast. The south-west tower won’t take a lot more, then we’re fighting hand-to-hand over the rubble.’ He grimaced. ‘Outnumbered a hundred to one.’
He was right, and Sabinus knew it. The big onagers back there, half a mile off, bucking in the dust, spewing out their massive loads, kicking back like the wild asses they were named after, they were the enemy. And they were going to break in. It was only a matter of time. Another shuddering thunk, the whole west wall trembling, bruised and battered, a fresh crack running to the foundation stones, men reeling back from the battlements choking on dust. The onagers relentless, kicking up again, and again. No, they could not just sit here and let it all fall. Not now. Not after so many years of patient endurance.. .
Once a single gap was breached, once the barbarians were inside the fort, the hand-to-hand fighting would be brief indeed. His auxiliaries would flee. His runners would do what they did best, and run. And his last three hundred would fight like Leonidas’ Spartans to the bitter, bloody end. So he truly believed. Perhaps take twice as many of the enemy with them as they went, screaming blue murder, down to hell. Six hundred of the enemy slain would make no difference. Life was cheap to them. Tens of thousands more would ride straight on down the imperial trunk road to Naissus. Then Sardica? Adrianople? And then the capital itself? It would be like a monstrous wave, a bristling, shaggy wave of savages armed to the teeth, sweeping across Europe without end.
At last the onagers paused in their onslaught. The galloping horsemen below pulled back again to regroup, and replenish their quivers from the Hun supply wagons back on the crest.
‘Tubernator! Sound the cavalry charge!’
Down at the south gate there was a disciplined frenzy of activity. The cavalrymen, already armoured up by assistants, hauled themselves onto their huge, shaggy-hooved mounts, settled themselves into their high-fronted saddles with a bronze brace at each corner, rock-solid, massy, inhuman. Their leader was Andronicus. No fool: but, alas, no Malchus either. They checked their long cavalry swords, hefted their emblazoned shields, couched their long ashen lances, and formed up at the gate in a long Teutonic column, four abreast. It was they who had carried out the original punitive attack on the Hun people north of the Danube, which had brought down this terrible vengeance. Inexorable orders from the Highest Authority, it was true; a grim but necessary task. Now they rode out against the enemy with real anger in their blood.
Sabinus raised his hand, glanced out once more across the plain. The Hun horsemen were vanishing away, ghostly figures glimpsed through clouds of ochre dust. His hand dropped. The gatekeepers hauled back the mighty oak timbers, the two iron-bound gates groaned open, and the column moved out at a steely trot. A great glittering serpent gliding out from its lair into the waiting world beyond.
The men on the battlements gave a cheer to see them. The majesty and power of the Schola Scutariorum Clibanariorum. Less majestically, the Boiler Boys, since they would bake inside their weighty armour on days like this. But they deliberately trained in the hottest weather, sometimes wearing extra clothing beneath the armour. They were used to it.
They pulled their horses’ heads in low and continued to trot steadily to maintain formation till the last. Their mounts wore shining silver chamfrons, masks of armour, of little practical use against arrows but highly effective in scaring the enemy horse. Horses were scared by everything: camels, elephants, other horses in masks. Sabinus had even heard that horses would turn back from attack at the merest scent of lion dung. Sadly he had no sacks of lion dung available just now.
The retreating Hun horsemen were still barely aware of the impending attack on their rear. Andronicus rose up in his saddle and gave the nod, and the column moved into an easy canter. A Hun glanced back and cried out a warning. Immediately Andronicus drove his spurs into his horse and it gave a low whinny as it moved into a full charging gallop. The column drove forwards.
The massed ranks of retreating Huns broke loose and separated before the juggernaut of iron and bronze could slam into them, and Sabinus saw immediately, from his accursed grandstand view on the western guard-tower, that his last, desperate attempt at counter-attack would fail. What a heavy cavalry column did best was hit a hard target, but here there would be no hard target to hit. The nomad horsemen galloped away into empty space before the Roman heavy cavalry, the Pannonian plains to them much like the limitless steppes of their native Scythia. The great armoured column punched into empty air, into taunting nothingness. And then some of the Huns, those with a few arrows left in their quivers, wheeled round and came back at them from the side, deft and fast, bows already slipping from muscular, copper-skinned shoulders.
Sabinus felt like the emperor himself in Constantinople, high up in his kathisma, his private box in the Hippodrome, watching an afternoon’s harmless entertainment. He tightened up with self-loathing. He had been to the capital, had seen the Obelisk of Theodosius the Great in the Hippodrome, triumphally erected back in 390. He had stood and surveyed the bas-reliefs of scruffy barbarians in animal skins, bowing low to the emperor and his family on high in their royal box. What arrogance. What hubris. What a hostage to fortune that haughty, self-laudatory monument would prove to be. The Emperor of the Eastern Romans, God’s Vice-Regent on Earth, perpetually victorious over the pagan hordes… To watch his men about to be slaughtered like this was almost more than Sabinus could bear.
‘Hunting the Huns on the open plain is like hunting a tiger in a dark forest,’ said a soft voice nearby. It was Arapovian. ‘At night. With a stick.’
‘Stow it, soldier.’
Sabinus was ready to sound the recall already, but then Andronicus gave a seeming yell of triumph, and Sabinus hesitated. It seemed the cavalry officer believed there was still a chance they might get through to the onagers and destroy them, before they themselves were destroyed.
Keeping his men in a tight and perfect column, essential when so vastly outnumbered, Andronicus turned them as tightly as he could and ploughed in left across the files of fleeing Hun horsemen. No, there was no satisfying hard target to splinter and demolish, but these light horsemen, out of arrows, barely armoured, indeed some barely clothed, could be cut down ruthlessly in smaller groups. And getting in amongst them like this, there was no chance their Hun comrades could reply with arrow-fire. They would only kill their own. It was a good move.
Sabinus nodded with satisfaction. One thing that stone-faced warlord had not expected, he guessed, was any such counter-attack. Well, let him feel it now. Now those light horse-warriors would feel what it was like to have the Boiler Boys crashing into their flank.
When a lancer drove into the flank of a Hunnish horse, the massive weight of the armoured knight tended to carry him right into and over the flailing and tumbling steppe pony. Either the rider was trapped or trampled beneath, or else, if he tried to come up again, the next lancer would be ready immediately behind to finish him off. Andronicus himself drove his lance in low, straight into a squat pony’s belly. The pony squealed and keeled over, dragging his lance from his hand as it went. Andronicus promptly pulled up and drew his spatha, his long-sword. The Hun horseman rolled and came up standing, covered in dust, half blinded, whipping round, drawing his curved sabre. The lancer behind Andronicus came past the Hun on the other side, galloping in close enough to touch him. He lowered his shield, aimed the heavy bronze boss straight for the Hun’s spinning head, and let his horse do the rest. The effect at that speed was to club the warrior headless where he stood, leaving nothing but the stump of a cadaver gouting blood from the neckhole.
It became a rout of the arrowless, fleeing steppe warriors, torn asunder by the heavyweight lancers, who were getting closer to the onagers all the time. Once there, a few well-aimed sword-strokes could do a lot of damage and buy them useful time. But in the whirling, blinding dust, the cavalrymen took too little notice of fresh Hun horsemen coming down from the ridge, quivers packed and bristling.
Suddenly the Roman column found itself falling behind, unable to pursue at such speed, and with some way still to go to reach the onagers. And then the Huns came back, deft and fast, lightweight gallopers as fast as swooping falcons, curling in on either side of the column, loosing off arrows on lethal flat trajectories – no elegant high arcs through the morning sky now – and angled to the column so as not to fly on and hit their own. The warriors held their small, deadly bows almost horizontal, shooting from the side, arrows barely visible as they spat from the bow from a mere hundred yards, fifty. They thocked into heavy wooden shields, each shield on each lancer’s left arm soon stuck with eight or ten arrows, weighing the rider down, tiring him. Soon even those strong arms began to drop, necks and shoulders became more exposed. The lancers were drenched in sweat within their coats of mail, eyes blinking furiously, straining to see.
The Hunnish horses didn’t seem afraid of the big Roman mounts masked in their unearthly silver chamfrons. Perhaps their riders didn’t allow them to be afraid. More arrows skidded off shoulder-guards or steep-sided Spangenhelms, sometimes ricocheting into softer flesh – the power behind each missile was awesome. Others hit direct and passed on, barely slowed by plate or chainmail, to bore into meat and bone. Blood gleamed on polished armour, as thin as oil on water, or trickled beneath, runnels of blood and sweat commingled.
A pair of buzzards, male and female, with two scrawny chicks to feed, circled overhead.
Andronicus pushed back his visor and left it up, raging and oblivious of pain in the chaos of the fight. He was hit in the thigh, but time enough for it to hurt later. He bellowed another order and then tightened up again, roaring round to the right, holding his long-sword thrust straight out before him like a lance. He had realised what was happening. Although they had done good damage to the arrowless riders in retreat, they were now surrounded, like hornets in a beehive. All he could see around them, their only horizon, was one vast, extended circle of galloping riders. The Huns loosed their arrows when passing through only one quadrant of the circle, so they wouldn’t hit their own men the other side. Smart. They reloaded around the rest of the gallop.
Andronicus’ men were going down everywhere, reeling in the bright sunshine, crying out, heads thrown back, lances trailing. He drove his wheeled spurs into his charger’s broad flanks and led his men to break out of the circle again. No Hun line could withstand that shock. But instead of withstanding it, the enemy simply melted away before it. The circle ebbed around them and re-formed and they were still surrounded. The Huns’ tactical agility was extraordinary. But how did they know when to re-form, when to hold fire, when to move? Who gave the order? It was uncanny. Even now, Andronicus could admire it. He had heard of the Huns. Now he saw them, and understood. No demons out of the wilderness, after all. Just awesome warriors. Perhaps the hardest that Rome had fought in all her long history.
Across the plain, on the low rise, the Hun warlord sat unmoving, like some primitive votive statue cut from basalt in the desert. He gave no orders to his whirling thousands.
Another flight of arrows came in and Andronicus crouched low in his saddle, his face buried in his horse’s coarse mane. Sometimes that rough, sweet horse-smell comforted him, in the stables at the end of a hard day’s training or, better still, a hunt. But not now. All comfort was far from him now. An arrow clanged on his shoulder and cut his neck open. His sweat stung in the wound. His linen soutane was sticky with blood.
Too many of his men were fallen, and the column’s coherence was lost. The day, too, was lost. The sun was well past noon, and sinking, its light beginning to shine from behind the stone warlord on the crest and his innumerable ranks of warriors, to burn cruelly in the eyes of the Roman lancers and their comrades on the doomed walls of Viminacium. The judgement of the sun was plain.
From those walls came the desperate, far-away sound of the recall. Andronicus could have laughed. Some hope. ‘Come and get us, friends,’ he muttered, finding his mouth was full of blood.
Now mere isolated individuals, some cavalrymen tried to pull their mounts round and head back to the fort, but they were picked off one by one. Others milled vacantly. Andronicus twisted in his saddle and looked around, and another arrow cut across his back. Had he been sitting straight it would have killed him. There was only one thing left to try. There would be no return to the fort for them. He gave one last, desperate order, spraying blood. ‘Free charge for the onagers!’ He gritted his teeth. Think of it as a suicide mission. Never give up hope. Die in the attack.
The onagers stood impassively, a hundred yards off still, thickly surrounded by Hun horsemen, arrows nocked. He spurred his horse forward with a last fury. Crazy. To take out those onagers and do any lasting damage, many men would be needed, with leisure time to spare. Not like this.
One blood-boltered fool flailing his sword in the air. It seemed to him now, out on his own, with his men trailing wounded or dead behind him, that the Huns were waiting for him, with a true warrior curiosity as to how profound his courage might be. How would he die? Like a man, after all?
Andronicus galloped on, sword stretched out before him, arm shaking, the sun in his eyes. If it is with all dying men as they say, he saw his own family before him when he died, arms outstretched to embrace him, and not the searing sun.
The Huns said among themselves that he died bravely, that leader of the iron horsemen. Later that night, stripped of his armour, they would lay him on a pyre with their own dead, and send him to the otherworld in the care of his gods whose names they did not even know.
A long way back, a single Roman lancer had obeyed the recall and broken free of the Hun circle uninjured. Sabinus ordered the south gates open. But the Huns’ murderous impudence knew no bounds. A single copper-skinned warrior, clad in nothing but fur and feathers, came galloping in fast and low on a filthy little piebald, slewed in hard virtually under the heavy charger’s thundering hooves, drew his bowstring back into his chest and loosed an arrow. Travelling all of five yards, it smacked into the lancer’s face, punched through and came out the back of his helmet. The heavy horse continued to canter forwards, its dead rider lolling. The little horse warrior of the steppes pulled up to inspect his handiwork, and from his fellows an admiring cheer went up at this deed of battlefield daring. As if it was mere sport to them, even as many of their own tribe lay dead around the walls of the fort. All men must die. Why not die gloriously, in battle? War was much like a hunt over the steppes, and the best hunters always make the finest soldiers.
Tatullus bestrode the battlements, ordering his crossbowmen to take the Hun rider out, but they couldn’t hit him. They were few now, and very tired. Their crossbows trembled in sweaty hands, their arm muscles ached atrociously, their tired eyes blurred. The rider kept galloping, turning. He even punched his fist at them. Obscenely the dead rider, the arrow stuck through his head, still lolled in his wooden saddle when his horse trotted in through the gates.
‘Get him down,’ said Tatullus, ‘and close up.’
Tatullus glared at him. No, there would be no more coming back.
The gates began to close.
‘Another man coming in!’ came a call from the walls.
But not one should be lost out of fear. The gates would stand open for any who came. Tatullus sent a runner to the guard-tower.
Sabinus was hit, but he would not have anyone know it. His side was heavily padded with linen bandages, which he hoped would soak up the blood. But every time he shouted an order, he bled more. He could feel his face whiten and sweat. His ears rang as his blood pressure dropped. Let me not faint, he prayed. He pleaded. Not for himself but for his men and the honour of Rome. Let those of us who still live and breathe, heroes every one – after this much battle, this much loss – let us not die now. Let rescue come soon. Let justice be done.
A loose Roman horse was ambling back from the scene of the cavalry’s carnage, nodding its big head sleepily, as if returning from no more than a day in the haymeadows. As it passed a tangle of slain Hun warriors lying close to the fort, one of the dead rose up from among them, black with old blood, seized hold of the horse’s reins and saddle, and hauled himself up onto the peaceable beast. Together they rode on serenely towards the south gate.
It was Malchus! The man was indestructible. Multiply wounded, ridden down by a horde of a thousand, taking refuge out there among the middens of the slain. Through the mask of black blood gleamed the white teeth of his smile.
Behind him rolled a dust-cloud of numberless horsemen.
‘Every other unit off the walls and to the south gate!’ bellowed Sabinus.
Men scrambled, some nearly laughing with tiredness.
The legate clutched his side. He sent one of the few pedites still standing down to Tatullus.
The centurion understood. For their own sake, Malchus must be saved. Such small miracles were everything now; now everything else was lost.
‘Take your pikes! Holding pattern at the gate – and I mean hold them!’
Tatullus himself had taken up his beloved billhook, a fearsome weapon which combined a broad curved pike-blade and a long, thin side-spike. He would never ask his men to do what he would not. He stood out before the gate unshielded. An experimental arrow flew close by. He appeared not to notice it, settling his close-fitting helmet more firmly on his head, his deep-set eyes looking out unblinking and unafraid.
Malchus was still a hundred yards off, trotting calmly, though a little unsteady in the saddle. And then the thundering hooves.
‘I want him in! Do not close the gate.’
The exhausted and the walking wounded men formed a semi-circular pike line about the south gate, thick ashwood pike-butts jammed in the hard ground, blades ranged outwards at chest level. On their left arms, propped forward, their big oval infantry shields. No horse would charge a line of standing pikes. Only mortal men indulged in the heroics of suicide.
The black and bloody chimera that was Malchus brushed between two parted pikes, saying never a word. But he was indeed grinning. He vanished into the courtyard and the pikes closed up. They managed to take a couple of steps backwards for the safety of the gate. Then the Huns were on them.
Curved sabres flashed in the air. One or two horsemen, vainglorious and young, tried to hurl themselves from their saddles over the line of pikes, knives clutched in their fists, only to be battered down by embossed shields, or impaled in the air as they leaped. A pike sank down to the earth with the dead weight, and another horseman rode in close and lashed out with his bullhide whip, pulling the pikeman after him. The wretched man fell forwards, stumbling over his own shield, and a third Hun lopped his head off.
‘Pull back in formation! Gatekeepers, stand ready.’
It was desperate.
Other Huns were dismounting, comprehending quickly that horses were an encumbrance now, and instead running at the line of lowered pikes, aiming to slip between them and knife the defenders. The shields tilted further forward, the only gap between them for the pikestaffs. A billhook slashed sideways. It was Tatullus, standing at the very front of his men, as implacable as a bronze statue. A Hun warrior’s stomach opened and he sprawled in his own guts. Two of his comrades leaped back, hissing, one of them only just in time to avoid another lethal side-swipe from that billhook.
In the very shadow of the gate-tower, a big fellow swung a club. It was Knuckles. The club was already dove-grey with spilled brains.
‘Hold them!’ yelled Tatullus again, stepping slowly backwards, the circle of pikemen shrinking behind him. He prayed there were crossbowmen left on the wall above. They were finished without a good volley.
Suddenly the Huns fell back again and in another instant, from behind them, arrows came arcing down on the isolated pikemen in short, high trajectories. Shields were hauled up but often too late, the arrows whistling down cruelly on exposed heads and sagging shoulders. Angry shouts, screams, men clutching and staggering and falling back, losing formation.
Yet even as those still standing stepped backwards over their fallen comrades, they lowered their pikes again and locked shields, and took another stand, now in the very arch of the gateway. Their discipline was magnificent. A Hun horseman who had blindfolded his horse rode at them screaming in fury and crashed into the immoveable shield-wall. Pikes finished him.
More Huns milled frustratedly, dismounting and remounting aimlessly, seeing the gates standing open just before them, some even screaming insults at each other as if unable to believe that, after all the day’s punishment, this handful of dusty, dogged men were still able to hold them back, thousands of them. Truly, these Romans were no women.
Sabinus stood unsteadily on the south wall above, marshalling what remaining crossbowmen he could. So much for their limitless supplies. The store of crossbow bolts was at last running low. They had never reckoned on an assault of this magnitude. In the distance he could hear a harsh, grating, goading voice above the melee, and guessed that it was the implacable Hun warlord ordering his men on, telling them to finish it. Sabinus grunted. Let ’em try.
He raised his hand. His last crossbowmen stepped up to the battlements. His hand dropped, and a last, terrific volley of iron-tipped bolts sliced mercilessly into the front rank of the milling and frustrated Huns. Instantly, Tatullus turned and drove his men back inside the fort, and the gates were slammed together. Even as the gatekeepers set the first oak crossbar in the huge holding-braces, a great weight slammed into the other side. The soldiers dropped their pikes and shields in the chaos and threw themselves against the gate.
‘Get the second bar in now!’ ordered Tatullus. Not loudly, but they heard him.
From the wall came a second Roman volley. The gate was now almost blocked by the heaps of the Hun dead. Yet another slamming assault on the other side, though, until the second, higher crossbar was in, and then the gate settled together, rock solid. The Huns broke against it like waves at the foot of a cliff.
Up on the walls the crossbowmen cranked their bows for one last volley, set the bolts in the grooves, held the stocks to their eyes and took aim into the clouds of dust below. But as the dust slowly settled they saw that the enemy had gone.
Arm muscles shaking and burning, they lowered their weapons and bowed their heads. Sweat ran down their filthy faces. Not one had the strength to wipe it away.
Sabinus turned from them so as to control his voice. ‘Well done, men,’ he said quietly.
But they could not go on.
He ordered a head-count.
Tatullus came up the stairs and saluted. He glanced briefly at Sabinus’ wadded side, then looked him straight in the eye. A momentary pause.
Sabinus nodded. ‘Centurion.’
‘Fit: twenty-four. Wounded: as many as two hundred. Walking wounded: perhaps fifty.’
And slain? Sabinus could do the sums. Half the legion. More.
‘How many auxiliaries still with us?’
Tatullus looked out over the fort. The auxiliaries were busy helping the limping wounded, hauling the dead, taking round water, bringing up the last of any missiles they could find. He looked back. ‘All of them, sir. None has abandoned us. Not one.’
At those words, it seemed to Sabinus that even his centurion’s hard eyes shone bright with emotion.
Wiping his bespattered club clean beside a water-butt, Knuckles came upon the cavalry captain, Malchus.
He had refused medical aid, and was sewing, swabbing and bandaging himself from a little wooden box by his side. Knuckles watched in fascination. Malchus smeared a whitish paste over his stitched wounds. Knuckles could smell it was garlic, and maybe oxide of zinc. The captain threw back his head and closed his eyes and clenched his teeth a while. Must have stung a bit. Then he bandaged his shallower cuts. There were a lot of them: on his arms, his legs, a nasty one on his thigh, and a nastier one still across his chest. One of his ears didn’t look much like an ear any more, either. Then he took out a squat bottle of watery red liquid and poured it in a thin trickle over his bandages, letting the linen soak it up.
‘Red meat, wine, garlic,’ muttered Knuckles. ‘What you doin’, makin’ a fuckin’ casserole of yourself?’
Malchus looked up and grinned painfully. ‘Very tasty dish I’d be, too.’
Knuckles grunted. ‘Ladies first.’
Across the plain, if any cared to watch, the slain cavalrymen were being stripped of their armour. And a more mysterious figure was moving against the sinking sun. A vulture seemed to keep watch over her, circling high above. She wore long dark robes, an elaborate head-dress, and seemed to hold a twisting snake in her hands. Occasionally she knelt down beside one of the fallen Roman cavalrymen like a ministering angel. Arapovian watched from the walls with his deep-set hawk-eyes, and thought he saw one of the cavalrymen stir and try to scrabble desperately out of her long shadow. The Armenian gripped his bow more tightly as he watched, but he was helpless. They were all helpless. The woman knelt beside the cavalryman, and when she rose again he moved no more.
She would be ministering to them all soon enough, if no help came.
Sabinus visited the wounded and exhausted men seated around the whitewashed walls of the little hospital. The pallets within had all long since been filled. The air echoed with soft groans. The men, their bare skin, their clothing, their armour, all seemed only a coat of dark dust and shining redness. About them the stench of sweat and blood. A few auxiliaries tried their best to keep away the tormenting flies. Oh God for reinforcements. There would be none left to reinforce soon. Abject rescue, then. But still from the east and Ratiaria… nothing. They were as alone as ever.
‘Sir,’ said his last standing decurion. ‘Hun deputation at the west gate again.’
It took him time to walk back up to the gate-tower, treading very carefully, hand on his side.
Below the tower sat the stone-faced warlord, ringed by his finest, freshest warriors, a hundred of them, arrows nocked to the bow.
The warlord raised his face to him. ‘You have fought well,’ he said. ‘Almost like Huns. So much for the decadence of the West.’ He smiled a brief smile, as if at some private joke. ‘Nevertheless, your cowards of cavalrymen who rode against my innocent people are all destroyed. As are you. Now I will grant you amnesty. Those of you who still live may walk free from this fort and leave us to raze it flat. You may walk to the next frontier fort eastwards. It is called Ratiaria – you know it well enough. The Legio III Pannonia is stationed there, a full six thousand men. The legate’s name is Posthumus. He shares his bed with a whore called Statina.’ Another smile. ‘Do not think we are entirely ignorant savages, Roman. Do not underestimate us.’
‘I do not underestimate you,’ said Sabinus.
‘Very well, then,’ said the warlord. ‘Lead your survivors east to Ratiaria, and tell them there of your destruction.’
Sabinus looked around. A single exhausted legionary sat nearby in the deepening shadow of the battlements, bow resting on his knees. They exchanged looks. The legionary was too tired even to speak, but he shook his head.
Further along, one of his comrades growled, ‘Tell him to go fuck himself. Pardoning my language.’
Sabinus’ grim smile did not reflect the tangle and stir of his emotions. He looked back down at the warlord. ‘What is the name of your god?’
The Hun scowled ferociously. He had not come to bandy words, but to give orders. ‘No Roman dog speaks that holy name.’
‘Their god is called Astur,’ said another voice nearby. It was Arapovian. ‘Astur, the All-Father, Great Eagle of the Eternal Blue Sky.’
Sabinus gazed down very steadily at the warlord and said, ‘May Astur curse you. May you and all your tribe vanish from the earth.’
At those words, a shadow of preternatural darkness passed over the warlord’s face. Sabinus kept steady. A hundred arrowheads were aimed at him. Then the warlord wrenched his pony round and tore away across the plain, his men following.
The legate took a careful breath. He ordered all fit and walking to the walls once more. ‘The day is not yet done.’
And the men rose to their feet once more, the last few dozen of them. About sixty or seventy men, bearing twice as many wounds between them. Some helped others stumble forward, some used their own pikes for crutches. Some went up the narrow stone steps to the battlements on their hands and knees.
The sun was going down in the west. For a while the Huns appeared to pause in their attack.
‘Perhaps they will allow us a good night’s sleep,’ growled Tatullus. It was a joke, of sorts. Night was when they would come again to finish it.
For now, there was an eerie peace. Swallows hawked low over the evening river, feeding on clouds of waterflies. A moorhen called her chicks. A muted splash among the nodding reeds – otter or watervole. The warm summer sun going down in the west. Burning orange against the great white flanks of the Alps. Setting the Rhine and the Po on fire. Casting long, cool shadows over the vineyards of Provence and Aquitania, over the ancient, lion-coloured castles and hilltowns of Spain where Hannibal once marched, and over the Immortal City itself on its seven hills. The evening shadow of the Column of Marcus Aurelius, and the Colossus of Nero… Sabinus’ heart heaved with sorrow. This beloved empire. He had seen the future, in the implacable face of that mighty barbarian warlord who rode out of nowhere, at head of an army of horsemen that no man could number. The empire was sinking in the west, as surely as the silent sun.
Lone horsemen galloped back and forth across the plains below, stripping armour from the dead, burning them like refuse. Occasionally, through the sun-reddened dust, the watchers on the wall glimpsed a yowling figure in tribal wear but now sporting some additional decoration. A triumphal Kutrigur Hun, naked except for a tattered deerskin loincloth, bristling with bow and quiver, shaven-headed but for a single plume of limed hair, his skin half blue with tattoos, and proudly riding with a curtal red cavalry cloak fluttering round his coppery shoulders, and, slung from his saddle, a freshly severed head. He waved his sword beneath the walls of the fort and howled like a wolf in winter.
Knuckles threw a rock at him and missed. Overhead, the buzzards circled in the last of the sun. More had joined them, red kites. ‘Fuckin’ carrion birds,’ growled the hulking Rhinelander. Then he raised his head to the sky and shouted to them, ‘Plenty of carrion tonight, friends! Guzzle your cropful! Hun and Roman flesh together, it all tastes the same under the skin!’
Just after the first stars appeared in the darkening sky, Lyra and Altair high and Regulus falling, there came wearisomely familiar sounds: distant thump, then shuddering quake. They were hitting the south-west tower once more. They would be in very soon.
‘Start bagging again!’ ordered Sabinus.
And the men, who had not slept for thirty-six hours, forty, began to bag up the broken defences by torchlight. One collapsed under a sandbag. Tatullus kicked him to his feet again. ‘You can sleep when you get to Hades,’ he growled. ‘Which won’t be long now. Until then, soldier, you get on your feet and work.’
Sabinus himself re-ascended to his post on the west tower and slumped.
I had hope when violence was ceas’t…
The line echoed in his head. An old poet. Virgil, perhaps. His schooldays seemed an age ago. Merely lifting his head was an effort, his very neck bones aching with weariness. But he gazed heavenwards anyway and surveyed the fixed stars pinned to the canopy of night. Some said they were alchemical furnaces where new souls were forged; the pristine, superlunary abode of the gods, of mercy and justice eternal. They looked very far away. The night was so silent. Help would not come. They could not go on. They were finished.
Tatullus stood beside him.
It was unjust. The gods were unjust. They had fought all day and half the night like lions, and by the next dawn they would all lie dead. Yet how should you complain to the gods? You might as well try to reason with Etna. The world was as it was.
Tatullus glanced at him. And for some reason, at that moment, unutterably weary and foredefeated as they were, the two men smiled. As if to say, in concord with each other, Well, all men must die. We did our best – and our best was good.
The Armenian appeared. He did not wait for permission to speak. ‘I said you would not defeat them in open country.’
Tatullus turned a menacing eye on him. ‘He’s “sir” to you, soldier.’
Arapovian was apparently unaware of the glowering centurion’s presence. And he addressed no man as ‘sir’.
‘You know your only chance now: to fight them hand-to-hand and damage them. To hold them, to bloody them, to buy time until reinforcements come.’ He adjusted his sword-belt. ‘Of course, if they wish to overrun you here no matter what the cost, and no reinforcements come to your aid, we shall all die anyway.’
Another seismic onager strike.
‘A Roman legionary legate does not customarily take counsel from a common soldier,’ said Sabinus, aware even as he said it that Arapovian was no common soldier.
The Armenian continued, unabashed, ‘My ancestors fought the Huns before. Hepthalite Huns. On the high plains of Ararat, where the Euphrates rises from snowmelt off the mountains, flowing down to water the broad cornlands of Erzinjan and Erzerum, and the sweet orchards of-’
‘Forgive the interruption,’ said Sabinus, ‘but now is really not the time for poetry.’
Arapovian heard him with dignity. ‘My grandfather died fighting the Huns. They will always gallop faster than you, shoot further than you. You need to draw them in, separate them from their horses, as you did with the line of pikemen. That hurt them.’
‘Thank you for your sage military advice, my lord,’ growled the legate, one hand holding his side, one fist clenched on the wall. ‘And how do you suggest we do that, in your mysterious eastern wisdom? Send them a fucking dinner invitation?’
Another massive shock. The sound of collapsing masonry.
Arapovian inclined his head in that calamitous direction. ‘Let them into the fort. Stop reinforcing the wall and the tower, and let them fall. Meet them in the rubble, hand-to-hand, where their arrows and horsemanship are useless. That fellow Caestus, the boor, he will fight well enough face to face with them. Now he is wasted. Soon he will be shot.’
Sabinus reflected a moment. Then, ‘Get back below, soldier.’
He reflected some more. It insulted his pride to hear advice from a common soldier, Armenian naxarar of ancient lineage or no. It insulted his pride even more to put that advice into action. But…
The rumble of galloping hooves, a sudden shower of arrows out of the gathering gloom. Another cry from the battlements. Another fall.
The tower would collapse soon enough, anyway. They could ready themselves for it.
Along the wall, one young soldier had lost it. The boy Julianus, the one he’d tried to nerve with fine talk. But what could have prepared him for this? The boy was crawling around on his hands and knees, sobbing, howling like a dog. Another soldier dragged him off down below. He would not be back this time.
Sabinus held his breath a moment, slugged back a last mouthful of wine to kill the pain. Then he gave his runner the order.
‘Stop bagging up the south-west tower! Evacuate! Let it fall.’
The man hesitated. ‘Sir?’
He did not repeat himself. The soldier went.
Perhaps the Armenian was right. Over the chaos of rubble where the tower lay in ruins, they’d make their stand. The barbarian horsemen would find that a harder line to break. The Spartans used to boast that their walls were made of men, not stones.
It was as Sabinus had reckoned. The Hun artillerymen – the very phrase seemed an idiotic contradiction in terms for these know-nothing horse-warriors, but whoever they were, Huns or Vandals or other unknown easterners, they continued their steady onslaught into the night.
Sabinus ranged his last men with their pikes, Tatullus with his billhook, Knuckles with his club, facing the battered south-west tower and wall. It was dark. Behind them he had his auxiliaries light a row of big braziers.
Another massive hit. The walls trembled and stilled. Then as if in a dream, very slowly, reluctantly, the tower began to subside into itself, the neighbouring walls began to fold and fall. Sabinus hazed his men back. But the tower was so damaged below that it simply collapsed in on itself with a muffled subterranean music. It seemed to take for ever for the stones to reach the earth, or pile up one another at broken angles. The noise of collapse ebbed, and from far away they could hear rising cheers and ululations. The dust gradually diminished and they saw what faced them. A rupture in the walls about fifty feet wide, blocked by a mound of stones, rubble and projecting wooden beams, about half the height of the old walls: fifteen, twenty feet.
‘To the top!’ roared Sabinus. ‘Watch for incoming fire!’
The last of the legion climbed arduously towards the top of the rubble ridge and peered over.
An army of horsemen was galloping towards them. The Romans were seen, silhouetted against the light of the braziers, and the horsemen loosed their arrows. The defenders ducked down and the arrows clattered uselessly over them.
‘Come on, you pigeon-livered savages!’ roared Knuckles, the veins like cords in his neck. He smacked his club into his hand. ‘Come and get cosy!’
The savages barely reined in as they approached, seemingly intent on galloping up the rubble mound and straight on into the fort. But no one’s horsemanship was that good. One young hothead tried it. Arapovian stepped from the shadows and shot him.
‘Lose your bow, soldier!’ bellowed Tatullus angrily. ‘Draw your sword! This one’s hand-to-hand!’
For once, Arapovian obeyed.
The dead Hun’s horse twisted and fell, a foreleg caught between two broken stones, and rolled back screaming. Huns milled again at the foot of the mound, bewildered.
‘Yeah, horse-fuckers!’ roared Knuckles. ‘You’ll have to leave your girlfriends behind this time!’
But not yet. The Huns wheeled away again into the night, accustomed only to their warrior arts of archery and horsemanship. They loosed more volleys of arrows in retreat. The arrows came over the barricade and clattered uselessly into the yard beyond. They did the same again and again, feeling not a single arrow in returning fire. But their attack was useless. They struck nothing. Even the Huns couldn’t keep up this wastage.
‘They’ve got to engage soon,’ murmured Arapovian. ‘It’s a matter of pride.’
One last try. A fast gallop before them, a column of horse archers firing directly into the defensive line.
Step back, duck, shields up. The arrows thumped into the big oval shields or slid over the top, again to no avail. Not a Roman was hit. They galloped away.
Tired but jubilant legionaries set their shields down in the rubble again, lopped off the jutting arrow-shafts. Took deep breaths, wiped away the sweat.
‘We’re still here, you yellow-bellied horse-fuckers!’
Now the Hun generals understood. It would have to be hand-to-hand to finish this. Their warriors rode near in the darkness, slipped from their mounts, hooked their bows onto their saddlepoints, drew their swords, and came scrambling up the rubble.
The defenders took to the top of the ridge.
‘OK, boys!’ roared Sabinus. ‘Face to face at last! No quarter!’
The Huns came up in a mass surge, without discipline now, desperate to finish it, to squeeze into the fort and have the victory – they, too, had taken plenty of casualties today. But a thousand, two thousand, were trying to squeeze through a gap held by fifty men, and their greater numbers told against them. They barely left each other room to swing their swords. And now the burning amber light of the big braziers behind the defenders showed itself of use. The defenders fought dark and silhouetted, but the attackers had to face into it. Their eyes dazzled, coppery skin shiny with sweat, arms and shoulders rippling with muscles and tattoos and elaborate hennaed runes of protection, which did nothing to protect them from those severe, pragmatical Roman pikes. Up close, the legionaries saw the barbarous magnificence of their enemies at last, magnified in the flaming darkness. Like warriors out of Homer or an even deeper past: the deep, unwritten Scythian past. The untamed warriors looked almost beautiful to them as they cut them down.
Knuckles clapped his bronze-studded forearms together round a warrior’s shaven head and split it open like a raw egg. He turned and kicked a heavy boot into another Hun. The Hun staggered and swiped at him with his dagger. Knuckles twisted, more agile than he looked. The desperate struggle was too tight-packed for him to swing his club, so he drove it into the Hun’s face like a ram. The big easterner fell back and knocked his comrade behind him flying. Arapovian leapt forward and with two sharp thrusts skewered them both where they lay stunned amid the tumbled masonry, then fell back into line.
Huns howled with fury, came on relentlessly. Tatullus worked like Knuckles, thusting his billhook in long, low stabs. Arapovian’s swordsmanship was as good as his bowmanship. Another wiry little Hun nearly had him with a swipe of his yatagan but Arapovian squatted down just in time and drove his sword into the man’s naked belly. He immediately stood again, kicked the corpse off the end of his blade, and drew back ready for the next one, who came on at once.
The Hun warriors hated this fight. Too fetid and enclosed, without space to manoeuvre, with no room for the sudden spurting gallop, the extravagant caracole, the graceful arc of lethal, streamlined arrow. This was furious and filthy stuff, bloody pummelling in the shadows of ruined and alien walls, the clean air of the steppes a thousand miles away. Their horses milled behind them, uncertain. If their father Astur should cry to them out of the night sky, they would not hear him.
Their loss of confidence showed in their expressions, their movements, and the defenders punished it without pity. Knuckles’ mastery of the blunt arts of bludgeon and punch, those straps of bull’s-hide wound round his ape-like forearms, took a terrible toll. So, too, did his quick, surprising agility, like a big cat, the way a lion can be nimble for brief bursts when hunting. He gave himself a moment of space, his huge club slewed sideways, men’s brains shot from their ruptured skulls as if spat out, grey roe slithering down their comrades’ shoulders. Stumbling in the blood and slime, the Huns were filled with enfeebling disgust, panic, even claustrophobia. Where now was the glorious Parthian flight upon the open plains, wind in your hair?
Tatullus killed two attackers with two hard thrusts, only moments apart. Knuckles cracked open another skull. A smaller Hun tried to dive in sideways and thrust his yatagan into his flank, but again Knuckles swivelled, dodged the thrust, swept his arm back and with a mighty swashing blow caught the warrior across the side of his head. The dull bronze studs thunked, the fellow saw red and dropped senseless. Knuckles moved his foot and broke his neck.
The steep and jagged outward slope of the rubble ridge was slippery with blood, and worse. Sabinus moved carefully along behind and below his men, shouting words of encouragement. Not one of the line was down yet. My God, it’s like old times, thought Sabinus: Roman soldiers doing what they do best, standing shoulder to shoulder, pitiless, immoveable, the steel mincing-machine. Meanwhile, down at the bottom of the ridge, the Hun bodies were piling up like swine in an abattoir.
Arapovian’s plan had been a good one; or the best they could come up with as things stood. Stab, thrust, slash. The defenders were beyond exhaustion, but drawing some infernal gallows energy from the terrible attrition suffered by their bewildered enemy. The Huns could not make headway, and their fury made them foolish. Wave after wave came up against the line of pikes ranged against them, cold as moonlight. And wave after wave fell back again, ruptured or slain. Even for these adamantine steppe warriors, this night was turning into nightmare.
Sabinus saw Arapovian pause and look away.
The Armenian turned back to the line, defended himself against another attack, lopped off an arm, planted his foot in the man’s chest and kicked him back down the slope. Turned his head and listened again.
Sabinus’ heart leaped. The Armenian’s sharp ears had heard… trumpets! The legate turned to listen to that sweet sound. A pause. And then…
He closed his eyes. It was not trumpets. It was a massive weight hitting the south gates.
One last time he struggled up the steps to the battlements.
They had brought one of the onagers up. It was fifty yards off, loosing boulders into the oaken south gates on a low, flat, brutal trajectory.
He went down again, tightening his bronze cuirass about his big belly as tight as he could bear. Like dying in harness. He went steadily over to the south gates. Whumpff. The gates rocked back, the big crossbeams rattled in their braces, splinters flew. The Armenian’s idea had been a good one, for a desperate last stand. But it, too, had failed.
But they, the VIIth Legion, how well they had failed! Could any legion have failed as gloriously as they had? Oh that one or two should survive, to tell their story to posterity. Such a story would live for generations. A night and a day they had stood firm against a whole army. And still they fought. That wasn’t bad. That must count as a kind of heroes’ death.
The gates beside him reeled again under impact, and unmanly tears came to his eyes as he watched the last of his men fighting and dying there upon the dark, discoloured rubble of the ruptured tower. They had still not heard the onager. Part-timers, farmers, married with wives and children. He knew what they were fighting for, with ferocity born of desperation. Not for Rome, either old or new, nor for the emperor on his gilded throne. They were fighting for the wives and children left on their farmsteads and smallholdings, or trembling down in the dungeons. The gates beside him splintered further. God have mercy on those trapped wretches down below. Only two fates possible for them now, the better of which was a life in chains amid barbarian tents.
For him, there would be no Thracian vineyard, nor sharp-tongued, ardent-hearted Domitilla. Three months to go. The luck of Cassandra. For these barbarians, who had destroyed his life and his peaceful old age, he let his hatred well up. Felt its coursing power burn in his veins. Hefted his sword, a short, old-style gladius. The fury and the mire of human veins. The distant fury of battle. But coming close now, in this last act, last scene of his battered old life. His own death was already in the past, written in the old book of the gods. He tightened his belt another notch around his bleeding belly. It wasn’t true that you felt no fear. Even old soldiers felt fear. But all men must die. The gates were nearly done. He looked up one last time. Make it glorious, my brave legionaries. Make it cost them dear.
He leaned down painfully to take the shield from one of his own dead, gently unloosing the man’s stiffened fingers from the wooden grip. Stood again. When those gates finally gave way, the Huns would find one still in their path.
The attack in the corner had slowed briefly, leaving his men standing down, stoop-shouldered with exhaustion. Ungainly stick figures lit from below by the orange brazier light. Heroes all. Beyond, the enemy had pulled back yet again, heavily bloodied, sullen, furious. And now in the stillness, the last legionaries heard what Arapovian had heard. The sound of the accursed onager hurling its rocks, and the south gates going. Soon, very soon now, they would be surrounded. Attacked from before and behind, the fort overrun through the south gate, however hard they fought here. They looked at each other, barely able to raise their heads on their shoulders. Their eyes shone. They nodded. Heroes all.
They looked back to their commander below by the wall. He could not climb up to them any more. They knew it. He leaned close to the south wall, shield on his shoulder, short-sword drawn, face plastered with cold sweat, looking up at them.
Only one of his men still had the spirit to speak. ‘It has been an honour serving with you, sir!’
Sabinus raised his hand to him. To all of them. A salute to equals. The rest of the men saluted him in reply. Some of them almost smiled.
And then the gates flew in.
The last of the defenders instantly lost all formation, and broke and ran. Within moments the neat grid-pattern streets and alleyways of the fortress were overrun with screaming horsemen. They galloped in triumph, racing each other to set each barrack building alight. Cutting down any last stragglers of the destroyed legion, or lassoing them as they fled, and dragging them along behind in the dust as tortured trophies. Fires blazed up in the night, sparks and stars. The appetite for destruction seemed inexhaustible. Soon they clustered around the legionary principia. They ransacked the elegant rooms, smashed vases and glassware, dragged out tables and couches, made a huge bonfire in the centre of the colonnaded courtyard. Others roped together teams of horses to drag down the pillars and roofbeams and crash the whole building. Word had gone out from the Great Tanjou. Not a stone should be left standing. The very name of Viminacium would denote eloquent desolation for an entire empire.
Warriors still on horseback, inseparable from their mounts, some wearing embroidered Roman curtains for cloaks around their naked shoulders, rode into the chapel and collected the last of the legionary standards to add to the fire. Then word came from the leader that there was gold beneath the altar.
Behind VII Barrack stood the long, low punishment block, comprising a row of dank, evil-smelling cells without windows, and a narrow corridor with one doorway at the end. The building was heavily tiled, not thatched, for greater security. As if by instinct, Knuckles and Arapovian found themselves backing into it side by side, peering out for oncoming Huns.
‘Christ. No getting away from some people,’ said Knuckles.
‘The families,’ said Arapovian, jerking his head back.
Knuckles glanced round. Aside from four or five corpses already strewn across the stoneflagged floor behind him, in the gloom at the other end of the corridor he saw a heavy iron-bound trapdoor set into the flagstones. It must lead down to the dungeons. They could still ‘Jesus!’ Arapovian rarely swore, but suddenly the doorway was shadowed by a Hun horseman. He brought him down with single arrow and Knuckles finished him with his club. They stepped back into the shadows.
‘Brilliant,’ said Knuckles. ‘That’ll bring ’em in like flies.’
‘Bag up the trapdoor at the end,’ gasped Arapovian. ‘With those bodies.’
Knuckles scowled. ‘I don’t take orders from you, you Parsee bastard.’
Arapovian ignored him. There was a group of plumed and feathered warriors coming down the alley, stained bloody in the torchlight. They had seen the riderless horse, the dark shape on the ground.
‘Do it now. Hide the trapdoor. When they come stampeding in over our corpses, they might not find it – the families might yet survive. The dead and the living both walk free in their own way from these unbelieving savages.’
‘Christ in a crib,’ growled Knuckles. But, grumbling about being no slaughterhouse slave, he began to haul the bodies down the passageway, the flagstones slathered in gore, and stacked them over the iron door like saltfish. Thump, thump of meat. He wondered about the families, women and children and toothless ancients, down in the pitch darkness of those foul dungeons. The airless terror, the unknowing. Yet they might survive.
He surveyed the stack of bodies. ‘Can’t we hide under ’em?’ he suggested.
‘No time,’ said Arapovian, and slashed out with his sword.
The building was surrounded. The two men fought again side by side like demons in the protection of the narrow doorway. Copper faces, bodies, torchlight, bared teeth, a muscular neck before them decorated with severed ears on a thong. Arapovian beheaded him. Nearby they could hear the battering of someone trying to break through the walls, but the building was strongly built: men held for execution often try to escape. Likewise on the roof, warriors tearing off the heavy baked tiles found only more thick crossbeams beneath. The confusion was atrocious, the Huns’ desperation to be in and finish this job making them careless. Knuckles swiped one aside with his studded forearm, caved another face in with his club. Behind the milling crowd, another Hun still mounted loosed an arrow at them and succeeded only in killing one of his own in the crush. It was absurd, but they could not get at these last two. One waved a squat pickaxe, howling and almost dancing with frustration. Arapovian slashed at him, and Knuckles continued to use his club like a fist to defend the narrow doorway, punching out, smashing heads, caving in chests. Warriors howled execrations, tore at each other in their frenzy to kill these two trapped men, these standing insults to their victory.
‘Collapse the roof!’ called a Hun commander calmly from behind. He sat back on his horse, indicating his meaning with a wave of his hand. ‘Then fire it. Bring up that handcart there. The rest of you, fall back.’
Frenzied or not, the painted savages obeyed in an instant. Then they ran the flaming handcart across the doorway and tipped it inwards. Knuckles and Arapovian leaped back as blazing bales tumbled into the blocked corridor amid roiling clouds of smoke, and their lungs began to constrict, their eyes to redden and water and go blind.
Geukchu nodded with grim approval. ‘Let the fire take them. A fine cremation for two such mighty heroes of the empire. A warrior pyre.’
Arapovian squatted back, his arms held out as poor shields before his face. They were piling more blazing bales onto the roof. The timbers began to burn.
‘You know something?’ roared Knuckles. ‘Rome’s city firefighters, they never eat roast pork. Can’t stand the smell. Exactly the same as roast human.’
Arapovian shuffled in the dense smoke. ‘We need to clear the dungeon door again.’
Knuckles didn’t move.
‘Fine. Stay here and roast.’
Knuckles made a noise like frustrated bear and lumbered after the impossible Armenian.
Choking on smoke, hair singed, coursing with sweat and deafened with the roar of the flames, they recommenced the foul work. Dragging corpses from the pile was worse when you pulled an arm or a leg and the body didn’t come with it. By the time they had cleared the trapdoor the smoke was impenetrable.
‘Can’t see a fuckin’ thing,’ rasped Knuckles. ‘But I bet you need a bath.’
Still silence. Then the creak of the heavy iron trapdoor.
‘You did it!’ Knuckles flailed around for a moment to give the easterner a thump on the back, but Arapovian was already down the steps. Knuckles’s hair was smouldering and he couldn’t breathe, so he groped his way down – just ahead of the crash of the collapsing roof, and a ferocious through-draught which cleared the smoke from the building and set the fires roaring up like furnaces. The two men were suddenly and hellishly illuminated as they descended the narrow stone steps to the dungeons, backlit by a curtain of flame. The people below, the mothers and maidens and wide-eyed infants, gazing up in terror, saw two figures descending towards them out of the jaws of the fire, blood-red and blackened from head to toe.
They must be in hell.
Knuckles turned awkwardly on the narrow steps, slippery with algae, pulled one of the cadavers over the raised trapdoor as best he could, and then let it slam shut over his head. They were in darkness. He groped for bolts, then stopped. No bolts on the inside of a dungeon door. He grinned in the blackness. Tosser.
A small oil-lamp was lit, and the abject people viewed the two demons. One a huge brute with a club locked under his simian arm, the other tall and lean, cruel and clever. A woman about to wail had her mouth immediately stopped up by this one. His hand was sticky with fresh blood. She nearly vomited. He held a ringed finger to his thin, cruel lips.
Aside from her, there were five or six more women, young mothers, one old. Half a dozen children, blubbing and snotty, and an infant fast asleep and oblivious. One old fellow, who clutched his knobbly stick as if ready to fight them.
‘Calm down, grandad. We’re on your side.’
They huddled together in the airless cell, and not a word was spoken as the punishment block burned to cinders above them.
Above the dungeon, onager missiles were still hitting the walls of the fort. For sheer joy, a kind of victory celebration, and for practice, as the Hun warlord said laughing. He rode round the ruins of the blazing fort on his little skewbald pony, Chagelghan – he always called his horses Chagelghan, no one knew why. His gold earrings danced, his yellow eyes shone with delight in the darkness.
‘I want these walls flat,’ he said.
Later, as the first grey light of dawn was coming up, he sat his horse out on a mound to the south of the city with Orestes and Chanat beside him, stroking his grey moustaches thoughtfully. Standing before them was a captive bound in thick ropes, his hands just free enough to hold a testament.
Attila grinned. ‘Read to me,’ he said, ‘out of that fine old book of the Christians. The words of the prophet Nahum.’
He surveyed the devastated city as a different man might view some lovely fresco of Venus, or Atalanta in Corydon, while his trembling captive read.
Woe to the bloody city! The horseman lifteth up the bright sword and the glittering spear: and there is a multitude of the slain, and they stumble upon the corpses. Behold, I am against thee, saith the Lord of Hosts: the gates of thy land shall be set wide open unto thine enemies: the fire shall devour thee. Thy shepherds shall slumber, and thy nobles dwell in the dust; thy people is scattered among the mountains, and no man gathereth thee. Thy wound is grievous, and all who hear of it shall clap their hands: for upon whom hath not thy wickedness been visited continually?
Attila nodded and smiled. ‘Even the God of the Christians has spoken.’
He retrieved the precious testament from the captive and handed it to Orestes. Then he sliced his sword across the captive’s neck and the three rode on down the mound for the city. His men were already having victory horse-races in the half-ruined hippodrome. They were dressing horses in the robes of butchered priests, and carrying the crucifix itself about the circuit, Christ himself topped with a kalpak, a pointed Scythian cap. Later they would set the crucifix in the sand and make it their own totem, hanging from it severed heads, the skin peeled off and stuffed with straw. There would be feasting on slain livestock by firelight, and toasts in looted silver chalices decorated with Christian symbols, or Silenus chasing his nymphs.
In the gloom of the single sputtering clay lamp, the two soldiers discerned another iron-bound door.
‘No way out there,’ said Knuckles. ‘The execution dungeon. And I don’t think we’re ever going to find the key now, do you?’
Arapovian stepped between the women and children and knocked on the door, absurdly polite. A moment later there came an answering knock.
‘Eh, well,’ said Knuckles. ‘He was going to get chopped anyhow. This way, he’ll just starve to death instead. Comes to the same end, like all of us.’
Arapovian stood before the iron door and rattled his stiletto dagger in the big lock-hole for a moment. Then he drew his brooch-pin from his cloak and knelt down and probed. Moments later, something clicked. He dragged at the doorhandle and it grated slowly open.
Knuckles looked faintly disgusted at this showmanship. Blew a soft raspberry.
A figure slowly emerged, blinking in the lamplight, shackled hand and foot. But for the heavy black beard, he might have been Knuckles’ younger brother.
‘Water,’ he rasped.
‘You’ll get some,’ said Arapovian. ‘You are?’
‘Barabbas,’ said the prisoner in a voice suggesting he hadn’t drunk water for a week. Arapovian stood back. The man’s breath was foul.
Knuckles stepped up. ‘Don’t take the piss.’
‘S’true,’ said the prisoner.
‘So what are you, the original Wandering Jew or something? ’
The prisoner shrugged. ‘My father’s son.’
‘What you in for?’
‘Theft from the granary.’
‘Tut tut. You haven’t got a clue what’s been going on, have you?’
The prisoner shook his shaggy head miserably. ‘I thought I could smell smoke. Fire?’
‘Some.’ Knuckles turned to Arapovian. ‘You got to laugh. Everyone else gets the chop. The one prisoner due for the chop walks out just fine.’
‘As wiser men than we have previously observed,’ said Arapovian, ‘the humour of Heaven is more often ironical than benevolent.’
‘You took the words right out me gob.’
Arapovian rested the tip of his dagger against the prisoner’s neck. ‘I do not understand why, but it seems that, like your gospel namesake, you are destined live in others’ stead. You go with us. But one moment of foolishness and I will kill you. You think you are hard, but I am harder.’
‘He is, too,’ confirmed Knuckles, jerking his head. ‘He looks like some Persian Royal who’s spent his life in baths of asses’ milk. But he’s not.’
‘Armenian,’ said Arapovian.
‘Whatever,’ said Knuckles. ‘East is east.’
Something thumped onto the trapdoor above their heads. A burning beam.
‘Shit,’ said Knuckles.
‘You have more oil?’ asked Arapovian.
A woman shook her head.
‘Then snuff the lamp for now. We must wait a long time.’
The people tried to sleep. Arapovian recited softly to himself the litanies of his religion in the ancient tongue. Knuckles snored, clutching his beloved club to his chest like a child clutching its doll. The fire roared dimly above them.
After what he thought must be many hours, Arapovian crawled through the darkness and up the narrow steps to the trapdoor. There was a pause and then he gasped.
Knuckles was awake and heard him. ‘Don’t tell me. It’s hot.’
‘Never touch an iron-bound trapdoor that’s been in the floor of a blazing building all day,’ Knuckles said helpfully, ‘even if you are Parsee fire-worshipper. You’ll give yourself a nasty burn. Even my granny could have told you that, bless her whorish old heart.’
‘Hold your tongue, you ape,’ hissed Arapovian.
‘Don’t call me an ape.’
‘Don’t call me a Parsee and I’ll think about it.’
Arapovian squatted, nursing his burned fingertips, feeling like a fool. An unaccustomed feeling for him, and one he did not appreciate. He looked upwards in the pitch blackness. If those bands got any hotter they’d start to glow in the dark. The wood on the upside must surely be charring down. Then the door would fall in, and they’d be done for.
The terrified families stared around sightlessly in the darkness. The old man said, ‘Have the invaders gone?’
‘No,’ said Arapovian. ‘The legion has gone. We are all that is left.’
Shock, then slow sobs as the terrible news sank in. The cell was full of widows and orphans.
The old man reached out in the dark and clutched the Armenian’s arm. ‘Will we live? Our children?’
Arapovian gently loosed his grip. There was a long silence. ‘I don’t know,’ he said at last. ‘If the trapdoor holds, then… maybe.’
The fire roared louder.
Soon, in the gloom there was a dull red glow. The iron bands of the trapdoor were growing red hot. Oozing through the gaps round the edge of the trapdoor, sizzling, came runnels of melted fat. The odour of roast pork. Arapovian hoped the women and the children would not understand what it was.
‘Pray,’ he said. ‘All of you.’
Silence, broken only by the occasional, low bludgeoning thunderclap. The Huns were still marauding, still about their work of destruction. And they themselves were still trapped. When would it be better to surrender themselves than die here? Perhaps not much longer.
No sense of time. They slept fitfully. The families remained for the most part speechless with terror and grief. Cramped, stained, exhausted by their own trembling. Tongues sore and swelling with thirst, nostrils sickened by the stench of their own bodies. The children’s throats painful and dry as sharkskin. They sucked the damp walls, the bitter green taste of algae on their lips, until Arapovian forbade it. ‘That will kill you sooner,’ he said.
The only consolation was that the fire had not sucked the air out of the dungeon. It was foul down here, but it was enough for them still to breathe.
His heart was heavy for them. These children now fatherless, these women husbandless, this old couple with their son perhaps lying slain just outside. This noisome, putrid latrine their whole world now.
Time passed. Above, all was silence again.
‘We got to get out,’ said Knuckles.
‘Another twelve hours.’
‘How will we know?’
‘Thirty more full litanies or so.’
Arapovian did not reply.
‘Tell you what. Tell us about Armenia instead.’
After a long silence, Arapovian began to tell them about his homeland. He told them about his friends Jahukunian, Arutyunian and Khorenatsian, dead and buried in the earth of a land no longer theirs. He told them about the heroine Queen Paranjem, who fought the Persians under Shapur the Great when he devastated the land, and King Arshak, who was captured and blinded and imprisoned in the Castle of Oblivion for thirty years. He told them about the pagan fire temples of the Zoroastrians erected over Christian shrines, and the broad plains of Erzinjan and Erzerum, and the egrets and the francolin in the marshes, and the great monastery of Echmiadzin, the oldest in the world, they said. At last the people slept.
Thirty muttered litanies later, he and Knuckles shook the people awake, and moved towards the steps in the inky darkness.
Knuckles held his club ready while Arapovian reached up and set his sword-hilt against the trapdoor overhead. He gave a gentle push. The door sighed and fell down around his shoulders in fluttering leaves of ash. The wood was no more than a blackened parchment, a tissue-thin veil of charcoal between them and the inferno. Only the iron bands remained. He levered them back and stepped up, sword ready. Immediately outside were some charred bones. He pushed them aside with his foot, concealed them beneath smoking timbers as best he could before the families emerged.
They came up shakily into the light of day. For it was dawn. Even Arapovian was unsure how long they had been down there. Perhaps three whole days. A very Christlike resurrection, he thought grimly.
They stood and surveyed the still-smoking desolation, like some ragged band of beggars after the apocalypse. There was nothing left.
‘Sweet Mother of God,’ whispered the old man.
The fort had gone. There were only acres of ash, and a few low stretches of broken wall like rotten teeth. Nothing else. The people moved like silent wraiths through this landscape of rubble and dust and the last thin plumes of smoke, forgetting for a moment even their abominable thirst. Where the great bastions and outer walls had stood, there was only more rubble, crooked forms, cascades of hardcore. Beyond where the west gate-tower had stood, they glimpsed the remains of the town, and further off, scattered over the fertile plains, the smouldering ruins of their homes and farmsteads.
One woman gave a cry and stumbled. Knuckles steadied her and rested his huge paw on her thin shoulder and surveyed the scene. ‘Truth to tell,’ he said to her, by way of unorthodox comfort, ‘I’m beginning to get a bit narked with these Huns myself.’
‘Come on, you ape,’ said Arapovian. ‘Move out.’
‘Stop calling me an ape.’
‘When you stop calling me a Parsee.’
Knuckles sighed. ‘This is going to be fun.’
‘No,’ said Arapovian, sheathing his sword again, tightening his belt, surveying the ravaged landscape. ‘It’s not.’
He led them through the ruins, trying to steer a course free of atrocities. For amid the burnt timbers and stones, there were shapes of what had once been bodies. Tar-black and twisted, scorched and fire-maimed, as if formed out of pitch and then abandoned by some clumsy and heartless god, tossed aside still lifeless.
In desperation a mother flew to the lip of a smashed well, tearing the cloak from her back and lowering it down to see if she could reach water, to wring it out into the mouth of her child.
Arapovian stopped her. ‘It’s poisoned.’
She turned on him, eyes blazing with fury and anguish. Her child was already sick with thirst, his face a pallid mask. ‘How do you know?’
‘Even the great river is unclean, the shore choked with bodies. But I will find you water.’ He pointed south to the hills. ‘Clean water. Do not be afraid. You will live now, you and your child. The Huns have gone.’
He took the child gently from her and laid it over his shoulder and walked on through the wasteland.
They passed where the principia itself had stood, and the legionary chapel. A hole gaped in the ground.
Knuckles hawked and spat. ‘So they found the gold, then. How did they know it was there?’
Arapovian looked around. ‘The Hun warlord knows far more than that.’
‘And what’ll they do with it? They don’t look the kind for fine wines and silk undies.’
‘They’ll hire more mercenaries. Alans, Gepids, Sarmatians. ’ Arapovian walked on again. ‘They’ll buy more power.’
A thrill of uncanny horror ran through them as they approached the rubble mound of the west gate. There was still a platform standing, the bare wooden floor of what had been the first-floor guard-tower. And there was a figure still up there, legs apart, gazing out over the plain. It must be a Roman corpse, skewered on a long spear and propped there by the Huns in their whimsical humour.
Arapovian passed the thirst-stricken child into Knuckles’ arms.
‘I don’t do children,’ Knuckles mumbled in protest.
The Armenian scrambled over the rubble and hauled himself up, his injured thigh throbbing. He could at least take the impaled corpse down. Cover it with rocks, say some appropriate words. He swung himself up onto the wooden platform and approached it.
The corpse turned.
It was Tatullus.
Alive, yes. His eyes as flat and lightless as the dead, his forearms cut across, blood crusted over one side of his scalp. But alive. The iron-hearted centurion. He stared back at Arapovian, not seeing. Down his sunken, deep-grooved cheeks, smoke-grey, filthy, were two clear white tracks.
Gradually the centurion’s eyes seemed to focus.
‘You!’ he whispered. ‘You survived.’
Arapovian nodded and saluted. ‘Sir. Two of us, and the families from the dungeons. And the prisoner, Barabbas. Down there – look.’
Tatullus emerged with painful slowness out of his waking nightmare. He seized the Armenian’s right hand in his own. His eyes shone brightly again, though he could not speak a word. Then he let his hand drop and turned away and with an abrupt movement wiped his cheeks.
Finally he spoke, his voice slow and careful. ‘See what water you can find.’
‘The wells are poisoned, sir. But in the hills…’
Tatullus nodded, still struggling to return to the world as it was. ‘Very well, then. Have them fall in.’ He drew breath. ‘We march south.’
When they were assembled in order, two abreast, Tatullus came down. He looked at each of them in turn. Finally he came to Barabbas in his shackles.
‘The granary thief.’
Barabbas shuffled and looked at the ground.
‘Fall out.’ Tatullus drew his sword. ‘Now kneel.’
Before the eyes of the horrified women and children, he raised his sword. But he could not bring it down. A stronger arm than his restrained him. It was Knuckles. They looked each other in the eye a long time. Finally the centurion’s arm relaxed. Knuckles let it go.
The Rhinelander picked up a heavy rock and shoved the prisoner’s feet apart. Barabbas closed his eyes. Knuckles smashed the rock down and broke the chain. Then he pulled him up and stretched his hand-shackles over a stump of wall. Smashed that smaller chain likewise. Barabbas pushed the iron bracelets back up his arms and rubbed his sores.
‘Now go and sin no more,’ said Knuckles sardonically.
The granary thief stumbled away into the wasteland, cradling his broken chains to his chest.
They traversed the scorched farmlands and passed through the desolate orchards, scanning the horizon for horsemen all the while. But they saw none. The firestorm had moved on south. They went up into the hills, where they found a clear stream in a shallow valley. The soldiers filled and refilled their leather flasks, passing them round, making the people drink slowly. The effect, especially on the children, was miraculous. Like hunted harts in the mountains, thought Arapovian. One moment exhausted, tongue lolling, foaming with sweat. He had seen them thus, watched and waited, holding his horse back in the thickets, cradling his spear. The exhausted hart would bend, drink, look up, drink more. And then, as if reborn, would leap forward, cantering uphill, and the hunt would be on again.
One small boy wiped his mouth and passed the flask on and looked up at him. ‘I’m Stephanos,’ he said. ‘I’m hungry.’
They rested all day in the green valley, hidden beneath a stand of grey alder trees, re-bandaging their wounds. Later the three soldiers went hunting and brought back gamebirds and some early wild plums, not very ripe but edible in small quantities, and at last the people ate. They also set horsehair snares and in the morning took fresh rabbit with them.
They crossed the hills.
Two days later they came down through woods and saw below them the road south to Naissus. Either side of it rose higher and higher hills, and beyond them were bare mountains. This was the Succi Pass: a long, narrow, five-mile way through the Haemus range.
Tatullus shook his head. ‘We can’t risk it.’
‘Nor can we travel over the mountains,’ objected Arapovian. ‘We three could, but not with the families, and without supplies.’
It was true. The children were weak and fractious with hunger. Twice they had come to isolated hamlets in the hills and found nothing: no people, no food, no livestock, nothing. They ate stewed nettles, yarrow, the skinny white roots of wild parsnip, and caught occasional game. But it was never enough, not for twenty of them, on the move all day.
‘The barbarians will have gone south,’ rumbled Knuckles. ‘Why should they turn back again?’
‘They probably won’t,’ said Tatullus. ‘But if they do…’ They all knew what fate awaited them if they met the Huns on the road. ‘We could leave the families here and go on over the mountains ourselves.’
They glanced over the hollow-eyed people, waiting for their decision as patiently as cattle.
Tatullus sighed. ‘Very well. Through the Succi Pass we go. Let’s make it fast.’
Each of the three took an infant on his shoulders and trotted. The rest of the people kept up as best they could, but still the soldiers frequently had to pause and wait for them to catch up. The sun rose high in the sky, yet the pass felt dark and cold and ominous. The further they progressed, the more threatening and precipitous the dark slate cliff faces rising on either side. There was no escape except forwards or back. High overhead, a raven left its perch and circled cawing.
The families straggled behind them, the old ones the slowest of all.
‘Faster!’ rasped Tatullus. He’d hoped to be through the pass in an hour, but it would take them two.
There was a widening in the pass, tumbled rocks to left and right, and a small stand of trees up a scree slope, before the gap closed up again and ahead of them was an even darker and narrower stretch of the road. Arapovian scrambled up into the trees to find the watersource and refill a couple of flasks. He re-emerged almost at once, flasks unfilled, standing on a rock, looking back over them blankly.
‘What is it, man?’ hissed Tatullus. ‘Move it!’
Arapovian’s expression remained blank, but he held his right hand out for stillness.
Then he said, ‘Into the trees, all of you. Now.’
The children scrambled up quickly enough and ran on into the green shadows, but the old ones needed hauling.
Knuckles crouched behind a clump of undergrowth and told the children to do the same. ‘Not a sound, now,’ he growled.
They crouched close around him, eyes wide with fear.
The last up over the rocks was the old man. Even as Tatullus pulled him up by his bony, shaking arms, he could hear what the Armenian had heard. The scuffle and clop of many, many hooves approaching.
Above them the raven cawed again. Arapovian pictured its black eyes bright with malice. The old man cried out softly and turned. The hoofbeats were very near now. The riders were only walking their horses, but they were mere seconds away round the corner. Tatullus lifted the old man bodily by his wrists, his scrawny arms straining in their sockets, and his knobbly vinewood walking-stick fell from his hand and clattered over the rock to the road below. Tatullus threw the quailing old man over his left shoulder and glanced back in despair. The stick lay at the edge of the track, brightly varnished, its grip still warm. But already he could smell the horses’ sweet aroma on the cool air…
‘No time!’ whispered the Armenian from the trees.
Tatullus strode up the rock and into the darkness of the covert. He dumped the old man behind the thicket and crouched.
Immediately below them appeared the riders. They were Huns.
They reined in and looked around with a puzzled air. Some were already unslinging their bows. Hunters like these did not miss many signs.
Under the trees, the little party were as still as statues.
At the head of the Huns, a war-party of a couple of hundred, rode their leader, an old man with long slate-grey hair and long moustaches, finely combed and oiled. He might have been in his sixth or even seventh decade, yet his chest and arms were still very strong. He sat his horse and bunched his reins in his fists on his saddle as his deep-set eyes roved around, and his nostrils seemed to quiver.
His gaze fell on the vinestick. He walked his horse over and gazed down. Then he slipped from his saddle, retrieved it and touched the knobbly grip to his cool cheek. Still warm.
He nimbly stepped halfway back up the rock, swivelled and leaped back on his horse, the vinestick still in his hand. He rested it over his shoulder like a spear and sat his horse again and waited.
The two hundred horsemen were utterly still and silent. The only sound was the caw of the raven overhead. Under the trees they barely breathed.
And then one of the hungry children hiccupped.
It was the boy Stephanos. Knuckles’ huge hand shot out and clamped over the boy’s mouth. The boy’s eyes flared wide but he didn’t struggle.
Down below, the Hun leader remained still. Perhaps he had not heard. Perhaps…
Then very slowly he turned his head towards them. And smiled.
Moving as silently as a cat, Arapovian stepped back and searched behind them. But it was as he thought. The little wood backed into a dark, damp cliff, which rose, uninterrupted, for three or four hundred feet. They were trapped. ‘Well,’ he whispered, and drew his sword. ‘So be it. Here we die. For the sake of a child’s hiccup.’
He heard the Hun warlord speak.
‘Come forth! All of you. Young, old, the ancient who lately lost his vinestaff. And do not show me your weapons. My men will cut you down before you appear.’
After a moment’s hesitation, Arapovian sheathed his sword.
The people came slowly out of the woods and stood upon the rocks, abject, with heads hung low. Trained on them were two hundred arrows.
Stephanos hiccupped again.
The warlord looked them over, singling out the three soldiers for special scrutiny. At last he said gravely, ‘I am the Lord Chanat. You Romans slew many of my men.’
Tatullus nodded, his hand on the pommel of his sword. ‘We did. And we will slay many more in the next battle.’
Chanat pondered deeply, in no hurry. At last he declared, ‘You Romans are not all women. You are a Khan?’
‘I’m a centurion.’
‘A leader of men? Or a herder of women and children? ’
‘Leader of men, usually,’ growled Tatullus. ‘Leader of eighty.’
‘That is good.’ He nodded. ‘You will join us. You will be a commander of Huns.’
Tatullus looked taken aback. Then he set his face again. ‘I am a Roman. I fight only for Rome.’
‘Your empire is destroyed.’
Tatullus smiled very slightly, his teeth clenched. ‘Not yet it isn’t.’
‘Then I will kill you.’
‘You can try.’
Chanat made a strange noise, shucking his teeth. It would be wrong, by every tenet of the warrior code, to slay a man this heedlessly and magnificently brave.
He turned his attention to Arapovian, standing a little further back on the rocks, his hand not far from the hilt of his sword. ‘You. You are an Easterner.’
Arapovian did not reply.
‘Answer me, fool.’
But it was clear that Arapovian would not deign to speak to a Hun, though his life depended on it. He picked a burr fastidiously from his cloak.
‘Stiff-necked easterner,’ growled Chanat. ‘You must be a Persian traitor fighting for the Romans.’
At that, Arapovian could not keep silent. He drew himself to his full height and looked angrily down on Chanat. ‘I am an Armenian naxarar of the noblest birth. My name is Count Grigorius Khachadour Arapovian, the son of Count Grigorius Nubar Arapovian, the son-’
Knuckles intervened, jerking his head. ‘He is, too.’
‘And you,’ said Chanat, turning on him. Knuckles wished he’d kept quiet. ‘It is my belief that you are the brute who killed the Lord Bela on the bridge.’
‘I can’t say I ever found out the sav-the gentleman’s name, your mercifulness. But frankly, at the time, he wasn’t behaving too favourably towards me, neither.’
Chanat tugged his reins and half-turned his horse. ‘It is well,’ he snapped. ‘It is war. Now be silent.’ He looked them over one last time, trotted back, surveyed the women and children, and then made a typically abrupt decision. ‘This time, you may live. Next time, we will kill you.’
As he walked his horse away, he tossed the vinestick over his shoulder to clatter again upon the road.
‘And you can have that back!’ he called, laughing. ‘I am not so old as to need it yet!’
It was a fine story that night at the Hun campfire.
‘Magnanimous,’ said Attila.
‘Indeed,’ acknowledged Chanat solemnly. ‘I did not even demand one of the women for my tent.’
‘Old Chanat, your heart is as tender as a young lamb’s.’
‘Alas, but I fear my loins will not easily forgive my tender heart. Some of those Roman women weren’t so ugly.’
Still dazed at their escape and the terrifying randomness of Hun clemency, the refugees camped that night well up in scattered pinewoods. It was good that it was summer. In these hills, winter would have killed them by now. Still, Arapovian allowed them a small fire. The women and children, though hungry, all slept.
They were draining the last of the Armenian brandy, heavily watered, which Arapovian had managed to conserve through everything, when he heard a footfall nearby. The faintest padding footfall in the dry needles. He raised his forefinger.
Knuckles frowned and shook his head.
Arapovian drew his dagger.
And nonchalantly into the firelight stepped Captain Malchus.
Knuckles growled, ‘How in the name of Cloacina, goddess of Rome’s sacred shit-pipes, did you…?’
Malchus grinned. His face and arms were a terrible mess. He had sewn up his own wounds again with horsehair and a bone needle. They could see the holes, clotted with dried blood.
‘Take more than that to finish me,’ he said. He sat cross-legged by the fire. ‘I’ve been tracking you. Good show when you met the Huns. I saw it all from the clifftop. It was me who set the raven off its ledge. Sorry about that.’
They stared at him a while longer, as if to ensure he was no ghost.
At last Arapovian said, ‘I don’t understand how you survived outside the fort, when the Hun charge ran you down.’
Malchus reflected. ‘Imagine,’ he said. ‘You’re one of two hundred horsemen galloping at a single man. How are you ever going to know which one of you killed him in the rush? If any of you?’
They shook their heads. Tatullus was stirring and awakening again.
‘What you do is, you drop just before they hit you. It’s all in the timing.’
‘And then two hundred horses gallop over you.’
‘That bit is playing with dice, I admit. You do like you’re back in your mother’s womb.’ He mimed a curled foetal position, wincing at his cuts. ‘Plus arms round your head. You know no horse likes to trample a living creature, not even those bullock-headed Hun brutes.’ He grinned again. ‘Well, maybe I was lucky. My legs got a bit bruised, but otherwise – here I am. And look.’ From a leather saddlebag he pulled a decent-sized flagon of looted wine, some very stale but edible bread, and some goat’s cheese wrapped in lime leaves.
‘Christ be thanked,’ growled Knuckles, grabbing for the wine.
Arapovian was faster. He set the flagon by his side. ‘Medical usage first. Those cuts need dousing and re-sewing. ’ He began to strop his dagger-blade, eyeing Malchus’ gruesome wounds.
Malchus looked indignant. ‘What do you mean? They’re fine.’
‘They’re rubbish,’ said Arapovian.
Later Malchus took a long drag on the bottle and passed it to Knuckles, wincing again at his fresh stitches.
‘I thought you took a vow,’ said Tatullus from the shadows where he lay on his side.
‘It got cancelled,’ said Knuckles. ‘By unforeseen circumstances. ’ He took a huge glug.
Arapovian guarded the bread and cheese for the children’s breakfast tomorrow. He eyed Knuckles’ considerable belly. ‘You won’t starve without it.’
They drank more from the welcome flagon.
Knuckles yawned and belched. ‘Name of Light. That wine’s gone straight to my lord and master. Wonder where the nearest whorehouse is?’
‘You’d have to pay a month’s wages for it, you would,’ said Malchus. ‘State of you.’
‘Look at you,’ said Knuckles. ‘While I, on the contrary, left many a broken-hearted lady behind me in Carnuntum, so fond had they grown of me and my hugely proportioned charms.’
Malchus snorted with incredulity. Even Tatullus managed a faint smile.
‘I was, to be honest, a most cock-witted lad in my youth,’ reflected the hulking Rhinelander, taking another huge glug of wine. ‘Give my own granny for a piece of skirt, I would. But with age comes wisdom. Perhaps I will endure tonight with neither fuck nor suck.’
Arapovian looked scornful, banking up the woodfire. ‘Well, you’d better not sleep too near me.’
Knuckles raised his eyebrows. ‘Don’t flatter yourself. My lord and master has some dimscrim… dimscrin…’
Malchus lay back and stared up at the crescent moon winking fitfully through the dark canopy of the pines. The air smelt beautiful and fresh. His wounds were clean, no infection. The wine warmed his stomach. And they had survived. Life was sweet. Nearby, Tatullus could still barely speak for grief of his legion but, for Malchus, to be alive was victory. There was a tattered veil of cloud drifting across the night sky, luminous in the moonlight. The call of an owl.
‘Isn’t it magnificent?’ he said.
Knuckles belched. ‘Not bad.’
‘Not the wine, you oaf. This.’ He spread his scarred hands wide. ‘The moon, the dark heavens, the summer stars.’
Knuckles turned to Arapovian. ‘The boy waxes lyrical. Is it a fever?’
‘Of sorts. Beyond my cure.’
Malchus continued regardless, his voice a rapturous whisper. ‘This great Hunnic war that has only just begun. The sight of furious, perishing armies. A galloping black horse on a lonely plain. The sunlight glinting on spears. All of it. I love it. “Sequor omina tanta, quisquis in arma vocas”.’ He sighed. ‘There is nothing as beautiful as war.’
He was like a crazed Trojan hero out of Homer, this one. He’d die fighting, a big smile on his handsome face, his raven hair dripping sweat and blood. Then straight to the Elysian Fields.
‘You’re a fucking poet,’ growled Knuckles. ‘You better have some more wine. All poets are drunks.’
‘Don’t you think,’ said Malchus, sitting up again, ‘sometimes, that everything is beautiful just the way it is? With all the beauty and pity and horror mingled, the way the unknown gods have made it? And that really there is no evil – how could it be otherwise? And that even death is beautiful?’
‘You’re pissed,’ said Knuckles.
‘You’re how old?’ That was Arapovian.
‘Twenty-four,’ said Malchus. ‘The youngest cavalry commander on the Danube frontier.’
‘Well,’ said the Armenian, settling down to sleep, ‘there’s still time for you to believe in evil.’
They slept with their crooked arms for pillows and awoke with their cheeks wet with dew. Arapovian bathed in a nearby stream, to Knuckles’ fascination, and cleaned his teeth with a green hazel-wand. Then he shared out the bread and cheese among the people.
Stephanos ate too fast and got hiccups again. ‘Sorry,’ he said, shame-faced.
Arapovian touched him on the head. ‘You can hiccup all you like, boy. The Huns have gone now.’
Some days later, well hidden from the road, they saw passing in the opposite direction a motley family: two girls, a boy, a woman in a grimy red dress, and a man attired in a close-fitting white robe like a priest of the Church, on his chest a wooden chi-rho. All their wordly goods were packed onto a mulish-looking pony, bull-headed, deepchested, like those the Scythians rode.
The refugees came down from the woods and confronted them. The priest had been the Bishop of Margus himself. ‘But Margus is destroyed.’
Arapovian took a deep breath. ‘Viminacium, too, is destroyed. We are the only survivors.’
The man’s wife repeated, faltering, ‘The legionary fortress… destroyed?’
They nodded. She crossed herself. The Bishop muttered of the devil.
‘Where do you go now?’ asked Arapovian.
‘West. To Sirmium, perhaps further.’
‘You must report to the legate there. Your intelligence will be invaluable.’
The priest did not commit himself. He looked over the ragged women and children, the aged couple propping each other up. ‘We will take the people.’
The soldiers considered. It would be safer in the west, for now. The families, dazed and indifferent with tiredness, had no preference. They departed west, with the priest preaching to passers-by on the road of the wrath to come.
The four soldiers went south.
Within a few miles they found themselves some acceptable horses, requisitioned from a party of Illyrian merchants. The merchants didn’t argue. They rode on down the road at a canter. There would be more fighting to be done.
The City of Gold
Attila was talking with his generals when Orestes stepped forward and passed him something. A fine kidskin parchment, rolled up and sealed with an impressive wax seal.
Geukchu peered at it. ‘And this is the Western Emperor’s own seal?’
Attila nodded. ‘Identical.’
The wily old general was full of baffled admiration. ‘How?’
‘Information is precious.’ For their amusement, he recited what the sealed roll said from memory.
To my Beloved Brother in Christ, Emperor of the Eastern Romans, Theodosius, Greetings
It is with heavy heart that We must refuse your request for aid at this unhappy time, and make fast our own borders against the hordes of Scythia. All our forces are required for our own defence. We have trust in the Lord that you will repel this barbarous incursion alone. To do so is indeed your bounden duty, since it was your own forces from Viminacium which first stung Attila and his fearsome warriors into attack.
Your faithful Valentinian.
‘How do we know this request was ever made?’ objected Geukchu.
Attila smiled. ‘We know. And we know that this response will anger even mild-mannered Theodosius. Not least because it’s half-right. Those insults sting us most which contain a grain of truth. It was Valentinian’s folly to order our punishment, but it was Theodosius’ cavalry from Viminacium that responded. And look what befell them. Oh that I could see Theodosius’ puny rage for myself!’ Tears of mirth glimmered in his wolfish eyes. ‘Siege-engines, our mercenary friends, regiments of my beloved horse-warriors – those are fine and powerful weapons. But so, too, are information, misinformation, confusion, dissension, terror.’ He smiled, his eyes roving towards the scrolled letter one last time. ‘Poisonous weeds in the golden meadow of Rome.’
‘And so this Theodosius will have no help from the West?’
‘Not even from the gallant Master-General Aetius?’
Attila’s face darkened at the name. ‘Not until the East is laid waste from the Euxine Sea to the Adriatic, and from the Danube to the Golden Horn.’
Sicily: the naval harbour at Messina. The square red sails flapped and batted from the yardarms in the stiff summer breeze. It was a good week to sail, at the start of the campaign season. Though in his fifties, on mornings like this Aetius still felt like a fresh young legionary of twenty. The gentle swell of the blue Tyrrhenian Sea, out beyond the massive grey harbour walls, and an inward swell of optimism and hope. The weather was good for a week. Today he would oversee the last of the stores and provisions, and increase the ammunition loads. There would be no heavy swell to dislodge it in the holds. In the night the men would board, along with two thousand horses: powerful chestnut Cappadocians, beautiful, high-stepping Moorish greys. Tomorrow, two hours before dawn, they would weigh anchor and sail on the soft night breeze. In two days’ time, Rome would be taking Carthage. Again. Sons of Scipio.
After he had been summoned back by Galla Placidia from his pleasant enough exile at the Court of the Visigoths, and his interminable games of chess with good old, irascible King Theodoric, Aetius had learned with horror of Valentinian’s vaunted punitive expedition. Executed ruthlessly enough by the VIIth Legion at Viminacium, being nearest to the impertinent Hun encampment, and yet a monumental folly. He had waited a while for the hammer to fall. But none came. Instead, there was good intelligence from the Danube frontier that the entire confederation of Huns and associated tribal peoples had moved away north. The expedition had worked. Valentinian was triumphant. Aetius was sceptical. He waited further developments, but there were still none.
So with some misgivings, he resumed his plans for renewed war with the Vandals, with the hated King Genseric, and the recapture of the crucial African grainfields. Africa. He had always loved the very word. In Mauretania there were still lions and elephants and giraffes. And the golden wheat-growing river valleys of Tunisia, and the vast irrigation works, olive groves up to a hundred miles inland. Rome must win Africa back. Half a million tons of grain a year used to come into Ostia from that vast province, that peaceful, highly civilised province, with its twelve thousand miles of legionary roads, kept under law and order by just one legion. Primitive, rain-sodden Britain had required four!
Aetius had seen with his own eyes the magnificence of Roman Carthage. The huge hexagon of the outer harbour handling six hundred ships a day, the beautifully proportioned inner circle, the marble monuments of Admiralty Island…
Yes, Rome must win Africa back.
The optio came to a halt and saluted before the general, who was seated at his outdoor wooden desk. The general looked up and shielded his eyes from the white Sicilian sun. For once he looked quite cheerful. Those bleakly penetrating grey-blue eyes seemed to have an almost Mediterranean sparkle in them. The wide, set mouth, turned down at the corners almost with bitterness, seemed today to be animated by something approaching a smile.
‘Orders from Ravenna, sir. The emperor commands your immediate return.’
Aetius set his elbows on the desk, interlaced his fingers, rested his chin on his knuckles, and gazed out over the vast harbour of Panormus. Over a thousand ships riding at anchor in and beyond the harbour walls. Twenty thousand men under arms in the camps around the town. His very finest legions: the Batavi, the Herculiani, the aggressive Armigeri Propugnatores, as well as crack cavalry units like the Cornuti Seniores, the Armigeri, the lightning-fast Mauri Alites. Only the finest of them all, the Palatine, was missing, stationed near Ravenna as the imperial bodyguard, on Valentinian’s command. Wasted.
Swarms of slaves wheeling handbarrows of provisions and armaments up the narrow, cross-ridged gangplanks to the full-bellied supply ships. An angelic chorus of white gulls in full cry. Genseric in Carthage, on the back foot. At least one of his sons confined with insanity, so they said. The precious grainfields of Africa once again within Rome’s grasp. The best opportunity for a generation.
‘May I ask why?’
‘Invasion, sir. In the north. Attacks on the Danube station.’
His heart plummeted. Icy depths. He knew, he knew, he did not want to know.
‘And what of the Danube fleet? The frontier legions, depleted as they are?’
‘I don’t know, sir. I… It’s a major invasion, they say.’
‘I don’t know, sir. A barbarian horde.’
Aetius studied the optio ’s face, his ruddy, sixteen-year-old candour. Vitulasius Laetinianus was his ludicrous name. The general called him Rufus.
‘Scythians, sir. Steppe warriors.’
‘I don’t know, sir. The emperor is most urgent. The fortress at Viminacium has already been wiped out.’
At this impossible news, Aetius relaxed a little. Clearly the message had got garbled in the panic. Fear always exaggerated, so ‘a barbarian horde’ might equally mean all of a few hundred scrap-merchants.
‘Viminacium is a legionary fortress, boy,’ he said evenly. ‘Only a Roman legion with siege-engines could take it.’
‘The message says that it has fallen, sir. To the Scythians. Their leader has sent further insults to the emperor in the East, saying that the Byzantines have dishonoured the grave-mounds of his people.’
‘Sir. Saying that the empire must apologise, beg his forgiveness, make obeisance, pay reparations. Words of limitless arrogance.’
‘He has a sense of humour. Which grave-mounds?’
‘On the north banks of the Danube, sir. On the Hungvar.’
Aetius rested his hand on the basalt paperweight on his desk. Papers flicked in the sea breeze. ‘You do not know the barbarian leader’s name, do you, boy?’
‘Well, then. His name is Attila, Great Tanjou, Khan of Khans. The Lord Attila.’
The boy regarded his general oddly.
‘Remember it. You will have cause to. We all will.’
Aetius looked out again over the thousand fluttering sails. They suddenly seemed to him the saddest sight he had ever seen. Where is Africa, which was for the whole world like a garden of delights? Now these ships would never sail for lost Africa. Attila knew this, too. His brief boyhood friend. He started to say something to the startled boy about it. How he and Attila had ridden together, hunted together, across the limitless Scythian grasslands… Never such freedom, never such innocence again… Until he realised he was blathering like an old man, the boy Rufus listening, bewildered. He halted, then waved him away. The boy trotted off along the dockside.
It was better his optio should not see or hear him now. He got to his feet, no longer feeling like a young legionary of twenty. So: it had come. The final hour. Just when Rome was about to recover her African strength, with one last, mighty gasp, Attila had chosen to attack. He knew. He knew. And once the attack had started, it would not stop.
Old Theodoric had warned him that the Huns and the Vandals would form an alliance. Aetius had thought it impossible. Attila and Genseric had hated each other since boyhood, as only two tyrants can. They had been hostages together in Rome. Genseric and his brother Beric, long since killed in a ‘hunting accident’, had been quickly seduced by Rome’s pleasures. The runaway Hun boy rather less seduced. Aetius knew it all. He had learned all he could of Attila. He knew him of old.
Feeling as if his dry old heart would crack, he sent out word for the fastest ship to be prepared to sail for Ravenna.
Attila summoned Orestes. ‘Take another letter: To our Beloved Ally, King Genseric, Lord of the Vandals, Conqueror of Africa, Suzerain of the Lands of the Setting Sun… Have I missed any?’
‘Commander of the Arian Faithful?’
Attila stroked his thin grey beard. ‘I like it. Put that in, too.’
He resumed. ‘How fondly I remember our happy boyhood together in Rome, my dearest friend. How we cared for each other in our youthful loneliness, in exile in those sullen courts of empire, so far from our respective homes. And how saddened I was to hear of the death of your noble-hearted brother Beric in that cruel hunting accident.’
Even Orestes’ eyes glittered with amusement at this. Attila had to wait a few seconds before he could speak again. ‘I should have been a court jester,’ he said.
‘But to happier matters. The invasion has started. The Hun army, your loyal allies in the north, have conquered half the way to Constantinople already. The vainglorious Roman legions fall before us like grass before the scythe. Their degenerate cities are but fuel for the fire. None stands in our way. And consequently, there will be no Roman attempt upon your own empire of Africa, that rich territory that is rightfully yours by the judgement of Almighty God. May your people bless the wisdom, justice and mercy of your rule. May the glorious dynasty of Genseric prosper. May the fine sense of your sons prevail.’
‘Too much,’ said Orestes. ‘His sons are renowned idiots. One resides in a dungeon in the palace, chained up and gibbering like an ape.’
‘Ah. Yes. Change the last two lines. May the martial valour and Christian righteousness of your dynasty prevail for ever. And may Genseric come to reign pre-eminent in the West, as his most loyal ally Attila shall reign in the East, in a conjoined harmony of Emperors and Brothers.’
‘Hm,’ said Orestes. ‘Just about.’
‘Until such time as we decide to eliminate you and take your empire for our own.’
The corners of Orestes’ mouth twitched. He laid his pen aside.
‘Oh,’ said Attila, wiping the tears from his eyes. ‘I should have been a jester.’
POLITICS AND WITCHCRAFT
The moment Aetius stepped from the ship, the worst was confirmed.
‘Sir, the Huns have crossed the Danube. They have fallen on Margus Fair.’
‘Very well.’ He nodded and turned away.
All was ready. It was time to begin.
It was time for the end to begin.
He turned back, looked the man in the eye. ‘And Viminacium? Can that be true?’
‘As far as we can tell, yes, sir. Flattened.’
‘So they have siegecraft?’
‘They or their auxiliaries, yes, sir. They took down the walls of the fortress in a day and a night, if reports are correct.’
Christ. ‘And the VIIth Legion?’
The optio shrugged. ‘Gone.’
He winced. ‘That was a good legion.’ He straightened up. ‘To the palace.’
Emperor Valentinian received him coldly. ‘My good and faithful servant. How precipitate your return.’
‘Those were my orders, Majesty.’
‘There was no need.’ Valentinian took his time, cradling his hands in his lap, gazing fondly down at them, stroking an open palm. He hummed a little tune. Aetius waited patiently.
Eventually Valentinian said, ‘It is true about this Hun nuisance. But lines of communication have been re-established, by sea and river, with Ratiaria, and by land with the Eastern Field Army at Marcianopolis. They are marching out to engage the savages even as we speak. They may have destroyed them already.’
‘Under General Aspar?’
Valentinian’s eyes flared wide with anger.
‘Forgive my interruption, Majesty. But their commander-’
‘The Field Army, all five or six legions, will engage or has engaged these savages, this ridiculous, puffed-up little man Attila, somewhere on the River Utus. Yes, under Aspar. News is expected at any time. And so you see’ – he smiled – ‘there is really nothing useful for you to do here, Master-General. As ever. You may as well go back to Sicily and play with your boats.’
‘Your Majesty.’ He bowed. ‘If I may, I should like to wait and hear the happy news from the East along with you.’
Valentinian waved his hand. ‘As you please.’
Only a day later, the emperor was white with fury. ‘Our Brother in Constantinople accuses us of cowardice! Curses rain on him. Foulest curses!’
He mumbled of Lilith and Seth, ancient Hebrew demons.
Aetius tried to steady him.
He pulled away. ‘He says we refused him help. How dare he! If he had asked we might have gone to his aid. We are no cowards! Those horsemen do not frighten us!’ He seized a cushion and looked as if he were about to tear it apart in his thin white hands.
Aetius looked away. He could not bear to watch these puerile rages. But he knew who was at the root of this discord. Neither Theodosius nor Valentinian, being played like puppets against each other, but another ruler altogether. A ruler of a very different stamp.
Everything moved at a terrible pace in those days, in that summer. Each new piece of intelligence came like fama pinnata, winged rumour, but at the pace of catastrophe.
Another letter arrived in Constantinople from Aetius a few days later (I know because I, Priscus, took the letter and read it myself.) It contained a genuine offer of help from the Western Legions. They would not be starting on the Africa Campaign now. Six of the finest, twenty thousand men, both infantry and cavalry, could sail from Sicily direct for Constantinople. Seven days’ sailing at most. Or they could come ashore at Thessalonika, cut across the flat plains of Thrace and attack the Huns’ flank as they marched south. But my lord the emperor Theodosius would not even look at the letter. He ordered it to be burned, saying how he now knew who his true and loyal friends were.
There was a chamberlain in the employ of the Byzantine court in those days, a man called Pytheas. A man I had never felt at ease with. Theodosius admired and trusted him, but, alas, he was a poor judge of character, for all his lucubrations over the Characters of Theophrastus. Books, not life, had taught our emperor; and I am sorry to say, bibliophile and library dweller as I am myself, that thus far they had proved poor teachers. This Pytheas had grown very rich from corruption and manipulation of the funds of the Public Largesse. He held numerous offices, this state-salaried parasite: sinecures such as Overseer of Marble Procurement, Secretary of the Imperial Customs-Houses, Chief Clerk of the Records of Imperial Liberality, Accounts Archivist for the Province of Syria, Chancellor of the Domestic Wardrobe, and so forth. And in every department he was corrupt. But he had grown richest from another source altogether, from beyond the bounds of the empire, though none of us knew it then. He worked for Attila.
I remember a private audience he had with the emperor. I silently took notes, in my role as Chief Clerk-in-Consistory.
Pytheas hesitated and then said, ‘My Lord, it is my heavy duty to bring you further distressing, but surely untrue, reports from the Danube frontier.’
‘Go on,’ said the emperor, poring over a manuscript on his wooden lectern.
Pytheas sighed theatrically. ‘At Viminacium… My Lord, I fain would not believe it is true’
‘ Go on,’ said Theodosius.
Pytheas glanced aside at me but he did not register me.
‘At Viminacium,’ he said, speaking with exaggerated care, ‘it appears that alongside the Huns were fighting – were seen fighting – men with covered shields. But shields were evidently lost in the battle. And when the Hunnish hordes passed on southwards, some of our own men managed to retrieve them.’
I found this doubtful in the extreme. ‘There were none of our own men left alive,’ I objected.
Pytheas’ look could have turned a Gorgon to stone. ‘Remember you are but a scribe, Priscus of far-famed Panium,’ he said sarcastically, ‘however elevated a scribe. So scribble, and be silent.’
The emperor hardly registered this argument.
Pytheas continued, with a sigh and a leaden heart on his sleeve. ‘The recovered shields were painted red, with a gold rim, and a large black eagle in the centre.’
Now at last Theodosius raised his small, short-sighted eyes from his manuscript and looked around, puzzled.
Pytheas nodded. ‘Yes, my Lord. The insignia of the Legio Herculiani.’
The Herculian Legion. One of the very finest. A Western Legion, under the direct command of Master-General Aetius.
Theodosius still looked baffled. And then Pytheas, the consummate actor, produced his theatrical masterstroke. He called out, and a slave entered the room, walking backwards so that he might not gaze upon the countenance of the Divine Majesty. He laid two objects at the chamberlain’s feet, and then hurried away. Pytheas picked them up. One was a big round wooden shield with a bronze boss and gold-painted rim, decorated just as he had said with the black eagle insignia of the Herculians. The other was a long spear, with dyed feathers twined in behind the spearhead, and the shaft crudely decorated with shamanic runes of power. A Hun spear. He raised them up and held them side by side. Fighting together, thus.
The visual impact was tremendous.
The emperor staggered forward, his wooden lectern crashing to the floor. ‘No!’
‘My Lord,’ said Pytheas, ‘it is my sincerest hope that this is a terrible misunderstanding.’
But the image of Western Legionary and Hun spear-man fighting side by side was indelibly imprinted upon the vivid, vulnerable imagination of the emperor.
‘Indeed,’ said Pytheas, ‘it may even be that this is some malign plan of Attila’s, to drive a wedge between east and west.’
Oh cunning chamberlain! Not the first to realise that, by stating the truth so candidly, you can drive it away.
‘No!’ cried the emperor. ‘I have heard enough. First I was refused aid, then General Aetius wished to bring his army direct to our capital, without alarming us. Now I see why! My cousin Valentinian has said before that he always suspected Aetius’ ultimate aim was to make himself emperor, with help from the Hunnish hordes if necessary. Now I see that it is true. This will not be the first time the West has turned against the East. Remember Mursa, one hundred years ago. That was a calamitous battle.’
It pained me, Priscus, to hear that name. The list of military catastrophes in the last century was long: against the Goths at Adrianople; against the Persians, and Shapur, King of Kings, at the Night Battle of Singara. Yet Mursa was the greatest wound of all, and self-inflicted, the ruinous feat of Constantine the Great’s squabbling sons, and the usurper Magnentius; an empire rending itself to pieces, at the cost of sixty thousand casualties in a single day.
But now my beloved pupil Aetius was master-general in the West. Rome would live to fight again, and better. I prayed for it. Yet day by day, through the brilliant machinations and insinuations of Attila and his network of spies and accomplices, information continued to trickle through to baffle the scholarly, naive, gullible, well-meaning Emperor Theodosius, too unskilled by far in the ways of men. So far from doing evil himself that he suspected none, or he suspected the wrong men – unerringly erring in every judgement he made.
After Pytheas’ departure, I made so bold as offer advice to my lord the emperor. He had appointed no good advisers: the greatest failing of all for a ruler of men.
The first casualty in war is truth, I told him sententiously. He did not appear to listen, but he did not silence me, either.
‘It is not in Aetius’ nature to deceive,’ I said. ‘Remember, my lord, I was his tutor for a brief while.’
Theodosius looked up, brow furrowed. ‘That’s right,’ he said softly. ‘So you were. I had forgotten.’
‘He was not the best of students,’ I murmured, with a fond smile of remembrance. Then, with more attack, ‘But Attila is the Great Deceiver. He will try every trick.’
He seemed in an agony of indecision. I saw the man beneath the stiff golden robes, his very spirit writhing. How he hated to be emperor. It was nothing but a burden to him. Not for the first time, I was grateful I was not a ruler or a politician, whose lives are a long, thankless, much-scorned series of choices between lesser and greater evils. Politicians, unlike poets, do not live in the world of the Good and the Beautiful.
Then he waved me wearily away.
I slept poorly that night. Sometime towards dawn I stood out on my little balcony overlooking the still waters of the Golden Horn. Moonlight coming towards me in a silvered pathway; wisteria and judas trees, night-scented jasmine, nightingales in the pines; two night fishermen out on the water, drawing fish into their nets with lanterns on hooped sticks. By the moonlight I could see the ancient symbol of the stylised eye painted on the prow, white and blue, to ward off evil. Behind me, the city’s golden domes and cupolas would be shining beneath the round-faced moon, unimaginably beautiful. The great statue of Constantine aloft on its pillar, only a little lower than God. Would all this fall? All the strange wonders of this magical city, caught between east and west (wonders which I, Priscus of Panium, had written up with modest scholarship, in a little guide-book regarded with no small admiration among certain literary circles in the city)? The strange triple-headed brass serpent on its pillar in the forum, taken by Constantine the Great himself from the temple of Apollo at Delphi, made to celebrate Greek victory over the Persians at Plataea, 479 years before the birth of Christ. Or the towering column of Pharaoh Thutmose III, unimaginably ancient, the polished hieroglyphs in the polished granite, as clear as when they were cut there by slaves in ancient Egypt millennia ago, in a kingdom long since vanished. So even the greatest empires fall into night. The iron law of change applies to everything. All is metamorphosis. Yes, one day, sooner or later, even all this would change and fall.
The Ancients said hope was merely a sign of foolishness. We Christians now do not have their pessimistic strength.
There is chaos and ruin. And so there is grace and light.
In the marsh-girdled palace of Ravenna, there was an atrocious mix of pride and panic in those days. There was mistrust, plots and delusions of plots, wars and rumours of wars. Aetius, despite his best efforts, could not persuade the emperor to release any Legions to go east. Were the finest then simply to sit in Sicily, while the Huns ravaged all Moesia and Thrace? Yes, apparently.
Meanwhile, Valentinian harped on endlessly about what he called ‘my punitive expedition’, which had apparently stung the Huns into invasion.
‘We would not have heard from them again, had I led it in person,’ he explained to the assembled courtiers listening sycophantically, and to Aetius. Unusually for Valentinian, he was out of doors, taking the air in the palace gardens. The group passed beneath fine mulberry trees, between rows of box hedges, among statues of interestingly deformed children and little cupids strangling geese. ‘I would have shown those Hunnish hairy men.’
He called on one of his favourite court scholars, an orator named Quintilianus, to tell again what was known of the Huns.
Quintilianus bowed low as they walked. ‘Your Eternal Majesty. Like unreasoning beasts, these Huns are entirely at the mercy of the maddest impulses. They have no understanding of right and wrong, their speech is shifty and obscure, they know nothing of true religion or piety. Their greed for gold is limitless, they are fickle, prone to fury, serpentine of tongue. Their physical appearance is the outward sign of their inner animality. They have flat faces, yellowed skin like old parchment, high cheekbones which leave no room but slits for eyes. They stink of meat, milk and mutton fat, which they lard upon their coarse bodies as protection against the savage Scythian winters that they love so well. They ride brutish mounts, often quite naked, or dressed in the most tattered, ill-cured animal skins, which add to their foul odour.’
Valentinian nodded with pleasure at this eloquent description.
‘And now this dreadful people is against us,’ murmured another courtier. ‘People say that we live in desperate times, and surely the End is coming.’
‘How dare they say that!’ cried the emperor, turning and flailing his purple skirts, revealing his pearl-studded kid-skin boots. ‘Those who breathe such treason, I will have them racked and scourged, I will have them crucified in the Colosseum. Let them be an example, let their screams be heard, let the sands run red with their watery blood!’ He was dribbling slightly. ‘Let them-’
The wooden door to the enclosed garden opened and a tired old woman, tall once but now bowed and bent, shuffled in. Valentinian’s gaze rested on her a moment, and then he turned away and continued.
‘I was surprised to hear that my punitive expedition has not worked, but it was done inadequately, you see. They had no military understanding; they held back too much, my men.’
That it was an eastern legion meant nothing to him. The world was his and everything therein. No one really existed for Valentinian but himself. The rest were but figures in his own fevered dreams.
Returning to the palace alone, Aetius found the old woman in the porphyry-pillared entrance hall.
‘Your Majesty,’ he said, bowing.
‘Aetius,’ said Galla Placidia, her tired green eyes betraying a momentary pleasure. ‘I am glad you have returned.’
Aetius regarded her steadily, his expression too perhaps showing the faintest pleasure on seeing her. ‘One can only play King Theodoric at chess so many times.’
‘Deliberately, I assure you.’
There were those in the court of Ravenna, and in senior positions in the Western Army, who were said to have talked to Aetius in utmost secrecy, to have joined together in urging him to seize the imperial throne for himself, to set the diadem on his head and the purple about his shoulders. They said that Valentinian was a babbling fool leading the empire to destruction. But Aetius said that it was as the Church taught: the emperor was God’s annointed, for some purpose hidden from the eyes of men.
‘Then we should have killed him before he became emperor,’ said Germanus, a stocky red-head with a round, rubicund face, one of Aetius’ best, most forthright generals.
‘You cannot kill a boy.’
‘Would you not have killed Hannibal in boyhood, had you been able? Think how many lives you would have saved at Cannae.’
Aetius shook his head.
‘Or Judas Iscariot himself?’
Aetius murmured, ‘“In the lost boyhood of Judas, Christ was betrayed.”’
Germanus regarded him blankly. He wasn’t a great one for poetry.
Aetius sighed. ‘Had Christ not been betrayed to crucifixion, how would our sins have been forgiven? Judas, too, was an instrument of God.’
‘But the emperor’s a gibbering fool!’ sputtered Germanus.
Aetius counselled him to lower his voice. ‘I know that,’ he added. ‘Many emperors are. But it is not for us to rescind the appointments of heaven. They are St Paul’s “powers that be”.’
‘Even if those powers are betraying the empire to disaster?’
Aetius said nothing.
‘You owe it to the senate and the people,’ persisted Germanus, ‘the good old “Senatus populusque romanus”, to defend the weak and undefended, the widowed and orphaned, the Christian peoples of Europe.’
‘And so I shall defend that Christian peoples of Europe!’ retorted Aetius, beginning to anger. He quelled his undignified passion, and was silent for a time. Eventually he added, ‘But not that way.’
He said they must live the life that God had allotted to them. He was a general of men, a commander of soldiers, not an assassin. He would do his duty. So must they all.
Valentinian continued to insist that, though the western legions languished, the Eastern Field Army would soon deal with Attila.
‘Besides,’ he said with a peculiar smile, ‘there are other operations afoot.’
For the Vice-Regent of God in the West, Defender of the Church, Shield of the Faithful, had given himelf up to degrading superstitions and the practices of witchcraft, which appeal only to those who are simultaneously corrupt and stupid.
Galla Placidia herself came to Aetius one evening, shaking and white. He insisted she sit. She refused wine.
‘My son,’ she gasped, and buried her face in her hands. Her shoulders trembled, and Aetius realised that he was seeing her cry for the first time in his life. Men dying he could cope with. But women crying… At last he summoned the resolve to reach out and lay his broad right hand on her shoulder. Immediately she came round, like someone waking abruptly from a dream. She wiped her eyes with a small white cloth, then stood and walked slowly round the room.
‘My son… is mad,’ she said.
As conscious as Aetius that time was running out, and perturbed by what secrets lay in Valentinian’s private chambers beneath the palace, Galla’s patience – and perhaps, she admitted now, her wilful self-delusion – had at last evaporated. She had demanded entrance. A eunuch had been so insolently adamant that she was not permitted entry that she had grown enraged, given him a mighty cuff for a woman of her years, and entered the chambers in a fine rage.
She was met by a horrible sight, but one she had known in her heart she would find – she bit her lip almost to bleeding. There stood her son, clutching a ridiculous willow wand, naked but for a purple silk cape around his upper body, and wearing a primitive animal mask. The small chamber was in gloom except for flickering candles in grubby candelabra. In the impenetrable dark, a slave sat in a corner beating a drum. Foul concoctions steamed in pots, necromantic brews of curdled milk and bitter herbs. There were skulls around the floor, and in the centre, around the emperor, a chalk circle inscribed with the names of JHWH and Hermes Trismegistus.
The great magician turned.
‘Have you brought her?’ he mumbled behind the mask. His eyes flared wide in the chiselled holes, and he snatched the mask off. ‘Mother!’
He wore kohl round his eyes like a harlot. She went closer. His naked belly was a sagging little white pouch like an old man’s, though he was only in his early twenties, and, shame upon shame, his lower parts were smeared with fat, probably mixed with opium and henbane, wolfsbane and hemp. She prayed it was only animal fat. His pupils were black and dilated.
She could not speak. Almost unconsciously she held her arms out to him, her eyes blurring. Her son…
He regained composure of a sort; even smiled. ‘Who is this coming to the sacrifice?’ he slurred. ‘For Abraham, it was his son. For me, apparently it is my mother.’
She stood trembling, still speechless.
‘But you are no virgin, are you, mother?’
Finally she regained control of herself, and called to the eunuch at the door. ‘Bring more light!’ To the unseen slave in the darkness, she snapped, ‘And stop beating that wretched drum if you want to sleep tonight with the skin on your back.’
At that Valentinian went berserk.
‘I am God’s anointed, not her! Drum, slave! No light, no light, this act of darkness shall transpire in darkness! Snuff the candles, senators! “Render unto Caesar”, did not Christ say? Then render unto me, mother! Down on your knees!’ He tore off the flimsy silk cape. His nipples, too, were rimmed with kohl. ‘Render unto me, to me!’ His voice was a bestial shriek. He arched his skinny white chest towards her. Suddenly he was staring intently at her breasts, his lips curled back like a rabid dog’s, teeth bared, his gaze darting to her stricken face and back again, without embarrassment, his eyes glittering with maniac light. He leaned closer, almost touching her, teeth showing in a silent snarl, and Galla knew in that terrible moment what he wanted. His sick desire was to bite off the breasts that fed him, to lunge at the mother who still overshadowed him, and mutilate her into powerlessness.
She stepped back. She called him by the nickname he had as a little boy.
Slowly he came out of the nightmare, though his eyes still glittered and stared.
Then he twirled naked on the spot, apparently oblivious of his nakedness before her, and waved his willow thyrsus.
‘I do but jest, mother,’ he said gaily. He tossed his wand away and rubbed his hands together briskly, as if to free them from dirt. He looked down. ‘Call me Adam, for I am naked, yet not ashamed.’
Galla felt differently. ‘Bring his Majesty a robe,’ she snapped to the eunuch as she swept from the room.
The eunuch obeyed and went.
Galla lingered unseen in the shadows of the antechamber.
The eunuch returned with a clean linen robe. Following the emperor’s orders, he also brought a platter bearing a fieldmouse drowned in spring water, two moon beetles, fat from a virgin nanny goat, two ibis eggs, two drams of myrrh, four drams of Italian galingale and an onion. The slave recommenced drumming. Valentinian masturbated into a clay dish, pounded his semen together with these ingredients, poured in oil, and then sculpted a raw figurine with quivering fingers. Then he placed the figurine, a foul anthropic caricature stuck with eggshell and mouse-fur, before one of the grimy candelabra and raised his eyes ceilingwards.
‘I come announcing the blasphemy before heaven of Galla Placidia, that defiled and unholy woman. Take away her sleep, put a frenzied passion in her thoughts, and a burning heat in her soul. Make her mad before you destroy her, O gods.’
‘Having heard that,’ said Galla, ‘I departed.’
Aetius poured a small goblet of wine. Still she refused.
‘A general is not accustomed to having his orders refused,’ he murmured.
A risky strategy. She looked up. But then she smiled the faintest smile and took the goblet.
‘And no moon beetles drowned in it, either, I assure you.’
She drank and set the goblet down again. ‘My son is mad,’ she repeated. ‘He is emperor and he is mad. I do not understand the will of God.’
How tragic it had been, this flinty, green-eyed woman’s life. At least one, perhaps both, of her husbands murdered. Her daughter a slut, pregnant by her own chamberlain when still a girl, and even now still in confinement in the Palace of Hormisdas in the East. Galla never saw her. Instead she saw, daily, her son, who was an idiot, and a malevolent idiot at that.
Aetius said nothing. He would not lie, so there was nothing to say. The murder of any ruler was wrong. But there was this thin, world-weary care-worn woman sitting before him, whom in a way he did love. He had to remind himself that she was only a few years older than he was. They had grown old together, but she far faster than he. Life on the battlefield might be hard, but it was nothing like so hard as life at court. That friendless and airless world into which she had been born, a fetid world of backstabbings and complots, at whose heart she had remained out of sheer duty. No, he could not rebel against his emperor. And he could not kill this woman’s only son.
They drank more wine, toasting each other.
‘The peasant’s solution to all ills!’
They stepped outside.
Galla said, ‘I still do not understand why Theodosius is angry with us.’
‘It was Valentinian’s decision to attack the Huns, remember. The VIIth Legion carried it out. Attila attacked the VIIth Legion in return, and has destroyed it, if reports are correct. So of course Theodosius feels he is paying a terrible price for carrying out his cousin’s wishes. It was a brilliant stroke. The Huns have people working among us. As you have noted, Attila has attacked right at the border between the two empires. He is also playing havoc with communications – I do not yet understand how. I fear his grasp of intelligence is phenomenal.’
They stood in companionable silence and anxiety. The stars glimmered over the palace roofs. There was the sound of the trickling dolphin fountain in the courtyard, and the mesmeric hum of mosquitoes coming in from the marshes for the evening feed. Aetius slapped his forearm.
There were many things they could have said but sometimes it is better to say nothing. They stood together, looking out into the darkness with their thoughts: thoughts of decline and fall, of empires’ collapse; of how the manifest destiny of Rome seemed to have grown obscured almost to vanishing point in these latter days and years. Behind them they felt centuries of history, a weight both pleasant and unpleasant, comforting and burdensome; the gaze of many steadfast emperors upon them, Augustus, and Trajan, and Marcus Aurelius; Constantine the Great, of the House of the Flavians, direct forefather of Flavius Aetius; and Vespasian, too, that old soldier, who had his bust sculpted to show his laughter lines and his bald pate, and who liked to joke, ‘If you want to know whether the emperor is truly divine, ask the man who empties his chamber pot.’ He had even joked on his deathbed, saying sarcastically, ‘Good grief, I think I’m turning into a god!’ Not all Rome’s emperors had been mad with power.
Further off still, through distant mists of time, the stern, unflinching grey eyes of the old republic, which looked on the world and saw it clear, as it was, and were not dismayed. No Scipio or Cato had ever sought refuge in spells and charms. Now he and Galla and Theodosius were the last heirs of Rome. How would they be judged? What would their legacy be?
Down below, in his occult chamber, was the latest ruler of Rome, mad as the mist and snow. What swamps the Imperial Palace of Ravenna stood on, or was sinking into; swamps which no mere engineer could drain. What empire could find firm foundation in such base ooze, the sewage of dark centuries? In troubled times, end-times, people turn to strange cults and practices. Conscious of their ebbing power in the real world, they turn to fantasy power, and to beliefs and false enchantments that would shame a stronger man. Normality itself falls victim, and everywhere there is the triumph of pained uncertainty and panicked delusion.
And we sit and fester, brooded Aetius: Africa uncaptured, the empire slowly starving to death, and our offer of aid turned down by Theodosius, the scholar-emperor. Perhaps he was riding to war against the Huns even now, his head full of Homer’s hexameters. O Christ, our Saviour… Aetius thought of the Hun horses, their heads like bullock-heads, battering down men and walls in a ceaseless charge, men flying apart, lines of lightly armed Greek peltasts fleeing before their furious onslaught. In his dreams sometimes he saw those horses of the Asiatic steppes galloping down on him, screaming, their faceless riders lashing them forwards without mercy, their mouths curled back against the cruel bit, tongues lolling, the very teeth of those brute-headed horses smeared with blood… But one rider was not faceless. One rider’s face he knew of old.
TO THE HOLY CITY OF BYZANTIUM
Aetius could wait no longer for news of the great confrontation between Attila and the Eastern Field Army. It might be days yet, even weeks, and the thought of it made him horribly uneasy, with a prophetic unease.
‘I am very displeased,’ said Valentinian. His eyes were narrow and darting and dull with broken sleep and haunted dreams.
‘Neverthless, Majesty, I beg you will release me to sail east.’
‘And I am very mistrustful.’
Aetius said nothing.
‘You will take no legions, nor ships from Sicily.’
‘And what of those oafish Visigoth friends of yours? I said I would not have them on the soil of Italy.’
Aetius could have reminded Valentinian that his mother, Galla Placidia, had once been married to a certain Athaulf the Goth. But he thought better of it.
He said, ‘The Princes Theodoric and Torismond and their one thousand wolf-lords are stationed at Massilia, with their father’s blessing. They would not have sailed with me against their Germanic kinsmen the Vandals, of course. But they would willingly sail with me east to fight their ancient enemy the Huns.’
‘You’re welcome to them. Perhaps they will not return. ’
‘I still believe, Majesty, that the Visigoths might yet prove our greatest allies.’
Valentinian took a sudden, close interest in a loose thread in the hem of his robe.
Eventually, Aetius said, ‘Majesty?’
He looked up testily. ‘Yes, yes, go, then. But I may not want you back.’
Aetius almost smiled. Oh yes you will, he thought.
‘Take this,’ said Galla. She pressed a small, leather-bound book into his hands. It was a rich psaltery, most delicately illustrated.
He refused it. ‘Salt water,’ he said, ‘would ruin it.’
‘Then keep it well protected.’
‘And if we go to the bottom?’
There was a lost look in her eyes. Then she leaned up and kissed him. ‘Take it,’ she said.
He rode fast westwards to Mediolanum and on to Massilia, cursing Valentinian at every milepost. He took only his boy optio, Rufus, who chattered excitedly much of the way. How large is Constantinople? What is the food like? Do they still have gladiatorial combats there? Aetius told him Constantinople was much like Rome, except it didn’t smell so bad.
On the edge of the great port of Massilia he found the Visigothic princes in a fine villa, their wolf-lords’ tents spread across parklands, vineyards, half a hillside. The villa was half-wrecked, the adolescents dishevelled, red-faced and hung over from last night’s debauch. He gave them a talking-to. They hung their heads. He said he would be sailing on the evening tide and if they weren’t ready, prepared and sober, he would sail without them.
‘Sailing?’ said Torismond, looking anxious.
These steppe horsemen. ‘Don’t tell me you’ve never been on a ship before?’
They hadn’t. They thought they would be riding east, a thousand of them in gorgeous panoply, to fight the Huns on the Pannonian plain.
‘Nope. You’re sailing east to Constantinople, under my command. Just fifty of you and your horses. The rest of your wolf-lords can head back to Tolosa. There’ll be no more room aboard. Ship’s only small.’
Aetius commandeered two naval ships, a fast Liburnian, the Cygnus, and a round-bellied cargo ship which would do for a horse-transporter.
The two princes, the sons of Thunder, were there with their fifty as ordered.
‘Some in Massilia said we’ll never get through. They said the Vandals were the masters of your Mare Nostrum now,’ said Torismond.
Aetius eyed him. ‘By “some in Massilia”, I assume you mean a bunch of Cretan sailors, drunk in a whorehouse?’
Torismond said nothing.
‘We’ll get through,’ said Aetius.
The wind was steady but not strong enough to whip up too big a swell. Torismond and Theodoric both looked sea-green at times on that first day, but managed not to vomit. The horses were calm in the following transport ship.
How good it was to sail. To be moving towards some appointed destination at last. Aetius stood at the prow of the Cygnus, heart racing, thinking of all the glorious works and days of man. The lethal underwater ram surged forward through the low swell, the sea arching back over it in slow curls. Slaves strained at the oars down below the fly deck, great firwood oars kept white and smooth with pumice and the scouring salt-waves. Aetius could hear their leathery creak in the thole-pins, between the beats of the hortator ’s hammer on the drum. Just below him hung the iron anchor, dripping, still trailing weed from Massilia. The immense red-and-white-striped sail hung from the topspar, catching a strong north-westerly and bellying out in the wind. Salt spray dashed in his face, dried and crusted on his cheek. He inhaled deeply. Now that he had decided upon a course of action, there was no stopping him.
The princes came to him.
‘Sir,’ said the quietly spoken Theodoric respectfully, ‘we are only fifty. The Huns number many thousands.’
Aetius nodded. ‘Half a million, rumours say. When rumours give you numbers, always divide by ten.’
‘So they still outnumber us a thousand to one.’
‘You’re a Visigothic Pythagoras.’ Aetius grinned. ‘I’m not expecting you to defeat Attila on your own, boy.’ He cursed himself inwardly for calling the prince a boy, and vowed not to do it again. Theodoric was no boy. ‘Our first task is to… liaise with Emperor Theodosius, make our peace, offer him our services. We’ll wait for news of the Eastern Field Army, and be ready to move fast.’
‘You mean you expect their field army to be destroyed? ’
Aetius said nothing.
‘And their generals with it? So you’re going to have to take command?’
‘What, no fighting?’ cried Torismond.
Now he was still a boy. For him, fighting meant fun.
‘Oh, there’ll be fighting,’ said Aetius. ‘Never you worry.’
At twilight, the rowers stood down to eat and sleep, curled up like dogs beneath the benches, and the second batch took their place on the blistering oars. The hortator ’s relentless beat continued, his hourglass running. Master-General Aetius himself had given the order to make all speed for the east.
The second day the wind came on stronger, the light ship bucking and rearing. Cat’s claws raked over the surface of the sea, and spray flew back from bow-waves half the length of the ship. The huge sail, much repaired, snapped back and forth as the wind grew unsteady and they altered course to meet it. Behind them the sky was darkening over Gaul.
Aetius knelt down beside Torismond, who was sprawled on the deck beside the mainmast, clutching it in both arms, vomit staining a shirt-front finely embroidered by his beloved mother.
‘Storm coming,’ said Aetius cheerfully. ‘Summer storms are always the worst.’
A little cruel, but the plain truth. The lad would get inured to the sea either fast or not at all. His elder brother, meanwhile, Prince Theodoric, had donned his royal gold fillet, despite the sailors’ looks and muffled jeers, wearing it as if to remind the insolent sea of his royal blood and his direct descent from the divine Odin and Nerthus, the Earth Mother. He paced the length of the ship ceaselessly, jaw clenched, hands behind his back, a rigid regal bearing, saying nothing. As terrifed as his younger brother, clearly, but determined to master it. He was quite a fellow. One day he would be a great king.
Torismond looked ghastly.
Aetius said, ‘You really would rather face a whole army of screaming Huns, wouldn’t you?’
The prince nodded, still embracing the mainmast like his first love. ‘Christ, yes.’
The ship lurched sideways. He bowed his head.
‘Head up. Watch the horizon. Slow, deep breaths.’
Torismond struggled to comply.
‘You’ll have to let go of that, too. Sail coming in – look.’
‘Whoever. But I never saw any god come to rescue drowning sailors yet.’
They reefed the mainsail into the standing yard and tightened it. The wind still gusted hard into the reduced sail, the long, lean dromond lightening in the water, raised up, the rowers’ efforts almost superfluous, the ship doing eight, ten knots, a breathtaking speed. Aetius prayed for still more speed. Attila would not be slacking; that barbarian tide sweeping down across the East, to break upon the walls of the New Rome.
The big rudder swung across its breach, the master steadied it, the ship surged forward again, almost planing up the smooth obisidian back of one driven wave before crashing into the next, trying to outrace the approaching storm – hopeless, of course. The timbers creaked, and two rowers below were released for emergency caulking. The horse transporter lagged behind them, almost out of sight. Broader-beamed and heavier, she wallowed through the swell, making slower, steadier progress. The horses would survive.
A lonely black-backed gull passed overhead, heading inland for Italy, shelter from the storm. Aetius grimaced and threw his red woollen cloak about his shoulders. The wind began to whistle in the halyards and clewlines, and a fine rain slanted in from the west.
The ship’s master approached. ‘We could take shelter soon enough at Olbia. Going through the straits of Bonifacium in this wind will be dangerous.’
‘We go on through the straits, and never mind Olbia. We keep going. No shelter till we reach Syracuse.’
Attila would not be seeking shelter from any storms, nor slowing in his advance on Constantinople. Nor could they.
The master gave orders for the sail to be reefed in further, the rowers to row their hardest. The bosun bellowed, ‘Blister your butts and bust your guts if you want to escape a whipping and eat salt-meat tonight!’
Visibility was declining all the time. It was no more than two hundred yards when the lookout in his tiny crow’s-nest swaying from the mainmast said he could see land ahead to port. It was the dark and jagged outline of Corsica. Somewhere through the mist and mizzle to starboard, lay the gentler shape of Sardinia. Between them were the straits of Bonifacium.
The hortator doubled his beat and they rowed through the straits at the double, swift as an arrow cutting through the water. It was the only way to avoid being swept off course and onto the lethal submerged rocks around the islands. Eventually they came through, pulled round to the south-east, and felt the storm blowing up over the islands behind them. It wasn’t getting any better. The master looked once more enquiringly at Aetius, to see if he would allow them to take shelter. But he did not respond. He had given his last word. They would push on, through storm and surge, whatever.
The lookout was called down from the fighting-top: any worse and he’d be thrown clear into the sea and lost. He scrambled gratefully down. The sails were reefed right up into double swags from the yard, the bull’s-hide stormshields were shipped over the oarports, and the slaves down there, already soaked and salted like herrings in brine, rowed like furies before the storm. It was going to be a bad business, this one. The heavy pewter clouds seemed to suck in the sunlight. ‘Mare Nostrum’ indeed, thought Aetius sourly. Everything is against us now: the Huns, the Vandals, the sea…
Even Rufus, a good sailor, looked sea-green, hanging on the taffrail like a rag. From back in the mist there came a muffled crack. The boy stared in that direction, rolling on the balls of his feet with the ship, drool still hanging from his lips. Theodoric and Torismond were collapsed on their pallets below, filling buckets.
‘What is it, lad?’ said Aetius. He could see nothing.
The boy stared a while longer. ‘I thought I saw white horses,’ he said softly. ‘I don’t mean breaking waves, I mean… real white horses, swimming. Drowning.’
Aetius looked grim. Had they lost the horse-transporter? It was possible.
He sent an order to the master to kill the oars. The Cygnus slowed, then wallowed terribly in the heavy sea, groans arising from below. Aetius himself held onto a rail-post. The deck was rolling through ninety degrees, water sluicing back and forth across the boards. He strained to see or hear: nothing. They had to go back. Not for the horses – they could not save the horses even if they found them – but for the men.
They ploughed back a weary league against the sea, but found nothing. No sighting of the broad transporter, not a horse, not a single waving man.
They pulled round and went on. Rufus returned to hanging sickly from the taffrail.
‘Don’t tell the princes,’ Aetius instructed.
He himself returned to his station in the bucking prow, right arm tight round the jibmast. Standing face into the rain, praying to his god, gaunt on the poop deck: sleepless, grimfaced, hatless, windblown, Rome’s last believer.
At last the storm died away and visibility returned. No sign of the horse-transporter.
The princes came shakily up on deck and understood it was lost.
‘We’ll get more horses,’ Aetius promised, ‘fine Cappadocian horses.’
‘I hate the sea,’ murmured Torismond.
‘You might as well hate the Power that made it,’ said Aetius. ‘It is ignoble to hate a thing as great and implacable as nature.’
Torismond looked away.
They anchored at Syracuse, took on fresh water, sluiced out the lower decks, sold a couple of slaves who were as good as done for and bought a couple more. The princes tottered unsteadily down the gangplank for a walk round the harbour. Aetius forbade them to drink, saying they were under his command now. They didn’t look like they wanted a drink anyway.
The master brought him a squat, bearded fellow who was asking for passage east.
Aetius eyed him. ‘What for?’
‘I make for Alexandria, but I need to visit Constantinople first. I have two chests of… materials which I need to bring with me. With them, I will protect you against attacks by pirates.’
Aetius grinned broadly. ‘I have a retinue of fifty Gothic spearmen. I think we can look after ourselves.’
‘You do not know the Vandals.’
‘On the contrary, I know them well.’ He looked him up and down. ‘Name?’
‘Even worse. All Cretans are liars, beasts and gluttons, as Saint Paul himself has told us.’
Nicias snorted. ‘We Cretans have been living with that calumny for four centuries now.’
‘You’ll be living with it for centuries to come, too. Is it not the word of God?’
Nicias kept a stubborn silence. This general was too clever by half.
‘Very well. And what is in your magical chests?’
‘Materials – alchemical materials.’
‘God help us.’ Aetius saw the two princes returning.
‘You may take passage with us, but we neither want nor need your protection against pirates. Understood?’
The princes joined them, looking a little improved.
‘You will not get through, I tell you,’ said Nicias. ‘Vandal pirates infest the eastern seas.’
Prince Theodoric interrupted. ‘We Visigoths are no enemies of the Vandals. Our father is to marry our sister Amalasuntha to Genseric’s son himself.’
Nicias looked sardonic. ‘Pirates are no great respecters of treaties, son.’
‘We’re finished talking,’ Aetius snapped. ‘Now, bugger off.’
Nicias stumped away.
Aetius looked at Theodoric sharply. ‘Your sister? That pretty slip of a girl? To marry Genseric’s son?’
‘Then your father is a fool.’
The young man’s eyes blazed. ‘How dare you speak of my father like that!’
Prince Torismond took a step nearer Aetius. The general held his hands up. He had indeed overstepped the bounds of politeness. He apologised profusely. They relaxed.
‘But I will have to beg of your father-’
‘That is his policy. An alliance between the Visigoths and the Vandals, a Germanic empire in the West, neither friend nor enemy to Rome.’
Aetius shook his head. ‘The Vandals are already in alliance with the Huns. I know it in my bones. I will bring your father proof. That embittered, half-lame Genseric is playing him false.’
‘So you want to believe.’
‘So I do believe.’
‘The Vandals are your fellow Christians.’
‘Even the Devil himself believes in God,’ muttered Aetius.
They sailed on the small evening tide again. The storm had blown out, the sea was subsiding. It was peaceful. And too damn slow.
Aetius sent for Nicias. ‘Bring up your chest,’ he said. ‘Entertain us.’
The Cretan needed no second bidding. In a trice he scuttled down to the hold and got one of the sailors to help him up with his chest. He raised the lid and knelt down reverently, like a holy man before an altar.
The princes and the Gothic wolf-lords crowded along the rail to watch the show. The master and bosun craned from the wheelhouse to watch this great wonder-worker about his miracles, and the sun-bronzed sailors sat along the yard above, swinging bare feet, grinning, gold earrings winking in the sunset. Only the slaves below worked on unregarded.
Nicias rummaged, giving a running commentary. ‘My recipe combines essence of nitre, phosphorus, and refined black oil from Mesopotamia.’
‘Must make a right stench,’ grunted the master.
‘The odour is distinctive.’
‘And you better not set fire to my fuckin’ ship.’
The alchemist ignored this uncouth remark.
He drew out of his chest some wooden spars and an iron frame, and quickly assembled them into something like a miniature ballista. He set the machine on the deck beside the chest, and rapidly wound back a little brass winch. His audience was interested now, despite themselves. Even Aetius kept his grey eyes fixed steadily on the proceedings.
Nicias produced a small ball from his chest, holding it between forefinger and thumb, and showed it around like a huckster in the market-place trying to sell off a rare egg. It was a perfect iron sphere, studded all round with sharp spikes, rather like a caltrop thrown out to stop cavalry. Nicias set the sphere down at the end of his little ballista, turned a brass knob at the side one half-turn, and was ready to fire.
‘Hold,’ said Aetius. ‘There are dolphins out there. Look.’
Breaking the surface of the burnished sea, between them and the falling sun, there were dark, glossy shapes arcing and curvetting through the water in the wake of the ship, some fifty yards off.
‘All the better!’ said the little alchemist excitedly, turning his machine aft. The onlookers stepped back warily. ‘I will use them as my targets. I will show you what becomes of mortal flesh when one of my devices…’
Aetius turned his head very slowly and regarded him. Nicias quailed and his voice trailed away.
‘Dolphins were sacred to Apollo once,’ said Aetius, ‘in the old days, under the old religion.’
‘But good to eat?’
‘Indeed they are. But not for us to slaughter for mere amusement, like foxes in a hencoop.’
There was a moment of awkward silence, and then Nicias said, speaking very quickly, ‘Very well, then, let us assume… let us imagine that out there is a ship, straight to port, an imaginary ship, a boat, upon the sea, an enemy vessel, which we needs must destroy, we must-’
‘Enough talking,’ said Aetius. ‘Just show us.’
Nicias aimed his machine out across the water and loosed a lever. The tiny machine gave a crack of astonishing power, and the spiked ball whirred out on a flat trajectory straight over the waves, bouncing and cutting into the water as it went. It travelled for over two hundred yards.
Nicias looked around excitedly. ‘Do you see? This whirling caltrop of my own device, even in miniature, skims across the surface of the sea like a stone thown by a boy. But imagine what it would do in a bigger machine, built to scale, cutting across the canvas of an enemy sail. Tear it to shreds! Or to the deckboards over the heads of enemy rowers. It could tear up the planks, if it were big enough. Imagine the rowers below, thinking themselves safe from missiles beneath their awnings of hardened leather, suddenly blinking and terrified, exposed like helpless animals in their burrows. What power! We could destroy them utterly, from afar, without ever having even to engage. We could slaughter them at will.’
Prince Torismond glanced round at Aetius. He said nothing.
‘Now,’ continued Nicias, ‘this is not all.’ Taking another iron sphere he grasped it carefully and unscrewed it into two perfect halves. He took a thick glass flask from the chest and poured some greyish powder into one half. He laid a thin circular wafer of leather over the powder, and then poured over it a dark treacle. ‘The ingenuity of the chemists of Alexandria and Antioch truly knows no bounds,’ he commented excitedly. ‘Prepare to be amazed. For I give you a fire that continues to burn in water, a sticky fire which can gum itself to a boat’s wooden hull and burn perpetually, and which no number of water-buckets can extinguish.’ Near the wheelhouse, the master stirred uneasily. ‘Imagine if such a fire stuck to your arm. You cannot imagine the screams if you have not heard them. Men leap into the water, burning alive.’
Some wondered how Nicias knew this, and feared for the fate of any condemned prisoners in Alexandria who might have been passed his way for experimentation. He quickly screwed the iron ball back together again and set it into the shoot on his ballista. They noticed that his expression had grown markedly more nervous, and stepped back.
‘Now,’ he said, eyes gleaming, mouth working, ‘consider this!’
It was unclear quite what happened next, but there was a tremendous explosion of flame and noise, a sparking cloud of smoke, and bellowing from Nicias in the heart of it. When the smoke cleared, the alchemist was still kneeling beside his charred chest, the skin on his face and one arm burned hairless and red, and the little ballista had vanished.
The deck was on fire, but, miraculously, no one else was hurt.
‘Hm,’ said Aetius, coming forward. ‘Needs working on, I think.’
The master was roaring for buckets to be lowered and the fire to be put out, but the sailors were already letting out ropes.
Aetius helped the dazed alchemist to his feet.
‘Now,’ he said, ‘take your box of tricks back below, and don’t let me ever see it on deck again. If I do, it goes into the water – and you follow it.’ He kicked the chest lid shut. ‘And get some vinegar on those burns.’
The fire on deck sizzled out. Mercifully, Nicias’ incendiary invention had not yet been perfected. Many there prayed that it never would.
THE SHARK AND THE DRAGON
Three days on, they had passed several cargo ships plying the busy sea routes between Syracuse, Nicopolis, Alexandria, Antioch, Rhodes, Thessalonika. They hailed them and asked for news of pirates, and the cargomen shook their heads and said they had encountered nothing…
‘Alexander the Great once captured a pirate,’ said Prince Torismond. ‘The King demanded, “How dare you molest the seas?” “In the same way that you dare molest the earth,” said the pirate. “I molest the seas in one small ship and I’m called a pirate. If I did so with a great navy, I’d be called an emperor.”’ The prince grinned broadly. ‘That’s philosophy, that is. For what are kingdoms but great bands of brigands?’
‘Very good,’ said Aetius dryly. ‘Now define “sophistry”. ’
On the fourth morning, serenely sailing a calm sea in a gentle north-westerly, coming gradually round to north into the Aegean and losing sailpower, inshore of the isle of Melos, they saw a lone ship near the northern horizon; she was coming their way. After maybe half an hour she had come much closer, though set on a course astern of theirs. She had a big, faded sail which might once have been black but was now a light, streaked grey. One of those battered, barnacled ships that show their sailors are poor and harmless. Then she turned and came towards them with surprising swiftness, and they realised that these sailors were not of the poor and harmless variety, but contemptuous of such menial chores of maintenance as scouring a ship’s decks or keeping a trim sail. Such tasks are for slaves. These were the kind of sailors who, if their ship began to split at the seams, would simply scuttle her and take another. Meanwhile, this one was of that variety which is scruffy, grimy, and very, very fast.
Rufus stood nearby. ‘Sir, you see the other ship, too? There on the horizon?’
Aetius squinted. Damn the boy. He could see nothing. ‘Describe.’
‘Another dromond. Seems to be turning bow-on towards us… sail bellying out.’
And the wind was with them. The nearer ship was now a mile off, less. She would close on them in a few minutes.
‘We could turn south with the wind and try to outrun them – maybe reach Crete.’
Aetius did not even consider such an option.
‘Hortator, double that drum! Break your backs down there, slaves! All spearmen below the fly deck, half a side, and keep yourselves out of sight till I give the word. Bring my sword up, boy. Princes Theodoric and Torismond, to me on the poop deck – bring a few bowmen. Master, keep a steady course east. Give ’em the sun in their eyes if they try to come in behind or portside. No, you bearded Cretan loon, get below! We want none of your wretched fire-balls now. We’ll call you when the fight is over.’
The princes and their best men soon appeared on deck, buckled and helmed. Aetius’ eyes narrowed at the helmet that adorned Prince Theodoric’s blond locks.
‘What in the name of Lucifer have you got on your head?’
The rest of the wolf-lords, and Torismond, wore plain enough Spangenhelms, tall domed helmets reinforced with crossbands of iron or bronze. Theodoric, however, wore a helmet set with studs of coloured glass which gleamed from the highly polished bronze. He removed it again, looking displeased.
‘It’s an inheritance of my family, always worn by the eldest son in battle.’
Aetius took it from him without asking. ‘Very pretty it looks, too. These glass settings will really help an enemy blade get a purchase with a downard blow. Cut straight in. Very handy. Why not just take off your helmet and offer him your scalp? On your knees?’
Theodoric looked sullen.
‘This is no fighting helmet, boy.’ He handed it back. ‘Get yourself a plain iron-hat with crossbands like the rest of your men.’
‘What should I do with this?’
‘That?’ Aetius grimaced. ‘You can give it to your granny as a pot to piss in, for all I care. We’re not playing toy soldiers now.’
Torismond stifled his giggles. Theodoric returned below.
The rowers were tired and aching after two weeks at the oar, but now was the time they would have to work hardest. The wind dropped further but still the silent dromonds came on. Suddenly it seemed a cruel, flat-calm, malevolent and glittering sea. ‘Wine-dark’ indeed, thought Aetius, clutching the stern-post, watching the bosun haul the big rudder round, feeling the wind desert them. Blood-dark, more like. ‘Wine-dark’ was Homer’s lyrical view of it. Blind Homer.
The nearing vessel had a single bank of oars and a mainsail, like the Cygnus, but it boasted high parapets and a solid raised deck over the rowers to protect them from incoming missiles.
The master turned to Aetius in consternation. ‘They’ll destroy us in a missile exchange. They stand much higher, as does their sister ship coming in there.’
‘Thank God it’s no battle group,’ muttered Aetius.
‘There may be squadrons in the area,’ said the master. ‘You heard what they did on the island of Zakynthos? Sent back sackfuls of heads to their king, Genseric.’
‘We’re going to Constantinople. We have business there. I trust our rowers can still get up to ramming speed?’
‘Ramming?’ growled the master. ‘You’re crazy.’
Aetius grinned, allowing him the impertinence. He knew the score. The stately, high-sided galleys of old were always vulnerable to ramming by low, skimming Liburnians and dromonds. But those sleek wolf-ships were very vulnerable to having a huge boulder dropped onto their hull, holing them instantly. Naval warfare by dromond and Liburnian nowadays was all about keeping your distance and shooting missiles, bolts, fire-arrows – those accursed fire-pots of Alexandria. Only a madman would still practise ramming as a tactic.
‘Prepare for ramming,’ he confirmed. ‘But let ’em come in close first.’
‘Then there won’t be enough distance to get up to speed.’
Aetius did not repeat orders.
‘You think like an old legionary,’ said Prince Theodoric quietly, having overcome his sulks about the helmet.
Aetius frowned. ‘Meaning?’
Thedoric looked at him respectfully but without fear. ‘Meaning, you want to get up close to your enemy, engage face to face, looking him in the eye, and stab him in the guts with your old-fashioned gladius. You think that’s how a true-hearted man fights, and you think to do the same at sea. You want to ram and hole this pair beneath the waterline, right up close. But there are two of them, and they stand higher than us. Ram one and you will get stuck yourself. The other will come alongside and we’ll be attacked on two fronts. Each pirate ship probably carries a hundred cutthroats. My wolf-lords are valiant beyond words, but they are not superhuman. They will all be destroyed.’ The young prince braced his shoulders. ‘And I will not have them destroyed.’
This haughty, blue-eyed prince in his gold-fillet, an unsalted adolescent, offering criticism of his naval tactics…? But Aetius quelled his indignation. ‘Trust me,’ he said.
The second ship was a mile or two off now, moving in close astern. They were to be surrounded, as expected. But the Cygnus would surprise them. Never do the expected. Alchemical Alexandrian fripperies won no battles, but rather courage, discipline, and a dash of the wholly unexpected. Aetius grinned. It was good to be fighting again.
Before boarding at Massilia he had ordered a big grappling-iron and a couple of boarding-planks from the naval stores. Now he commanded them to be brought up and laid at the stern of the ship, the grappling-iron roped.
‘The stern? But we’re ramming at the bow!’
‘Just follow orders, sailor.’ He went below.
They were magnificent men but they looked terrified, these Gothic spearmen, sea-green and shaky. The massive clunk of the ram, the sounds of battle at sea, would terrify them. They were fine and powerful, but barbarian and undisciplined. Today they might die, here in these salt wastes far from home. How could a sea death be a heroic death? Food for fish. It was not the Visigothic way. They looked to their princes and this commander, this Aetius, the Roman beloved of King Theodoric, and saw that he did not have the aura of death about him today.
Prince Torismond appeared beside Aetius.
‘Trust me,’ said the general again. ‘Consider the regard I have for your father. There is no Christian king finer, and you are his sons. You are in my care.’ Would that King Theodoric cared so much for his daughter, he thought bitterly.
Torismond looked a little reassured.
He sent further orders to the master. ‘Unchain the slaves now. The instant we ram, pull them back from below. You understand? To the stern. Shift the ballast to the bows. Our foredeck will soon be smashed in from above by pirate missiles. Keep the wolf-lords hidden until the moment I give the order. And ready your sailors to throw out the grappling-iron.’
‘The second ship,’ said Aetius patiently.
‘How do you know she’ll come anywhere near?’
‘She’ll come. Hook her in, then throw out the boarding-planks.’
The pirates must have been flogging their enslaved rowers nearly to death, their vessels came on so fast. The first was only half a mile off now, the second still two or three miles off but closing fast.
‘Pull us up to full speed.’
‘We can’t outrun them.’ The master was right. The first pirate ship was already turning, ready to cut across their bows.
‘I don’t intend to outrun them. I intend to engage them.’
The rowers were driven harder.
From the nearing enemy ship, a couple of exploratory arrows came over the water but fell short. At the prow they could see her captain, narrowing his eyes. Very tall and whip-thin, with long, lank hair, bleached fair in sea and sun. He was naked but for a thick gold torc round his neck, torn breeches and a wide sword-belt, sword bare in his hand. More of his cutthroats sat along the yardarm with bows and arrows.
The Cygnus surged forward steadily, the pirate ship inexorably gaining on her, curving in tight. Away to their right was the little sunlit island of Melos. The Visigothic spearmen crouched below, beside the unchained slaves. The two ships closed slowly, amid the vast serenity of the sea.
Not taking his eyes from the enemy ship for one second, Aetius said to the brothers beside him, ‘You can swim, can’t you?’
They shook their heads miserably.
‘Then today you might have to learn – either that or make sure we don’t go down. Order your wolf-lords well.’
As she closed, they could see the pirate ship better: the Draco, with a saurian red dragon painted along the boards. Rufus squinted across to the second ship, which was giving them a wide berth, coming in astern; her prow was scratched with crude runes.
‘The Vandal tongue,’ said Aetius.
‘It looks like “ Halfish ” or something.’
‘Haifisch – the Shark.’ He roared below, ‘Wolf-lords at the ready!’
The master looked deeply unhappy.
Suddenly the Draco hauled round, her oars digging into the backwash, and came broadside on to this helpless fleeing merchant ship, blocking her off.
‘These pirates must be just out of school,’ murmured Aetius. ‘Ramming speed – now!’
Immediately the hortator ’s drum below accelerated into a furious rhythm, and the bosun’s lash whipped through the fetid air below. The slaves hauled on their oars, blistered and bleeding hands straining in one last effort, and the Cygnus surged forwards, straight towards the Draco.
The pirates stared at the oncoming ship, dumbfounded. The Haifisch altered course again to keep up with it.
‘That’s it,’ muttered one old hand. ‘We’re finished now. Good as sunk.’
‘Correct,’ said Aetius, arms folded, smiling. He strode to the stern and dropped down. The wolf-lords sat crammed along the sides of the underdeck clutching their spears in their huge hands, yet looking like men about to go into arena naked and unarmed, or to their execution. Aetius nodded to them. He told them not to be afraid. He told them their one hope of survival now, and it was a good one. ‘Lay aside your ashwood spears,’ he said. ‘This is close-up sword-work.’ He explained what they must do. ‘Imagine you’re taking a castle,’ he said. ‘If you fail to take it, you drown. We all drown – food for the circling Haifisch.’
The wolf-lords drew their swords.
The pirate ship wallowed and struggled, trying to turn again from this impossibly belligerent prey, even as her ragged archers let loose their arrows onto the exposed decks but hit nothing. The Cygnus’ bronze-headed ram, more decoration than weapon of war these days, drove on through the water like some terrible sea serpent, white ripples curling back over its length. The master bellowed down below, the lash flailed. They were but fifty yards off, thirty, twenty… The pirate ship staggered and lurched as they slammed into her amidships with a terrible splintering crash. It wasn’t top ramming-speed but it was enough. The ramhead punched straight through the bulwarks of the astonished Draco, and the sea began to pour in.
It was a pact of mutually assured destruction. Immediately, the enraged pirates began to lever huge missiles, boulders and lumps of lead up over the high sides of the wounded Draco and drop them onto the decks of the pestilent prey below. One went straight through the oak deck and into the shivering rowing-hold beneath. But the master had followed Aetius’ orders to the letter: the unchained slaves were already pulled back from their rowing benches. The timbers were smashed but no men were hurt. The wooden walls of that narrow world began to collapse and the dark waters surged in.
Torismond had a vision of the ship, a puny raft of life afloat on a black and infinite abyss, full of death, of creatures unknown, spawn of moonlight and black night. And this raft was being smashed to splinters beneath them. It was insanity. They would all die. But Aetius had said to trust him. Very well. He drew his sword. War’s no sorcery, and bravery alone wins battles. That was Aetius’ creed, as the prince was learning. Like his loyalties, and his haircut, hopelessly old-fashioned.
The Haifisch was drawing behind them, determined to avenge the damage to her sister ship.
‘Loyalty among pirates,’ sneered Aetius. ‘Wonders are many! Throw out the grappling-iron!’
The great barnacled claw rang hard upon the Haifisch ’s sides and then fell back into the water. Instantly the sailors hauled it up and threw it out again. Theodoric needed no instruction to give them covering fire as surprised pirate archers tried to hit them. His own close band of half a dozen Visigothic archers returned far more aggressive fire, and the pirates ducked behind their bulwarks, as surprised as the crew of the Draco at this unexpected belligerence. They were supposed to be taking prey. Now the prey was taking them.
The grappling-iron flew spinning out again, slipped against the planking and then one barbed tine dropped and stuck hard over the lip of an oar-port. Perfect. Too low for a pirate to sweep down a sword-blade to cut it away, even if any dared brave the Visigothic arrows. Already the pirates were beginning to wonder if loyalty to their sister ship was such a good idea. There was only a handful of archers on this enemy ship, plus that hard-faced Roman commander in his red cloak, who’d fetch a good ransom if taken alive. But still, the pirates felt ill-omened. One of them was already nursing an arm struck with a white-feathered arrow. There was something they hadn’t understood today.
A pirate stood up and loosed a javelin towards a sailor, but the nimble Libyan skipped aside and it stuck quivering in the deck. He pulled it free and lobbed it back. Not a serious throw, but the pirate ducked back smartly, cursing.
‘Haul in!’ roared Aetius.
The sailors set their callused bare feet against the boards of the Cygnus and obeyed. Slowly, very slowly, the Haifisch began to drift in helplessly, broadside on. There was an angry cry from above, an order or warning from its captain. But it was too late.
There came another monstrous crash from the bows. The Cygnus’ splintered deck was holed again, and the mainmast began to lean forward. Water was flooding in below, floating the ballast of sand barrels. The ship groaned and began to tilt sickeningly forwards. The mainmast creaked ominously.
‘Haul for your lives if you’d live to see tomorrow!’ bellowed Aetius. Soon the Haifisch jolted against the poop of the Cygnus, which was raised up by the counterweight of the water pouring into her bows.
Raised up. Nearer and nearer to the high parapet of the pirate ship. The master breathed out slowly, his bafflement and fear at last turning into something else. The timbers of his beloved Cygnus were creaking and screaming, the poor vessel tearing herself apart at the seams, yet serving in her very death throes as an unexpected siege-engine for boarding the hooked Shark at their rear. He felt a surge of hope, and sudden admiration for this obdurate Aetius. Master-General of the West, was he? Then maybe the West was in good hands.
‘More ballast to the fore!’
A crazy order on a sinking ship under assault, but now the master understood. A couple of lithe, sun-blackened sailors scrambled below, leaping over the straining line of the grappling-rope and rolling the last barrels down the steepening incline of the lower deck. The prow sank further in the water, the ram stuck into the belly of the Draco grinding her down into the depths with it. The poop deck rose further.
Aetius grinned at the princes. ‘Think your wolf-lords can vault that now?’
Theodoric nodded. ‘No problem.’
‘Then take it.’
‘Wolf-lords!’ The old Gothic war-cry.
The magnificent warriors, needing no second bidding to escape the fetid and drowning darkness, driven by a powerful mix of fear and battle-fury, came buckled and armoured up the steps at a run, shining blades in hand. The pirates looked down in shock at this erupting tide of red cloaks and straw-coloured plumes. What in Hell’s name had they taken on? This was no ordinary ship. They would be lucky to escape with their lives.
With the ships locked together in their fatal embrace, the crew of the Draco had fallen silent and inactive. At the appearance of the wolf-lords, however, they realised that the battle was on to take charge of the Haifisch, the only seaworthy ship left of the three. In an instant they were swarming over the sides of their own listing vessel and dropping down onto the foredeck of the Cygnus, now almost at water level. They tried to fight their way up, but the deck was slippery and sloped against them. Another foresight of Aetius’. As they scrambled up, they were met by three men with drawn swords, two fair-headed adolescents and an older, grey-haired fellow with a certain look in his eyes which suggested he’d seen battle before. Soon the decks were more slippery still with Vandal blood. For a few seconds Aetius, Torismond and Theodoric manned this second front alone, swords sweeping and thrusting, cutting down the oncoming pirates with ruthless despatch, letting the slain fall back into their scrambling comrades. Then the Visigothic archers loosed arrows in from the sides, and the pirates of the Draco knew the day was lost along with their ship. Now they understood very well the temper of those they had so foolishly chosen to attack this bright summer’s day. There was nothing left for it. They threw themselves into the sea.
The handful of scrawny pirates on the Haifisch were similarly outfought. Accustomed to taking harmless passenger vessels for kidnap and ransom, or fat, wallowing cargo ships laden with amphorae of oil and wine, they were stricken helpless. No match for the fifty Gothic wolf-lords vaulting in over the high bulwarks, swords drawn, teeth bared, long hair flying. There was hardly a fight to be had, to the wolf-lords’ considerable disappointment. Though unable to swim, like most sailors, who superstitiously regard the skill as a kind of temptation to fate, the second crew, too, gave themselves up to the dark, still waters of the Aegean. Any who lingered were swiftly cut to pieces, their lifeless bodies following into the foaming pink brine.
There came a strange sound from behind, like the bubbling of a drain in a rainstorm, though far greater, more sonorous. The rumbling of some vast and nameless sea creature, perhaps. It was the Cygnus at last going down, joined prow to broadside with the Draco in fatal embrace. The masts of the two ships collapsed into each other like tired lovers. The timbers creaked, the decks were washed and swamped. From below decks on the Draco, anguished cries: the pirates had not troubled to unchain their oar-slaves. And then, amid the cries of terror and lamentation, cries of desperate hope.
Aetius glanced around. Torismond had vanished.
The slaves of the Cygnus, meanwhile, were swarming after the Gothic swordsmen to the safety of the abandoned Haifisch. Then came the sailors, then Aetius and Theodoric, and finally the master himself, kneeling only to kiss the decks of his dying ship in time-honoured tradition, before abandoning her to the seas.
Slaves were emerging above deck on the half-drowned Draco and rolling over into the water. Theodoric watched anxiously.
‘Neither you nor your brother can swim, you say?’ said Aetius.
Theodoric could not speak.
‘He’s going to have to learn today.’
The sailors pulled up the last of the boarding planks, and the little Libyan scrambled down the side of the ship, holding on by one hand and with the other slashing through the grappling-rope that still tied them to the drowning ships.
Aetius nodded admiringly. ‘If you weren’t just a common sailor, I’d recommend you for promotion.’
The sailor flashed a white-toothed smile. ‘A gold solidus will do instead, my lord.’
Aetius regarded him steadily. Then he slipped a hand inside his cloak and produced a big gold coin. He glanced down. It showed Valentinian himself, the martial emperor, dragging a barbarian by the hair. Around the rim it read, ‘Unconquered Eternal Rome, Salvation of the World.’ He flicked his wrist and the gold coin arced and flashed in the air and the sailor caught it.
‘Don’t believe all you read on it, though,’ muttered Aetius.
At the prow of their fine new ship, a less than happy sound: Nicias wailing for his vanished alchemical chests.
‘Shame,’ murmured Aetius.
And last of all, paddling through the water like a puppy, breathless and ungainly but not actually choking or drowning, Prince Torismond, Saviour of Slaves. Theodoric threw out a line and hauled him up. After that, the slaves of the Draco came scrambling aboard the heavily laden Haifisch as well.
‘This is going to slow us up,’ grumbled Aetius.
‘We’ll sell ’em at the next port,’ said Torismond, his eyes glittering excitedly. He shook the saltwater from his hair, thrilled to have braved the sea and survived.
‘And spend all the proceeds on wine and girls, I suppose? ’
The brothers just laughed.
They watched the two ships go down amid huge, slow bubbles. Further off, what pirates were still afloat circled, exhausted, or clung to broken spars. Aetius ranged over them until he settled on the long, pitiless, expressionless face of the captain. He pointed him out to one of the Visigothic archers. The captain gazed steadily back, not moving, his pale hair plastered to his gaunt cheeks, his pale blue eyes fixed on Aetius, his lips moving with the words of some ancient curse. The archer lined up his arrow and fired, and the arrowhead hit him between the eyes. His head sank back, his arms floated out beside him, and they left him there gazing heavenwards, his mouth still open, the words of the curse still on his salt-white lips.
Some of the other pirates had begun to swim towards the captured Haifisch, their last hope, but at this they realised they would be speared in the water.
Aetius sent the lookout up to the fighting-top.
The lookout pointed in a direction just south of the sun. Aetius vaulted up onto the flydeck and called to the swimmers across the water, twenty or thirty soaked and bobbing heads, ‘Be thankful we haven’t slaughtered you in the water, as you deserve!’
The swimmers listened, agony on their faces.
‘You might drown. You might fatten a few sharks. What does that matter to us? But if you swim that way,’ Aetius flung his right arm out – ‘just south of the sun as it stands now, you just might make landfall. Let God decide.’
One struggling novice swimmer cried out, ‘How far is that?’
‘Maybe ten miles.’
Rufus murmured something. Aetius squinted again towards the horizon but could still see nothing. The lad’s younger eyes had seen it, though. ‘Maybe less,’ he called out again. ‘Maybe only six or seven.’
‘We’ll drown!’ they cried. ‘You are condemning us to death!’
‘On the contrary, I am leaving you to death – which you deserve – knowing that there is a small chance you may be reprieved. You’re in God’s hands. It’s a good, flat calm. The sun is shining. There’s blood in the water around you, and plenty of sharks nearby. You’d better start kicking.
‘Hortator! Sound the drum!’
In the silence, the slow, renewed dip of oars, the gentle splash, and the low Liburnian began to move eastwards through the small waves again, the water breaking in no more than a silver trickle round her bows. The wretched pirates watched the Haifisch depart, a sailor on board already reaching down to scrub out the barbaric name and paint over it afresh: Cygnus II. It had all happened with such startling speed, such ruthless efficiency. Then some of the more optimistic souls turned in the water, pushed their spars ahead of them and began to kick.
The master shook his head. ‘Caesar had his pirates crucified.’
Aetius grunted. ‘Caesar was a greater man than I.’
Torismond sold his slaves at Thessalonika. Aetius resented the loss of even those two hours, but there was no food or water left on board for them. The prince netted a bag of thirty solidi.
He grinned. ‘Quite a catch.’
‘And behold, I shall make you fishers of men,’ said his brother sardonically, eyeing the weighty leather bag. ‘Not quite what Christ intended though, I think?’
Aetius roared with laughter.
It was quite a pleasant voyage after that.
I, Priscus of Panium, heard of his arrival and rushed down to the Harbour of Julian to meet him.
He smiled at me. ‘And who might you be, old man? An aged mendicant, supplicating for alms?’ He laid his hand on my shoulder. ‘Let us talk later. I must speak to the emperor even more urgently than to my old tutor.’
‘Divine Majesty. Master-General Aetius requests an audience. ’
There was a pause and a fumbling, while Theodosius seated himself upon his gilded wooden throne, and then he was admitted to the imperial presence.
‘Aetius. So far from home.’ His voice was as frosty as a Pontic winter, with a wind blowing down out of Scythia.
‘Majesty.’ He knelt and kissed the hem of the imperial robe in formal adoratio, privately detesting the gesture, and stood again swiftly. ‘You have still no news from the field army under General Aspar?’
Startled to find himself so abruptly questioned by a mere soldier, even if he was a general, Theodosius heard himself stammering, ‘They – they have not yet engaged, no.’
‘And it is true about the VIIth at Viminacium? Entirely destroyed?’
‘Such was the judgement of God. Also… also Ratiaria, downriver. That, too, has been overrun by these wretched Huns.’
‘ Ratiaria, too? Already? The III Pannonia? How many men did that number? And the weapons factories?’
The emperor could not look him directly in the eye, those limpid grey eyes. He surveyed the mosaics on the wall to his left, desperately hoping to radiate the regal serenity of God’s viceroy upon earth. ‘The III Pannonia, too, is destroyed, and the weapons factories are now in enemy hands.’
Attila. He knew. Now he had ownership of the most important armaments factories in the East. He knew.
‘Then I come to offer you urgent military assistance. I have cohorts remaining from the Ist at Brigetio, from the IInd at Aquincum, the XVIth at Carnuntum, the IVth Scythica at Singidunum. I know all are well trained – I appointed their legates personally. I could pull them back from the Danube frontier and attack Attila’s flank as he rides south on Naissus.’
‘And if Attila should turn on the West?’
‘Attila will turn on the West. But not yet. He will wish to neutralise the East first.’
The master-general spoke with such energy and conviction, as if he had been waiting all his life for this moment, this final confrontation. Theodosius understood then, with distaste, that Aetius actually enjoyed all this… this war business. It gave him his sense of purpose and destiny.
‘More importantly,’ resumed Aetius, ‘I have – with the Emperor Valentinian’s permission, of course – the core of the Western Field Army still stationed in Sicily, waiting for orders to sail for Africa. Two thousand horses and twenty thousand men, in peak condition, under command of my good general Germanus.’
Theodosius turned aside and touched a handsome polished wooden cabinet as if for reassurance. ‘And why should I trust you in bringing such a powerful force into the heart of our domain?’
‘We are not wholly ignorant, Master-General Aetius – despite the fact that we are known for our love of learning, ’ he added sarcastically.
‘I sense mistrust.’
‘You sense aright.’
‘Then let me speak plainly. Your enemy is Attila, King of the Huns, and none other. Not your cousin Valentinian, nor Galla Placidia, nor I. Do not look for your enemy among your own. Your enemy is far cleverer and more ruthless than any of us. He is also cleverer than you, Majesty, though he has read fewer books.’
The emperor compressed his lips and stared hard and unblinkingly at Aetius. What he saw before him, though he was no great judge of men, was a blunt and unlikeable soldier, without learning, refinement or even common courtesy; but an honest man, for all that.
‘We have learned,’ he said, ‘that there were detachments from the Herculian Legion fighting alongside the Huns at Viminacium.’
‘Bogus! Do not believe it!’ Aetius smacked his fist into his palm, his eyes burning, and began pacing the room impertinently. ‘I knew it!’ he said with peculiar exaltation. ‘The fight has already begun! The fight of intelligence.’ He wheeled on the emperor and barked at him as if he was one of his lieutenants. ‘Who brought you this information? ’
Theodosius had already lost his chilly composure, despite himself. ‘My… my chamberlain. One Py-’
‘Search his room.’
Theodosius hesitated, then spoke to a steward.
Aetius continued pacing; it was most disconcerting. He snapped at another steward to bring him a map. The steward fled.
‘You said Naissus?’ said the emperor with some puzzlement. ‘But Attila will be destroyed by the field army before he rides down on Naissus.’
‘Well,’ said Aetius, inclining his head, ‘just suppose that he is not. Heaven forfend that so great a disaster should befall, of course, Your Majesty, but we must prepare for even the darkest eventuality.’
‘God is with us.’
‘I don’t doubt it. But “Trust in God, and keep a good hold on your sword,” my father, Gaudentius, always said.’
Theodosius crossed himself. ‘Ever since we heard of the fall of Viminacium, the bishops and people have given themselves up to ceaseless intercessions to the Holy Mother.’
‘Good, good,’ said the uncultivated general, pacing about, his hands clasped behind his back, clearly not listening. The steward returned, trembling like a rabbit, and laid the map on the marble-inlaid table. Aetius took one glance at it and turned to bellow at him. ‘Not a map of the city, you arse, a map of the empire – from here to the Danube! At the double!’
Again the steward fled.
‘He is not a soldier in your command,’ protested the emperor.
‘Damn right he’s not, he’s too bloody useless.’
Theodosius rose to his feet, his eyes burning with indignation. Tall, though of feeble build, he suddenly appeared a much more imposing figure.
‘Master-General Aetius, you forget yourself,’ he said crisply. ‘Soldierly braggadocio is all very well in the barracks, but you stand now before an emperor. I suggest you remember that if you truly want to help.’
Aetius was chastened. He treated Valentinian with respect and circumspection because he was so dangerous. But Theodosius deserved respect, too. He was not such a fool as some said, and his heart was good. They must work together.
‘Majesty,’ he said with bowed head.
The trembling steward returned and laid out a far larger map.
Theodosius indicated Naissus. ‘And after this?’
Aetius traced a line south, down the great imperial trunk road towards Constantinople. ‘He’ll be after the imperial stud farms of Thrace, too. You should send men out to round up the horses and drive them south, across to Asia if need be. We can’t let Attila get his hands on them.’
Theodosius looked puzzled. ‘A horde of thieving horse-rustlers are going to ride up against the walls built by my grandfather, Theodosius the Great? Ridiculous. Our walls are impregnable. All the world knows that.’
‘Attila’s ambition knows no bounds. And they now have siegecraft. Let me fall on their flanks, here.’ He jabbed the map. ‘We could ride through the mountains. If we met them there we would do great harm. Do you still have your Isaurian auxiliaries?’
The emperor nodded. ‘At Trajanopolis.’
The Isaurians were little more than Anatolian bandits, but skilled at mountain warfare.
‘The Huns have little understanding of mountains,’ said Aetius, ‘where all their speed will be useless to them. They are plains nomads only.’
‘You still imply that the field army… will be defeated by this horde of transient looters, without law or reason. Ridiculous! Never before has this happened.’
Aetius spoke one painful word: ‘Adrianople?’
The emperor compressed his lips.
‘Besides,’ added Aetius, ‘never before have they been commanded by a man like Attila.’
The steward returned, entering the room backwards until the emperor’s address allowed him to turn, and then falling at his feet. He held something in his hand. Theodosius stared at it in puzzlement. ‘Pytheas,’ he murmured in puzzlement. Then he passed it to Aetius.
He examined it cursorily: a small gold ingot, stamped with the legend of Viminacium. Looted Hun gold.
‘Attila pays well,’ said Aetius dryly. ‘Judas only got silver.’
‘Pytheas,’ repeated Theodosius softly, shaking his head.
‘He won’t be the only one. You need to clean out your Augean Stables.’
The emperor looked shaken. Aetius’ heart went out to him. Each day he reigned, this haughty yet gentle scholar must perforce learn more about the cruelty and treachery of men, and how even those he most trusted would betray him for the glamour of gold.
Theodosius made to walk away.
‘Not everything will fall.’
After a while, Theodosius nodded, his back to the general. ‘Do what you think is needed.’ Then he lifted his robes and walked swiftly from the chamber.
Aetius gave orders for the traitor Pytheas to be executed. His head, hands and all the gold of Viminacium found in his room were to be sewn in a sack and delivered to Attila; no other message. At the last minute he changed his mind and called the man back.
‘On second thoughts, we keep the gold,’ he said. ‘Why enrich Attila so that he can buy more mercenaries? Put some iron in the sack with the traitor’s head and hands. And on a potsherd, write these words: ‘Yaldizh djostyara, Utulemek hasimyara.’
It was I, Priscus, to whom he dictated. I grimaced with distaste. I had heard but little of this foul language before. ‘An ugly tongue, my lord.’
‘Matter of opinion. A complex tongue in many ways, utterly unlike the languages of the civilised world. Their compound words, for instance. You know they have a word meaning, “the noise a bear makes when walking through cranberry bushes”?’
‘I thought you admired Herodotus? Yet you hardly have his candour and curiosity about other peoples and cultures.’
‘Hm.’ I trimmed my nib. ‘So. These barbaric words. “ Yaldizh djostyara ” et cetera. Might I be so bold as to ask what they mean?’
‘An ancient Hunnish proverb, which I learned in my boyhood – from the uncrowned King of the World himself.’ He smiled a wintry smile. ‘It means “Gold for my friends, iron for my enemies”.’ He stood up and went to the window, hands clasped behind his back. ‘So that Attila will know clearly who his enemies are.’
‘How will we find Attila?’
‘At the end of the trail of destruction,’ said Aetius, still with a smile not entirely comforting.
‘And who will run the errand?’
‘His own. Flushed from this palace like termites. Now listen to my instructions. The Hun word for fire is “ yankhin ”.’
In the silent middle of the night, numerous slaves erupted and ran about the palace, screaming the word at the tops of their voices. Naturally almost everybody, except perhaps those who were in bed with other men’s wives, quickly emerged, bewildered and blinking, into the shadowy courtyards of the great palace complex. But here and there, one or two dashed with buckets to the nearest wells and fountains, or even over towards the Baths of Xeuxippus. They were immediately seized and, to their astonishment, interrogated fluently in their own sacred tongue by this newly arrived western general. Torture was not necessary. They soon confessed all.
Aetius’ ruse had smoked out six termites in all: four men and two women, one of them a midwife. She might have secretly poisoned a new-born child of the imperial family, but apparently she had always worked diligently. Perhaps her woman’s tenderness had outweighed even her loyalty to the Lord Attila.
To these six, Aetius gave the task of taking back the remains of the traitor Pytheas, and the iron.
It was in the meadows outside the ruins of a once-great city that the six Huns expelled from the Byzantine Court found Attila’s camp. They looked about them with something approaching horror. The midwife gave a little cry of despair, strange to hear. The city should have been nothing to her. During her time in the Christian emperor’s palace, she had delivered children faithfully. Sometimes, like the others, she had sent back communications to her people about what she had discovered of palace life, defences, fortifications, but she had also begun to feel settled. Then one night her dreams had been disturbed by cries of ‘Fire!’ in her own tongue, and she had been exposed, along with the others, by running to the wells. Until then, her work was all of life new-born. Here, meanwhile, life was being destroyed.
A pall of black smoke hung over the burning city, and drifted ominously to shadow the camp of her own people. They who had once been her own people, she thought, with a sick lurch at her own treacherous thoughts. Under a black cloud of death, in his plain tent, the Lord Attila. Great Tanjou. She had made mothers in the palace with her strong hands. Meanwhile, her Great Lord had been making widows.
One of the men dropped the sack before Attila’s throne.
‘What have you brought me?’ asked the King, eyes glittering, chin resting in the cup of his hand.
‘The remains of the traitor Pytheas, the eunuch,’ the fellow replied.
‘Traitor? To whom?’
‘To the emperor, Theodosius,’ he stammered. ‘He was found out. As were we.’
‘If he was traitor to our enemy, he was our friend. No? He was a hero of the Hun people?’
The six hung their heads wretchedly. They had no refuge on earth now.
Attila delved in the sack and pulled out the potsherd. He read out the Hun proverb: ‘“Gold for my friends, iron for my enemies.” I know who sent this,’ he murmured. He looked up. ‘What was your judgement of Master-General Aetius? Did you meet him?’
They hesitated, then one said, ‘He is a man of forceful character, my lord.’
‘Is he? Is he?’
He pulled out something else: a putrid, blood-clotted hand.
A figure hovered near. It was Enkhtuya, the witch. Attila seemed to know, without looking, that she was there and what she wanted. Wordlessly he passed the foul object back to her. She hid it in her cloak and slipped away.
He looked back at the six. ‘They tried to kill me,’ he said. They were frozen with fear. They did not know what their Lord meant. ‘In my youth.’ He rubbed his beard. ‘The traitor Pytheas,’ he murmured. ‘Well, well.’ He surveyed them with glittering eyes. Then he decreed, ‘Negotiation is tiresome. Revenge is profitable. All shall pay.’ And with that he ordered the six to be taken outside and crucified, men and women both.
His guards bound the six and led them away.
As they passed by, a motley little figure in a tattered old buckskin shirt covered in little black stick men crouched beside the doomed procession, and held his arms over his head like a monkey sheltering from the rain, and cried out in a muffled though audible voice, ‘This funeral sky grows heavier by the hour!’
Towards evening an old warrior with fine grey moustaches and long white hair rode out and surveyed the six crude crosses bearing the six dead and dying fugitives. Their faces were blue-white masks of agony, their breathing like a tortured wind in a ravine. He rode back to his tent, found his long spear and returned and killed them all one by one. The last was a round-faced woman. She should have been someone’s wife. The agony left her face as the spear entered her heart, and her eyes closed in something like peace.
He got off his horse and cleaned his spear in the grass, then drove it into the ground and squatted down and looked away south over the low hills, his back to the bodies hanging like withered fruit on leafless trees.
After a time another man came and squatted not far off in the gathering dusk. For a long while they said nothing to each other.
Eventually Chanat murmured, ‘My dreams are becoming as crazed as yours, old shaman.’
Little Bird hummed and tore grass.
The old warrior cupped his big bony hands round his ringing skull. His skull was thin as a bird’s now. Old age was wearing him thin all over.
‘It is not as it was before,’ he said with quiet disgust. He gestured over his shoulder at the crucified cadavers and the smouldering town beyond. ‘Look at our work.’
‘He is Tashur-Astur, the Scourge of God,’ said the shaman in his sing-song voice. ‘A fool may argue with God, but God will not answer.’
‘This is God’s judgement on wicked people? Do you believe that, Little Bird?’
The shaman looked away. He never answered a direct question for, as he said, how could he? He did not exist.
‘I did not come here to scalp infants in arms,’ growled Chanat.
He remembered seeing Candac amid the smoking ruins of Margus, standing silent upon rubble and slaughter, staring, a look unfathomable on his strong round face. Looking about him perhaps in judgement before he chose to vanish.
Chanat gasped and clutched his side. A week ago, he had cursed the witch Enkhtuya to her face. The cramps in his bowels still hurt. Such pettiness they had come to. He thought he saw nobility itself ebbing away like the last of the sun on a winter’s day. The cold and brazen light across the steps occluded by black cloud from some burning town.
Little Bird and Chanat both shivered.
PEACE AT LAST
Catastrophe followed hard on the heels of the small success of unmasking the spies. A brief and bitter communication came to the Imperial Court from Adrianople.
The Eastern Field Army under the command of General Aspar, Magister Militum per Thraciam, leaving from Army headquarters at Marcianopolis, engaged the Huns on flat country near the River Utus. Overwhelmed by vastly superior numbers, however, and the speed and ferocity of the enemy, as well as their unexpected mastery of both artillery and the heavy cavalry charge, the six legions and all their auxiliaries were destroyed. General Aspar himself continued to fight with utmost gallantry on foot after his horse was killed under him, but eventually he, too, was slain.
It is believed that the Hunnish army is continuing to advance south.
In Constantinople, there was outright terror at the news. Now there was nothing but a few centuries of the Palatine Guard, and scattered auxiliaries down at Trajanople and Heraclea, to stand between them and this demonic army of a million heathen horsemen. Who ate children’s flesh, they said, and drank bat’s blood mixed with wine. Some citizens fled across the Bosphorus to Asia Minor. Others prayed for twenty hours a day to the Holy Mother. All were infected with panic, as contagious as the plague.
Theodosius begged Aetius for Western aid, and the general duly wrote again to Ravenna. But he warned that there would be little time and that, now Valentinian knew of the Huns’ power, he might prefer to keep his legions for his own protection: frontier legions as well as field army.
The reply soon came by sea. There was to be no aid. Theodosius’ curses rained down on his cousin’s head.
‘He will fall on us soon now,’ he said. ‘This Attila, God’s punishment upon us. Yet in what have we so sinned? I do not know.’ He gave a deep sigh: the sigh of the foredefeated. ‘First he will devastate all of Moesia and Illyria, Thessaly and Thrace, and then he will fall upon this city. We cannot stand against him with only a few hundred ill-trained auxiliaries and the Guard. We will have to negotiate.’
‘We still have the Walls,’ said Aetius.
‘Not all of us are behind the walls.’
‘True,’ said Aetius. ‘In the provinces, the people must shift for themselves. But the city will be saved. And there will be recompense, I promise you. When Attila turns westwards against Rome, he will not meet with such easy victory.’
‘You do not understand,’ said the emperor haltingly. ‘Not all the
… imperial family is behind the walls.’
Aetius frowned. ‘The Princess Honoria?’
Theodosius smiled mirthlessly. ‘No, she is still in my sister Pulcheria’s charge. I mean… the Empress Eudoxia.’
The empress. Athenais. He had not allowed himself to think of that name for years.
‘She is in Jerusalem?’
‘Would that she were. No, she is visiting the convent at Azimuntium.’
‘I do not know it.’
‘A small hill-town near the Pontine coast, of ancient Thracian origin. Indeed, it is proposed by some of our most eminent mythographologists that the site may in fact be etymologically cognate with that of the Homeric-’
‘In the path of Attila?’
The emperor’s voice dulled again. ‘In the path, as you say, of Attila.’
‘Why was I not informed of this before?’
‘Your services were needed here – as indeed they still are. The Holy City must needs be defended even more than…’
‘Even more than the empress.’
‘Do not speak with such quick judgement,’ cautioned Theodosius, his voice low but his gaze again fixed on the general. ‘I know you, Gaius Flavius Aetius. You think yourself a man of very different mettle from mine. But an emperor’s choices are never easy, especially in time of war.’
Aetius bowed his head a little.
‘We have intelligence that the empress remains safe in the convent of Saints Perpetua and Felicitas, Virgins and Martyrs, behind the considerable walls of that venerable hill-town. But the country round about is lawless, and the Huns draw closer daily. She will require an escort. I cannot spare the Imperial Guard, but I thought perhaps your
… rubicund friends from Gothia?’
Aetius smiled at the emperor’s feline words. To a man like Theodosius, the Goths would for ever be the barbarous immigrants who had caused the disaster of Adrianople, seventy years before.
‘Very well,’ said Aetius. ‘I will take my wolf-lords.’
‘You will be back in one week.’
He was on the brink of departure when more news came. Two Hun ambassadors had arrived from the camp of Attila.
The emperor’s eyes lit up. ‘You see, we can negotiate! The empress will be safe. They wish to make peace.’
‘They do not wish to make peace. They come only to reconnoitre. This is a trap of Attila’s. Do not trust him. Blindfold the ambassadors, do not let them see the Walls, do not let them near anyone, do not let them speak except in a closed cell.’
But the emperor was no longer listening, his whole being flooded with relief. Theodosius hated war, with a fierceness more usually found in men who have experienced the crimson foulness of the battlefield themselves. For in truth no man dies well who dies in battle. And hating war, he had already sent out emissaries to find the approaching barbarians and their terrible king, and sue for peace. What could he offer them? Land? Their own kingdom south of the Danube? The whole province of Moesia, even? So far, none of the emissaries had returned, but now he revealed this new twist to the general. Voices were soon raised.
‘The emissaries have not returned, Eternal Majesty, because their crow-pecked corpses are even now hanging from trees all along the Egnatian Way!’
Aetius’ anger was barely controlled. In the West, as a letter from that good general Germanus had informed him, many of the lesser troops were already beginning to desert from the Roman side. News of the destruction of the Eastern Field Army on the Utus had already reached distant ears, and now the Western Field Army was also ebbing away. Terror, as Attila observed, is a powerful weapon; and very cheap. If only the Western legions could be embarked forthwith, Aetius urged, and sail for the East, the very mission itself might steady them. Galla Placidia had tried to persuade her son of this very policy, but Valentinian and his advisers were set against it. The Western Army must remain for the defence of the West. Germanus wished his commander well, and trusted that the Huns in the East could still be resisted. Aetius wrote back that for now he would have to trust in walls, not men.
Theodosius remained cold in the face of Aetius’ temper, and spoke of how all men in their hearts love reason.
Aetius paced, and clenched his fists unreasonably.
‘Is a man rational when in love?’ he cried. ‘A woman when she is defending her child against some wild beast, armed only with her own rage, fighting off a ravening lion with her bare hands, or a puny knife she has snatched from the table? And she will triumph, too, for she fights for everything that she loves, whereas the lion fights only for his dinner, and will soon slink cowardly away.’
‘You have seen this?’ asked Theodosius, wide-eyed.
Aetius suppressed a spasm of irritation. At times the learned emperor could be the stupidest of men. ‘I speak in a figure, Your Majesty. Reason does not reign supreme.’
He tried to explain – rationally – what he knew and understood of Attila, and his idea of himself and his demonic destiny.
The emperor listened, brow furrowed. ‘But this is madness!’ he said incredulously. ‘It is almost as if you are suggesting that Attila has no aim but to avenge the insults he suffered as a child – with vengeance in the form of purest destruction!’
‘To destroy his enemies is the sweetest thing to him, and his enemies are all those he feels have insulted him and his people. The more he destroys, the stronger he becomes. If you buy him off with gold, that makes him stronger too. It will not buy peace. Attila scorns peace, and loves power. Gold will only buy him more weapons, more armour, more warhorses, the service of freebooters and shiftless mercenaries.’
Still the emperor looked perplexed and angry.
Aetius approached him as closely as he dared, and fixed his eye urgently. ‘Majesty, you must imagine that Attila has sent you a message saying simply, “We do not want anything from you. We want to destroy you.”’
‘But it was on the orders of the Western Empire that the original attack on the Huns was mounted.’
‘And the Western Empire’s turn will come. But it was an Eastern legion that executed that order, a legion itself now destroyed. Adam blamed Eve and Eve blamed the serpent. The Lord God punished them all.’
‘You are comparing Attila to God?’
‘Not my comparison, Attila’s own. Attila Tashur-Astur – “Flagellum Dei”.’
Theodosius pondered a moment, and then another party entered. It was Pulcheria, the emperor’s absurdly pious and misleadingly christened elder sister, a sour-faced woman in her sixth decade. With her came one of her closest counsellors, the lean, saturnine Chrysaphius, and a small, wiry man called Vigilas. She spoke quietly to the emperor, and a moment later Theodosius asked Aetius to leave them. Matters had already progressed from the military to the diplomatic, he said smoothly, despite the master-general’s ‘pessimism’ and ‘negativity’; further advice from him was now redundant.
The two Hun ambassadors were Geukchu, an intelligent-looking fellow in a fine silk robe, not in animal furs and skins as they had expected; and a quiet, very polite, bald-pated companion, Greek by birth, who introduced himself as Orestes. Within minutes, Theodosius felt he had mastered them. They brought the emperor some wonderful treasures, including a Cimmerian leopard in a cage; they paid him great respect, kissing the purple hem of his robe, and they said that yes, they would be happy to receive a Byzantine embassy in return. They were sure an accommodation could be reached in this unfortunate matter.
Behind them, Theodosius’ eyes met the gaze of Chrysaphius, and the counsellor, almost imperceptibly, nodded.
That night, Geukchu and Orestes dined and drank late into the night with Chrysaphius and Vigilas, and in the morning they took their leave of one another like brothers.
The emperor insisted that Aetius lead the Byzantine embassy to the Huns, despite the general’s lack of enthusiasm. He could combine the mission with escorting the empress home afterwards. Chrysaphius and Vigilas would go, too, the counsellor handling the actual negotiations; and he also sent his trusted Clerk-in-Consistory, modest Priscus, to record the historic meeting, along with a small retinue of guards. Aetius wished to take the two Visigothic princes and their fifty wolf-lords on the long and perilous journey, fully armed. The emperor grudgingly agreed. Those wolf-lords ate like oxen in winter. It would be good to be rid of them for a while.
A note came to Aetius from the Princess Honoria, smuggled out via a bribed slave, bribed in God knew what manner. The disgraced and dishonoured daughter of Galla Placidia and sister of Valentinian, long held in virtual captivity in the women’s quarters, she wrote mockingly that she too would like to ride out and meet this Attila. She thought he sounded interesting. Aetius grunted with grim amusement, sniffed the delicate little note and found it was indeed perfumed, then screwed it up and tossed it into the nearest brazier.
And so it was that I, Priscus, rode out that day with the man I still thought of as my beloved pupil, upon the most perilous journey of my life. Sailing back and forth from Italy to Constantinople was bad enough, but this was virtually into the wilds of Scythia! I took a flask of very strong red wine, heavily sweetened, to keep me warm; and an extra woollen blanket.
Thus prepared, I took my brief place upon the stage of History, tentative, blinking, and for what I hoped would be but a short scene. The public theatre is sufficiently unpleasant, what with the rotten fruit and the catcalls, but the stage of History is far worse, and for those who take their place upon it, the play often closes early.
I also took with me many scrolls to record this historic venture. In the night I dreamed that I was reading them over, and that I had called my account ‘A Journey Through the Thirteen Cities of the Ruined Lands.’
We rode out that morning through the Golden Gate, heading westwards along the shores of the Sea of Marmara on the ancient Via Egnatia, which people had travelled for six hundred years towards Thessalonika, and then over the Dinaric Alps to the Adriatic coast at Dyrrachium. But before Thessalonika we would turn north away from the coast and up into the hills. The wolf-lords and their two princes rode the finest white Cappadocian horses from the imperial stables. That favour, at least, the emperor had allowed his allies, though they still mourned their own drowned chargers, lying deep beneath the waves and far away.
Under a late summer sky heavy with stormclouds, Aetius was trying to keep other ghastly images at bay. The battle of the River Utus: is that how history would remember it – if at all? The Beginning of the End, far more surely than Adrianople, seventy years before. Six legions gone. Another at Viminacium, another at Ratiaria. Other cities destroyed since then, he was sure. He was glad he had not seen it, but he could imagine the scenes of carnage all too well.
They had mastered artillery and the heavy cavalry charge already. A bludgeoning bullock-headed charge: no lightly dancing, lethal arrow-storms now, but a heavy cavalry, gleaming and newly armoured from the armouries of Ratiaria, thumping into the aghast Byzantine line and shivering it to splinters. Shards of shieldwood and flying teeth, lost limbs, open mouths screaming silently, flailing, falling, trampled into the reddening mud. The Huns must have learned fast, clad in the laminar plate of their slaughtered foes, clutching long lances resting in slings and couched tightly under bulging biceps. Their squat muscled horses galloping in fast, a pummelling gallop with huge heads stretched forward and low, juddering into the Byzantine line like battering-rams, men flung aside, horses’ eyes rolling to the whites like those of horses gored by bulls, Roman horses rising up under the punch, staggering, toppling their own riders back into the melee, legs flailing, hooves turned upwards, kicking, horses screaming, their lips curled back over long yellow teeth and terrible horse cries, the foul stench of blood and ruptured bowels, the earth slippery with loosed innards and gore, the horror…
‘Deep in thought, Master-General?’
It was Prince Theodoric at his side, his voice light and young and jaunty. Aetius said nothing.
‘Worried about the Huns?’ asked Torismond, equally brightly. ‘Never fear, the mighty Visigothic nation will vanquish them by Christmas.’
‘Mind your tongue, little brother,’ cautioned the more sensible Theodoric, glancing round. The Hun ambassadors Geukchu and Orestes with their small party of Hun warriors rode at the back of the column. ‘This is just us. Our father’s people are not at war with the Huns.’
Aetius said softly, ‘They will be.’
‘Attila’s aim is Rome,’ said Theodoric, ‘and Constantinople.’
‘His aim is the world.’
‘Well, I pray that this embassy fails,’ said Torismond.
Aetius glanced sideways at his rubicund friend from Gothia. ‘It’ll fail.’
‘And then I pray that we meet some of ’em out there!’ he added eagerly. ‘A war party!’ He even leaned forward in his saddle as he spoke.
‘Pray that you don’t,’ said Aetius.
The threatened storm passed and we rode on west across the burning Thracian plains. Already many of the farms and homesteads were deserted. The people had fled, refugees stumbling back to the already overcrowded city of Constantinople, in dread of the approaching wrath. ‘The Huns are coming’ was the whisper throughout all that country. ‘Flee for your lives. The Huns are coming.’ The people, too, had no faith in embassies.
One solitary man stood at the side of the road watching us pass, clutching his hoe like a spear. Then he called out sardonically at our band of sixty or so, ‘You’re going to need a bigger army!’
We said nothing and rode on.
One night, as we camped, a snake appeared beside where Chrysaphius was standing. The counsellor froze in horror, a townsman to his marrow, but in a trice the little fellow Vigilas had drawn a gleaming dagger from his cloak and skewered the snake through the head.
Aetius regarded him curiously.
Later he addressed him casually in simple Gothic, and then Aramaic, but the fellow looked blank. He spoke only Latin and Greek, the former somewhat stiffly. A poor linguist for a diplomat.
‘He is my personal bodyguard,’ said Chrysaphius defensively. ‘Let us concentrate on the task in hand, Master-General.’
Aetius assured him that he was all concentration.
Sleeping out at night was bad, although, as it turned out, far from the worst horror that we would face. How I longed night after night for the hot baths and cool chambers of the Palace of the Emperors, overlooking the Sea of Marmara, silvered by the moon. Instead I went along, and saw things that I have never forgotten and would never have dreamed.
For the first time I saw with my own eyes the horrors of war. I, Priscus of Panium, obedient son, studious pupil, humble scribe in the Imperial Court of Theodosius II, and lately raised to the post of Chief Clerk-in-Consistory. How tearfully proud my parents would have been, had they lived to see! I was never meant for the battlefield, and was a little fearful even of that more playful battlefield which lies between the opposing armies called Men and Women. I was happier, generally speaking – but for an occasional scampering visit to the local bawdyhouse on the Street of the Golden Cock just behind the Hippodrome – to keep myself to myself, and to stay peacefully and diligently among the scrolls and texts of the ancients, reading and writing and dreaming of other ages than this.
But now I was riding out to see the world as it is. I do not think that I have known the same peace of mind since seeing the world as it is. My dreams have been more vivid, and more troubled. In the old days I barely remembered my dreams at all, but now they come to me in the silence of the night, messengers and harbingers unsought. I have less of my old equanimity now. But perhaps I will be a better chronicler for it. There is no reason to think that Tacitus and Thucydides were happy men.
Of the things I witnessed, I asked myself, did the armies of Rome not commit similar atrocities? Yes, they did. Perhaps not on such a scale; perhaps not with such malevolent randomness or glee, perhaps with rather a dutiful grimness. But if you are the victim, does it matter whether your killer is grinning or grimfaced when he cuts your throat? I tried to discern that the violence of Rome was a means to an end, committed to secure peace, stability and the rule of law, but the violence of the barbarians was committed for its own sake, for the pleasure of terror, and as such would never cease or find satiety.
But I do not know any more. I do not enjoy the ordered comfort of such thoughts. I know little with certainty, and I can only record what I saw. At my age I no longer have opinions, only memories.
I had hope
When violence was ceas’d, and War on Earth, All would have then gone well, peace would have crowned
With length of happy days the race of man;
But I was far deceived…
And one battle looks much like another when you survey the corpses after.
Our journey was long and arduous, and I often slept in the saddle. I remember a violent storm, and fires of blazing reeds, detonated by the lightning and burning up even in rain. I remember weariness and disorientation, tiredness beyond measure, and the sun appearing to rise in the West one morning. A bad omen.
When we came to the ruins of what had once been a city, the omen was fulfilled: the first of numberless settlements, villages, towns and cities we were to encounter, destroyed and utterly laid waste by the hand of Attila. The rich and golden cities of the Eastern Empire that would never again recover from his wrath. Through all the destruction, our two Hun ambassadors, our guides through this wasteland which their own people had created, seemed not a bit contrite. Guilt they doubtless regarded as a form of cowardice, like most barbarians. Only at a certain rest stop did the one called Orestes, Greek by birth – shame on him! – wave his hand over the void before us, and say softly, ‘You see now why it would be in your interests to negotiate.’ He almost smiled. Aetius’ face was dark with fury and he did not speak. Not for days.
The city was a blackened skeleton of its former self, a skeleton of wood and stone, flattened walls, arches and buttresses broken off and hanging in space. Like Philippopolis and Marcianopolis, it had been a bishopric, and the Huns had knifed and stripped its bishop and hung him from the walls.
‘They would have spat in the face of Christ if they could,’ I muttered.
‘As did the Romans once,’ said Prince Theodoric beside me.
I could think of nothing more to say.
A few had survived the firestorm and the arrow-storm, and them we pitied most, for they must have envied the dead. Sick people sheltered beneath the broken walls of the churches. Rachitic or tubercular children, riven with coughing, held out their clawed hands to us for food, but we could not help. A small girl cradling an infant in her lap sheltered beneath a smashed stone altar table, dark eyes peering up at me through filthy hair. In a demolished side-street, a mere pattern of rubble now, there was another huddle of children, lips withered with hunger, worm-filled bellies like sails before the wind. Near them, though they appeared mercifully oblivious, lay two adult corpses, scalped, their temples stained as if with some dark chrism. Here I tired and could no longer look at the sights of the city.
I rode over paving-stones grouted with dried blood, my horse trampling over a tattered prayer book, an illuminated euchologion, torn pages turning to no purpose. My ears rang with sad litanies of mortal flesh and blood. My old pupil said, remounting and pulling his horse away, ‘And the emperor believes he can negotiate with this.’
A little further on he stopped again. His head was bowed and his big, scarred hands gripped the front of his saddle. I saw to my astonishment that, although his shadowed face was set as hard and grim as ever, tears ran down his furrowed cheeks and fell in dark splotches on the saddle leather. Yet why should I be astonished? That was Aetius to the core: the deepest passions, under iron control.
He turned in the saddle and looked back. The column of wolf-lords in their scarlet cloaks was riding out after us, and the Byzantine ambassadors, and the two wordless, expressionless Huns. We were leaving the sick people and the starving children behind. Aetius said, his voice trembling, ‘All we can do now, to help them, is defeat Attila.’
I understood. He was almost asking me to forgive him for riding on and not helping, here and now. I nodded. It was agony, but there was nothing to be done here. We had no food, no medicines, no resources. The people were too sickly to move, let alone make it all the way back to the safety of Constantinople. In a few days they would simply… vanish. Their souls would be gathered in. I nodded again, I hoped consolingly. We must do the emperor’s bidding and speak with Attila. Then we must ride back to the city. There were a million or more people there whom we could save. And beyond that… the rest of the empire.
The two princes reined in, flanking Aetius on either side, behind them the powerfully built wolf-lords Valamir and Jormunreik. No word was spoken but, as is the way of men, the meaning was plain. They rode with Aetius: to whatever doom.
The two Huns were not addressed again.
We camped on a nearby hillside in the coarse tussock grass. We would rather have camped in the lush watermeadows down by the river, but the water was befouled, and there were too many bones of the slain littering the country round about.
Over the following days we passed more ghosts of towns and cities, each as bad as or worse than the last. On the road we glimpsed trickles of frightened fugitives who fled from us into the woods before we ever reached them; and one old woman, who could not flee. It is terrible to see a mother wailing over her child, but worse still to see an old woman wailing over her aged husband, lying broken in the mud, snapped like a dry twig. He with whom she thought to live out her last quiet days.
After the devastated cities of the plain we ascended into low foothills and then rough, barren mountains, over mighty gorges, treacherous wilds barely touched by the magisterial hand of Roman law, where men dressed in sheepskin jackets tied around the waist with twisted leather, and women were safe only beside their own hearthfire. We traversed many rivers by dugout canoe, and villagers fed us on mead rather than wine, and on millet not wheaten bread.
Later in our journey there were no villagers left. We could only forage like beasts.
We came to a fire-blackened valley, and among the still-smoking stubble there were other black shapes, not of sheaves but of men, women, children, infants burned in their mothers’ arms, mothers clinging to their children, mouths open, black and charcoal. From such unimaginable weathering, we can only hope their souls do well to fly. In the night there was a downpour from a summer cloudburst over the valley, and in the dawnlight the bodies were ash-grey under the rain, some of them no more than washed white bones showing like strange root-crops through the folded grey mud half covering them like sodden earthen shrouds.
Our Hun guides remained expressionless throughout. The one called Geukchu only commented that this would be the work of their brothers the Kutrigur Huns, in their battle-madness. But he did not say it in exculpation.
We moved on a way before we camped that night, but it was not far enough. The smoke from the campfires rose into the night air as we lay on our backs and stared into the heavens, dreaming bad dreams open-eyed. Through the drifting smoke, the starry sky, those white celestial worlds where all things are pure and good, far above this sinful sublunary world so darkened by violence and wrath, and by the furious selfhoods of ambitious men. The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the little child shall lead them, saith the Lord. And they shall not kill nor hurt in all my Holy Mountain.
But how long, O Lord? How long?
It seemed to us that the viper and his venom would outlast all our days; that the bloodlust of Attila might rise even to the heavens and stain the white radiance of eternity, as the heavy smoke rose from that blackened charnel field, thick and greasy from where the bodies still smouldered, a choking veil between our wondering upturned faces and those white celestial worlds now lost to our sight.
At last we came down onto a broad grassy plain and there we saw stretched out in encampment, as far as the eye could see, the People of Attila. A city of leather tents beside a wide lakeshore; sunlight and slow plumes of woodsmoke and children’s laughter: a tranquil scene.
Aetius spoke at last, addressing the Greek. ‘So you have brought down your women and children again?’
Orestes’ eyes were very pale blue. ‘Why not? There is no danger to them now.’ He gave his almost-smile again. ‘Your army is destroyed.’
We had begun to set up camp on a small hill when a group of Hun warriors rode out to us and, with mockery and contempt, told us to camp lower down in the damp valley so that we should not overlook the tent of the Great Tanjou. We obeyed without a word. They also demanded that the wolf-lords hand over their weapons. Prince Theodoric answered, with undiplomatic brevity, ‘No.’ After brief talk among themselves, they said no matter, the Huns had never feared any Visigoths yet, armed or unarmed. One of the hulking wolf-lords, Jormunreik, growled at this barb, but his prince silenced him. The Huns said that the Lord Attila was out hunting, but would speak to us in time and galloped away, laughing.
When we rode into the camp towards the King’s tent at its heart, I marvelled at how many races there were. The great majority were horse-bound Huns, of course, stocky and immensely strong, sparsely bearded, with long black hair and moustaches; but there were also Greeks like our guide Orestes, and renegade Teutons, Thuringian chieftains in bearskins, even Celts. There were Africans, Spaniards, Syrians, many marked with the marks of criminals. They were fugitives from Roman law, consumed with disgust at the insipid life of the tottering empire, longing once more to be on History’s winning side. There were more savage Huns who were heavily painted and tattooed and stuck with feathers, and wore their hair limed white in a stiff topknot; other people, who looked almost like Chinamen, their language unknown to us, camped a little apart. We knew what this meant well enough. All these people believed that victory over the whole Roman world lay with Attila, and their fortunes with him.
As we came near a large, plain black tent in the heart of the camp, a woman appeared from inside. And what a woman. Perhaps fifty years old, immensely graceful, with high cheekbones, a red silk veil drawn back over her slim shoulders, and wearing a diadem of astonishing richness, of hammered sheet gold ornamented with Indian almandines. I do not think the diadem was paid for.
We dismounted and bowed low. She was Queen Checa, Attila’s wife. His first wife, that is – he had many more, and countless concubines. All round the central circle of the camp were huge wooden wagons, those ships of the steppes, laden with decorated copper cauldrons, rolls of the finest silks and stuffs, and even occasional marble statues. A smaller, lighter wagon, guarded by two burly fellows who looked like brothers, bore Far Eastern saddle ornaments, fabulous reins decorated with gold cloisons and Indian gemstones, Pontic crowns and oval Sarmatian mirrors; tethered to the wagon was a pair of grey riding-horses branded with Turkic tangas. What a motley, magpie people, yet they had raided and looted their way across half the world.
Then word came to us. The Great Tanjou had returned. We unbuckled our weapons and left them in a heap.
Attila received us in his black tent supported on carved and polished wooden columns and hung with animal skins. He was seated on a barbarically carved wooden throne. The warriors about him were outlandishly accoutred in Chinese silks and fur head-dresses, their cheeks scarred with blue tattoos, but Attila himself was simply dressed, with a hatchet in his belt. A powerfully built man of medium height, with the scarred cheeks of his people, muscular forearms corded with ropy veins, and messily scarred, I noticed, from fighting in many furious battles. He had a strong and bony nose, leonine eyes glittering beneath lowered brows, face weathered and wind-furrowed, and he was leaning forwards slightly, stroking his wispy grey beard, a glimmer of something like amusement in his eyes. But none of this captures the spirit of the man. He radiated a terrifying force, the kind that turns to fury in a moment. Being close to him was like trying to find rest on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius. Had he turned and looked at me, my eyes would have dropped away instantly. Few men could meet that gaze.
Chrysaphius bowed lowest.
‘The Emperor of the East, the Viceroy of God, the Divine Theodosius, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, and his subjects, the Senate and the people of Rome, wish upon you health, happiness and length of days.’
Attila smiled and said, ‘I wish upon the Romans whatever they truly wish upon me.’
Slaves came forward and presented the gifts we had brought: furs and silver goblets, dates and pepper. Attila received them without thanks.
We dined on juicy steaks cut from the croups of grass-fattened horses, and freshly slaughtered sheep and cows, roasted whole. It would have been impolitic to enquire at what livestock market such excellent meat was purchased. We lay on couches, Roman style, drinking from the finest goblets. The Huns themselves sat cross-legged, or upright on benches. Attila ate only meat from a plain wooden platter. Conversation was stilted but innocuous. Attila spoke very little. Only when his young son Ellak – his favourite, so they say – was brought in to say goodnight to his father did the King show pleasure.
For the night, we were offered the choicest young female slaves for our comfort, a Scythian compliment, but one disdained by our leaders – somewhat to my chagrin, I must admit. Well into my sixth decade, the chains of lust had loosened but by no means fallen away entirely. And so after we had retired to our own tents on the hill, I wriggled my way back out again, and hurried after the retreating women in the darkness, at one point tripping in a marmot hole in my haste and very nearly doing myself quite an injury. The girls heard me and turned, and giggled.
Though they were all lovely to look at, one drew me in particular. A Burgundian she was, flaxen-haired and as pretty as a flower. I took her by the hand and pulled her back to my modest little partition in the tent. In the dark I could barely see her features, but her hands were small and her lips were soft, and I confess I passed a happy night with her. In the morning, as she lay there only half covered by my side, she stretched sleepily and smiled and said that, although I was a very old man, I had not entirely failed to please her.
Aetius passed me as we ate bread in the morning sunshine outside our tents, and nodded curtly as I munched. ‘You must be hungry,’ he said.
Among those I talked to in the camp was an apostate Greek picking stones out of his horse’s hooves. When I asked him why he was there, he eloquently applauded the freedom he enjoyed among the Huns, compared with the iniquitous taxes, self-serving officials and meddling laws of Rome. Once, he agreed, Rome might have represented a kind of freedom with dignity under the law, but those days were gone. Here a man could be truly free. ‘You think Attila a barbarian tyrant,’ he said sardonically. ‘But he does not oppress me daily, he does not survey my every action, he does not dictate my religion, he does not tax me to death. Indeed, he does not tax me at all. I follow him, he protects me. It is a simple and noble society; as Rome was once, perhaps, long, long ago.’
‘It is a society that feeds off others!’ I protested.
‘In that respect, at least,’ he answered, ‘it is just like Rome.’
He was a very sardonic fellow indeed.
Of all the people in the camp of the Huns, aside from Attila himself, it was that other renegade Greek, Orestes, who seemed to me the most compelling and enigmatic. I was astonished, then, when I approached him later and respectfully asked if I might hear his story.
‘My story?’ he said softly. ‘Ah. Yes.’
Perhaps Attila himself had encouraged him to tell me, for my chronicle. I shall never know.
We sat on stools in the shade of a long tent. No others were near. A small fire burned in a brazier. Orestes cast a handful of barley kernels across an iron tray.
‘I was from Thessalonika,’ he began. ‘You know the history. You have heard of the atrocity.’
I nodded. Indeed.
‘My parents-’ Orestes stopped again and smiled, a bitter smile. ‘The man who died eight years before I was born, he who should have been my father.’
The barley kernels popped in the heat.
‘I will start again.’ He drew breath. ‘Some twelve years before I was born, my mother was married to a man of Thessalonika. He was a ship owner, a wealthy man, also a man of taste. He had a library. He was a Christian but kept his counsel. In their villa on a hill above the great harbour, they had mosaics of Silenus, frescoes of nymphs and tritons, silverware decorated with images of Mars and Venus on a shelf beside a devotional to the Virgin. My mother described it all to me in later years. My mother was high-spirited, mercurial. She was beautiful when she was young. Their house in Thessalonika was very fine. They had two sons, and then a daughter. They were a fine family. My family. Yet not.’
He chewed some kernels.
‘In the summer of 390, eight years before my birth, the great city of Thessalonika stood the mother city of all Illyria. The people of the city, we chattering Greeks, ever argumentative, volatile, full of life and bustle. And the city was well walled around, well garrisoned. The captain of the garrison was one Botheric, a German by birth. Among his slaves was a boy, a beautiful boy – you understand. One of the Circus charioteers loved this boy. He lured him home and raped him. Botheric had the charioteer thrown in prison.
‘The common people of Thessalonika, who like the common people of any city love their sport before all else, and will forgive their sportsmen any crime, corruption or rapine so long as they perform well and give them pleasure – the common people were furious at being deprived of their favourite charioteer, the boy-rapist. They rioted. Botheric and one of his most senior officers were spat on, dragged through the streets, butchered. You know what the mob is like when their moral indignation is up: all on behalf of a boy-rapist. Emperor Theodosius the First – the Great, grandfather to both today’s emperors – residing in Milan, heard news of the uprising, and in his fury ordered a punitive massacre. We know all about the Roman urge to commit punitive massacres of civilian populations, do we not? It is an old habit.’
I said nothing.
‘Only after the order was sent did the Christian bishops manage to persuade Theodosius to remit his bloody sentence, so against the teaching of Christ. He despatched a second message but it was too late. The garrison at Thessalonika, already enraged at the murder of Botheric, took their revenge with alacrity. In the name of their emperor, the games-mad people were invited to more games – a little joke. Once in the circus, the gates were barred and they were slaughtered, all of them, without distinction of age or sex. The carnage continued for three hours. Some say seven thousand were slaughtered that day, some say more than fifteen thousand, “sacrificed to the manes of Botheric.” After the massacre in the circus, the troops spilled out onto the streets and continued their work.
‘Among their victims was a father who pleaded with them, offering his own life for that of his wife and two young sons and his daughter. You have guessed it. My family. The troops were unimpressed. They killed the father, the two sons, the infant daughter, and the howling mother all together. Except the mother survived, wounded and bleeding, beneath the bloody corpses of her family.’
He paused for a while, mastering himself.
‘My mother survived. That is the correct word. She endured. She drank. She sold herself. When pregnant she administered her own abortions. Later she failed and bore another son. Miraculously, he was a healthy infant, grew to healthy adulthood. Later there was a daughter, Pelagia, always thin and weak. Her brother loved her deeply.’
Again he stopped. I waited. He swallowed and started again.
‘She, the mother, died when her children were still very young. She was no longer drinking, no longer selling herself. She was trying to care for her two children by unknown fathers. But she was so broken that not even her children could heal her. Of course not. There is no healing for what she experienced. The two children, then aged no more than six and four years old or so – they remembered their birthdays, but not the year of their birth – had no choice. The boy took his sister’s hand and walked out of the wooden shack where their dead mother lay, and went down to the port, and sold himself and his sister into slavery. They were taken to Italy. Their owners maltreated them. They ran away. On a road going north out of Italy, they met up with a runaway Hun boy, a savage. A little while later, Pelagia died and they buried her in the mountains.’
Another silence. I dared to look at him and his face was streaked with tears. But, when he resumed, by supreme effort of will his voice remained low and steady.
‘As for the slaveboy and the savage, they stayed together through many adventures. The rest… The rest you know.’
‘As for Theodosius the Great, Archbishop Ambrose was so disgusted with the massacre that he refused to give the emperor communion, refused even to admit him into his cathedral. A brave act. Eventually Theodosius got down on his knees, and begged for forgiveness. The Christian Church had conquered the Emperor.
‘But you see why my feelings about Rome must needs be… qualified.’
Yes. I saw.
In my last encounter, I was summoned to speak with Attila himself. This came as a great shock to me. But he had heard I was the official Byzantine recorder, and so, as he said dryly, ‘History is in your hands.’ He wanted me to know some things – many things. We met after breakfast, and he was still talking, I was still writing, trembling less than at first, when the sun went down. Many of the things in this chronicle came from his lips: his boyhood, his struggles, his uniting of the Scythian tribes. It was a grand and terrible story, and the hours passed without my noticing. He expressed few opinions, and he asked no questions; but he answered mine willingly enough. One thing I wanted to know was his date of birth. I was there to assist the recording of the truth, as he saw it, and so he told me. At the end, he said I was free to talk to anyone in the camp, for he trusted his people’s discretion; then he gave me a small gold coin and dismissed me. He never even asked my name. The coin was beaded round the rim, and bore a crudely stamped eagle. It was an authentic and very rare Hunnic solidus.
At dinner that night we were offered koumiss, the Hunnish drink made from fermented mare’s milk and very strong. The wolf-lords drank deeply as always, and yet even after their eighth or ninth goblet seemed barely affected. I, on the other hand, could feel a foolish smile spreading across my face after only the second goblet, and my loins beginning to stir and warm again at the thought of my flaxen-haired Burgundian girl. I wondered if it might be possible.. . again… tonight…
Then suddenly I was very sober indeed.
Attila had taken the floor in the middle of the tent. We paused in our eating. Everyone fell silent. It was time for his address to us; but not, alas, the address we had hoped for.
‘We came together in peace and friendship,’ he began.
We all applauded, our collective dishonesty breathtaking. Our applause soon died away.
‘But alas, our guests had other plans. For tonight,’ – and he took some bread and broke it, in dumbshow blasphemy – ‘I am to be betrayed, and handed over to my enemies. Except that’ – he popped a morsel of the bread in his mouth, though he reviled the stuff as fit only for farmers, and chewed as he spoke, his eyes glimmering, for he was enjoying this – ‘except that, unlike your god Christ’ – he spat the bread out – ‘I have an exceptional spy network.’
He was joined by his warlords, the clever Geukchu and the wary Greek, Orestes.
Aetius beside me laid down his knife and said softly, ‘What is this?’
The weapons of the wolf-lords were outside the tent, far away. Within the tent, Huns had already unsheathed their swords.
‘He would not dare,’ I said.
‘Oh, he would dare,’ said Aetius, clearly unafraid. ‘But it would serve little purpose.’ He looked on, curious rather than afraid. Myself, I was already wondering how I might slip away to the privy.
Attila strode around the tent, his voice strong and commanding, his whole figure with the bearing of absolute power. Never have I seen such bearing – except in Aetius. They were like brothers in that.
‘Our guests, you see, these noble Byzantines, planned that I should be assassinated tonight. As if my death alone would save them. Ha!’
He was the only one in the tent, among a hundred, who laughed, albeit with a laugh as harsh and excoriating as sharkskin. Everyone else remained frozen.
‘These two loyal servants of mine, the Lord Geukchu of the Hun People, and the Lord Orestes, born in the somewhat decayed city of Thessalonika, but now also, and honourably, of the Huns – these two loyal servants, I say, remain as loyal as ever. We do not have traitors among our people.’ His smile and his roving, burning eyes were equally terrible. ‘But in embassy to the fetid and benighted city of Constantinople, ruled by women thinly disguised as men’ – at this, his warriors began to laugh, and relax – ‘they were inveigled into a plot to assassinate me, their divinely appointed King, in exchange for – what was it, my beloved Geukchu?’ He was playing with us, with the whole situation.
Geuckchu smiled broadly, too. ‘Gold, Great Tanjou.’
‘Ah, yes, of course. Gold.’ He roved around. ‘My beloved Geukchu, one of the closest and most trusted among my Chosen Men, who has ridden by my side for nearly a decade, ever since the day I returned from exile to claim my rightful crown. My beloved Geukchu, who rode with me east into hardships and battles unimaginable, who stood by my side in the foulest blizzards and the fiercest arrow-storms – this Geukchu, noble Geukchu, the Byzantines and their clottish emperor, Theodosius, the Calligrapher, and his barren sister, Pulcheria, believed could be bought off, and turned against me, after all this, with… gold.’
His warriors laughed and cheered, then fell silent again for their infallible King to continue. By my side, Aetius was very still. Only once did he glance along the couches, to Chrysaphius and Vigilas. They, too, were very still. Vigilas’ right hand was on his fruit knife.
‘You fools!’ roared the king suddenly, smashing his mighty fist down on a near table and setting the dishes sliding to the floor. His fury seemed to make the felt walls of the tent bat in the blast. ‘You Roman fools! As if any of my people would envy the trappings and tinsel that festoon your brothel of a palace! As if any of them would exchange gold for glory!’ His voice dropped again. ‘It would not have been the first attempt on my life by the forces of Rome, a eunuch empire which prefers to slay its enemies by deceit rather than by bravery in battle. But you may be sure that, in consequence of this fresh attempt – the clumsiness of which would have shamed a child – our vengeance upon your heads will be only the greater.’
He turned to Geukchu and held out his hand. Geukchu passed him a sword.
‘Chrysaphius,’ he said, ‘beloved of the Emperor Theodosius, step forward.’
The saturnine ambassador looked very pale. His eyes darted desperately around, and he stammered, hoping for support from his fellows, but there was none. At last he stood and walked uncertainly into the centre of the circle, looking like he might faint.
‘So,’ said Attila regarding him with lacerating scorn. ‘You offered gold to my lords Geukchu and Orestes, limitless gold, so that they would lead you and the assassin Vigilas into my chamber at some opportune hour, and murder me as I slept.’
‘My lord, I must protest, you have been grievously mis-’
The backhand blow Attila dealt him sent him reeling back three or four yards, before he crashed into a wooden trestle table amid a welter of sliding plates and food. Not one of our party or the wolf-lords stepped forward to help him. Deceit and assassination were no part of the Visigothic armoury, and, if the accusation were true, they despised him for bringing deep shame upon them.
‘I did not ask you for your commentary,’ said Attila gratingly. ‘I am not questioning you, I am telling you, and your disgraced comrades here.’
Two Hun warriors hauled Chrysaphius back and and dropped him at the feet of Attila. He lay there struggling for breath, blood flowing freely from nose and mouth after that colossal blow.
I glanced along at Vigilas. He had removed his hand from his fruit knife. It was hopeless. Across the tent, a dozen Hun arrows were trained on his heart.
‘To resume,’ said Attila. ‘Geukchu and Orestes, for amusement, agreed to your stinking Byzantine bribe. They led you back here, where they promptly reported your contemptible plot to me. How we laughed together, my loyal men and I. And now… here we stand.’ He looked at the rest of us. Another man had got to his feet. It was Aetius.
‘Ah, Master-General. You are about to tell me that you had no part in this plan. You knew nothing of it, and would not have approved it if you had.’
‘I already know that. Please be seated again.’ He looked down at the bloody-faced ambassador at his feet. ‘Tell me how much you would have paid your assassin Vigilas for killing me.’
Chrysaphius breathed heavily and scarlet bubbles came from his nose. ‘Five pounds was mentioned, my Lord.’
‘I don’t know whether you are brave or stupid,’ said Attila, ‘but you are still lying to me.’ He raised his foot and brought it down on the ambassador’s bare ankle. Chrysaphius howled and tried to crawl away but could not. I winced and averted my gaze. The Hun King was pressing his whole weight down on that ankle, and I thought I could hear bones cracking. Cruelty like this demeans everyone: the torturer, the tortured and the spectators alike. Aetius, too, was looking away. I quickly surveyed the Hun warriors around the tent. They were stone-faced, expressionless.
‘Vigilas was to be paid fifty pounds of gold,’ grated Attila. ‘A deal of gold, though’ – he smiled around at his own little joke – ‘I still feel undervalued.’
His warriors laughed.
He raised his foot and let Chrysaphius crawl free. The broken man, trembling all over, reached down to his shattered ankle, but it was too painful to touch. I thought I glimpsed shards of white bone showing through flesh. He wept. He would never walk without a crutch again.
Attila murmured something to Orestes, who went out, then said, ‘Step forward, Vigilas.’
The little assassin did as he was instructed. He did not look afraid. A man of deceit and violence himself, he was accustomed to it in others, and knew exactly what to expect. But Attila was fond of springing surprises.
He drew his dagger from his broad leather belt and, instead of despatching his antagonist, tossed it to him handle first. Vigilas caught it deftly.
‘Now,’ Attila said, ‘finish your work.’
I was very afraid. The two men started circling each other, Vigilas armed, Attila not. Vigilas all furious concentration, Attila smiling, bare hands held out before him as if to swat away flies. What if Vigilas should succeed? The rest of us would all be slain by his warriors – and not quickly slain, either.
Yet Vigilas was determined to try. It was his nature. A different man might have used the dagger to cut his own throat, but he circled round the king, dagger held lightly in his right hand, his left arm extended for balance, his eyes fixed like a hawk on his prey. He knew he would have only one chance. The atmosphere in the tent had the skin-tingling tension before a storm. We could scarcely breathe. When the two men suddenly burst into action, like snake and mongoose, they moved so fast I could hardly tell what had happened. I think Vigilas tried to lunge forward, perhaps at Attila’s neck, and the king moved fractionally aside – enough for the dagger to miss its target by a hair’s breadth. He seized Vigilas’ right arm, still outstretched, in his mighty hands, one hand clamped around the assassin’s wrist and the other near his shoulder, raised his own knee, and brought the arm down. When it struck his knee, the elbow was turned backwards and unable to accommodate the blow. The arm snapped in half with a sound that sickened me. Vigilas screamed, and this was a man who did not scream easily, I was sure. He reeled back, clutching his broken limb to his body, his forearm twisted away from him at a horrible angle, his elbow… I could not look.
Orestes appeared, carrying a small sack. He dropped it with a heavy thud before Attila.
‘Now,’ said Attila, retrieving his dagger from the ground and reaching for the sack, ‘here is your gold. All of it.’ He opened the sack and showed it around and, sure enough, within lay the dully gleaming gold, all fifty pounds of it. ‘Here is your reward. You may have it from me, your intended victim. Only’ – he smiled, and lifted that fifty-pound sack into the air with one hand, his arm muscles bulging – ‘you will carry it yourself back to Constantinople, without aid from man or beast.’ He set it down and looked over at Aetius. ‘Master-General, have I your assurance, as a Roman nobleman, that this sly and deceitful back-stabber will return to Constantinople as I command it, under your watchful eye?’
Aetius struggled for a moment. But this wretched plot had shamed them all, and the two conspirators were lucky to have escaped with their lives. ‘You have,’ he said.
Attila nodded. What a gesture, what theatre! How magnificently scornful he had shown himself of the Byzantine plot. Never before had we faced an enemy like him.
There was one more gesture. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Chrysaphius trying to pull himself to his feet against one of the tent-posts.
‘Ah, no,’ he said, his voice almost gentle, stepping over to him, his dagger still in his grasp. ‘For you, coward as well as deceiver, there will be no return to Constantinople.’ He took the ambassador by a hank of his hair and pulled his head back and sliced the blade across his throat. He wiped the blade clean of blood on the dead man’s fine court robes and stood again and smiled round at us broadly, his arms outstretched, his dagger still in his fist.
‘My dear friends, I think our meeting in peace and friendship is at an end, is it not?’
Behind him, Chrysaphius’ body was already being dragged from the tent, leaving behind it a shining trail of gore.
We returned to our tents without another word, our hearts full and dark.
Before we left at dawn, in the dull grey half-light, an extraordinary meeting occurred. Attila came to Aetius. I watched from the shadows.
They spoke to each other without formality, as if they were old friends. A naive observer might have thought Aetius indeed a traitor, newly allied to Attila, there seemed so little tension between them. Then the Hun grasped Aetius’ arm as if with a mix of urgency and brotherly affection, and I heard his harsh, passionate voice.
‘One of the reasons I exposed your treachery – the treachery of your master, the emperor in Constantinople last night – was to show you the rottenness of your world, your eunuch empire.’
Aetius said nothing, and did not try to pull free of Attila’s clasp. His expression was deeply troubled.
‘And your Valentinian, Emperor in the West, feeble-minded son of that bitch Galla Placidia, he is still worse. He sacrifices cockerels, he studies witchcraft.’
Aetius muttered, ‘You, too, have witches about you.’
‘I do not claim to be Christian. Aetius, your empire is tottering.’
Now Aetius resisted him. ‘The VIIth legion at Viminacium, they did not totter.’
‘They gave us a good fight.’
‘They gave you hell.’
Attila’s teeth showed in the gloom. ‘They fought like men. But for what? For a decrepit empire, a long lost cause? It is the time of new powers and other empires now. Rome’s all done.’ His grip on Aetius’ arm tightened, and I heard his astonishing words: ‘Join me.’
It was long before Aetius responded; too long. His eventual response was only to pull away, saying nothing.
‘You fool,’ said Attila. ‘You have already lost whatever it is you fight for.’ He remounted his horse. ‘Fly back to your city, fool. I am hot on your path.’
We rode away south that morning in anger and shame. Behind us staggered a small, broken figure, carrying his cruel sack of gold.
There was nobility in the soul of Attila, that I could see. Aetius saw it, too. But the darker traits of malice, tyranny and vengefulness were overshadowing it, and ultimately it would be extinguished. His ruthlessness and avarice would destroy him as a living human soul. It has happened many times in human history. Already his nobility and grandeur were fading before his hunger for world dominion, his furious desire to seize and master life itself – a hunger which had also driven, in different ways, Alexander the Great, and Phidias, and Euclid, and even Sophocles. But such men as Sophocles and Phidias grow wise before they grow old, and let go of their hunger, and instead of wanting to seize and master life, they fall down before it and kneel in silent wonder, understanding that they may never master or understand but only worship. Attila saw such humble wisdom only as inglorious defeat. He was ever one of the rebellious sons of God.
Attila’s hatred of Rome was like a fire, blazing up and destroying some great, majestic basilica. But when the flames have finally devoured and destroyed that basilica and laid it to ashes, the fire also dies: it has nothing left to feed on. So his hunger was devouring his own self from the inside, engendering only more and more appetite in place of his youthful pride and fire. And when there is only appetite, allied to the stubborn, implacable vindictiveness of old age, there is no telling what evils may ensue.
After only two days, Aetius halted the column towards evening and looked over his shoulder. Far behind us was the hunched, misshapen figure of Vigilas with his sack. He was no longer moving. Aetius galloped back, and I saw him lean from his horse, pull up the sack and rest it on his lap. Vigilas rolled onto his side in the road and was still. Aetius brooded a moment, then dropped the sack in the road and rode back to us. None of us uttered a word in protest. We knew it was like a gift of Agamemnon’s Greeks. Timeo Danaos… Let a peasant find it, an untold treasure, and bury it beneath an oak tree by moonlight for his old age.
Our journey back was long and wearisome, for we rode fast and relentlessly without Vigilas to slow us. We must take in the little town of Azimuntium on our way and find the empress, then retreat to safety behind the great Theodosian Walls of the capital. There at last, I observed, we would be safe.
‘Safe?’ said Aetius savagely. ‘As safe as a rabbit in his burrow, with a huge and ravening wolf just outside, his stinking breath in the very mouth of the burrow. How safe is that, do you think?’
I did not answer.
After crossing the plains at an exhausting canter, our horses flecked with white foam and drooling at the bit, we rode up into the cooler foothills of the Haemus Mountains and then higher, where there was still edelweiss growing among the rocks. We found water for our mounts, a runnel clear as crystal from a rock spring, and they whickered and drank deep and raised their heads again, refreshed. We had the finest white Cappadocian horses from the imperial stables – magnificent, though I say so myself – and the master-general and Theodoric and Torismond rode at our head. It was no great force to turn and face a numberless horde of the enemy on our heels, but we could at least move very fast.
Behind us were over a million of the devil’s own horsemen, so they said. Well, rumour always multiplies enemy numbers by ten. Aetius had estimated Attila’s fighting force to be a hundred thousand, which was still the greatest number that Rome had faced in seven centuries, since the days of Hannibal. And how had the strength of Rome herself fared in those seven centuries? Not well.
As for our chivalrous mission to rescue an empress, Aetius kept his head bowed and did not speak of it. She whom he had not seen for. .. fifteen years, was it? Many battles and campaigns ago. That was how he measured out his life, in battles, not years. Too many battles ago he had kissed her, on a balcony overlooking the Golden City of Jerusalem. But that was many battles ago, and in another world.
We rode into deep pinewoods and the light grew dim and green. The horses harrumphed nervously, their hooves crunching over dry needles. The men patted their necks for comfort, none too comfortable themselves. Both horses and riders were creatures of the open plains. Woods meant darkness, witchcraft and ambush.
Towards evening, having ridden as fast and far as we could into the falling darkness, we were looking for a clearing to camp in when Torismond said he had seen a leopard, high in the trees.
‘There are no leopards in these mountains,’ Aetius assured him.
‘Alexander the Great hunted lions in the mountains of Greece,’ said the youth stubbornly.
‘That was many centuries ago, brother,’ said Theodoric.
‘Don’t fret,’ said Aetius. ‘You will meet with dangers enough without leopards.’
As we lay that night beside the fire, one of the wolf-lords stepped forwards, driving before him at the end of his spear something he had captured, creeping around the outskirts of the camp. No leopard, but a crazed bird-catcher. We regarded him with curiosity.
He had only one blackened stump of a tooth, and bright beady eyes darting to left and to right and missing nothing. His bare feet were glued with feathers as if he were turning into a bird himself, and he wore a straw hat garlanded with faded summer flowers.
‘And you are?’ growled Aetius.
The bird-catcher began to babble at once, speaking extraordinarily fast, like one who has not spoken with another living soul for months and years.
‘I was a missionary of Christ, one of the missionaries of St John Chrysostom sent out upon the eastern steppes to minister to the heathen there in their feathers and skins and preach them the gospel.’ He grinned, showing his blackened stump, shiny with saliva in the firelight. ‘But my friends would say, if I had any, they would say that I was driven mad out there by the indifference of the trackless, Christless wilderness. For you know that there is no law of heavenly love out there.’
‘What tribes did you preach to?’
‘Ostrogoths, Monoglots, Monopeds, Huns, Hasmodaeans, Amazons with only one tittie-’
Aetius rolled over to go to sleep. ‘The man’s insane.’
‘And now I trap my feathered brethren for meat and for feathering my own feet,’ continued the bird-catcher. The princes and their wolf-lords continued to regard him, this antic figure in the firelight, fascinated, half-amused.
‘And you see, of all the birds that I tear gently from their gluey lime-white perches there on the tree and drop into my capacious basket, wrynecked and for ever after songless and silent, I sometimes take one that appeals to me and my curious whims and I let him go with his song intact and his neck unbroken. It is a fancy of mine. So may it be with you, my noble warriors, in the hands of the Great Catcher, as you ride out into the Christless wilderness against that terrible enemy whose hearts would turn you to stone if you could but see them. For though even the freed bird shall end in a basket all the same in time, yet do not despair, for not all are killed outright, not all lose themselves in the nighttime of my capacious osier basket. Some fly free and sing still. May you do the same, little brothers, for the Truth is nothing but all the little deeds of kindness that man to man or trapped bird ever did.’
‘You were a strange missionary,’ murmured Theodoric.
‘A shadow missionary, preaching the Fallen Christ.’
The bird-man glanced at him quickly and then went on, ‘Our stories are not completed in this world. There remains something far beyond, never to be known or named by the stumbling tongues of men. He who thinks he has it by the tail, and owns its name, is drowned in ignorance. Yet it abides. And even when in the latter days, which may be coming soon, the scroll of the world is rolled up and cast into fire, and the light of the sun is snuffed out like a candle, and all the universe comes to its natural and inborn doom, that Being will still abide, brooding on in all its eternal majestic solitude, as before the world was made.’
‘Peace now, go,’ muttered Aetius beneath his blanket, pretending to be asleep but in truth hearing the fool’s words, for they had a kind of compelling power. But the bird-catcher had more to say before we slept.
‘In each man’s heart lies his own truth, and there is no shaping it with eloquent words and reasons to fit your own more neatly. There was a bird’s nest, a lark’s nest, a little thing unregarded, and I trod on it unawares, and hearing the sound I looked down and saw a little mess of nest and blood and feathers and tiny sodden shapes of baby birds unborn. A little thing. It was then Christ died in me, never to rise again.’
Some of the wolf-lords looked hard at him. This was blasphemy. But the fool was oblivious.
‘Those broken eggshells. The wind in the trees. The pitiless sky. Nothing changed. Nothing mattered. No solace came to me or bird. I scraped the remains of the eggs and tiny birds from my boots – for I wore boots in those days like a man – and heaped them up and scattered earth on them and blessed them, and then I walked on, and Christ no longer walked by my side. Never again. From that day to this I am no Christ-worshipper nor missionary of St John Chrysostom, sent out into the wilderness to baptise the Scythian heathen, but only a bare lone man, a birdman, a madman.
‘And one day before very long now, I too will perch on a branch and be caught and trapped by one far greater than me, the oldest and the greatest god of all, his capacious osier basket unfillable and forever hungry for all eternity, no matter what goes in. Death is a portal, to be sure, but a portal to what?’ He smiled and winked conspiratorially. ‘Some doors go nowhere.’
Then they tired of the madman and, believing that his ominous words would bring them bad luck in this dark and forbidding place, on this uncertain mission already compromised and humiliating, they drove him away at spearpoint into the woods and commanded him not to return. He went whistling into the darkness like a bird at dawn.
The bird-catcher’s words cast a pall over the next day. As we rode up higher into the mountains for the pass that would take us down to Azimuntium, safely away from the open plains where our enemy in countless thousands once more hunted and laid waste, several of the wolf-lords already wore bronze cuirasses under their long red cloaks, and tall, gleaming Spangenhelms nodding with flaxen plumes. The air was heavy and ominous, and we almost prayed for a rainstorm to relieve it.
We rode higher and higher, the country becoming lifeless and bare, only a few last twisted and stunted trees sheltering straggling sheep, then only thorns and faded brown heath. In the deep rocky chasms, the trickle of dark streams and ferns and mosses hiding from the light. We rode along one of these narrow, sunless defiles, its high, gloomy walls hung with sphagnum moss and hart’s-tongue fern, thinking of ambush. But Aetius did not fear ambush, not in the mountains. This was not the Huns’ terrain. They would be fools to ride here, steppe warriors raised on the limitless plains.
The column of Visigothic wolf-lords rode uneasily nevertheless, spears held lightly under their right arms, looking silently about them. They had seen dark things, these mountains of Thrace, home to mysteries since ancient times, where Orpheus was rent apart by his screaming maenads. As they rode down the narrow defile, the horses also silent and oppressed, picking their way carefully among the boulders and the rockfalls, hooves slipping sideways on slate-grey stones, the rain began to fall from the leaden sky and make the way yet more treacherous. The sky was a great iron lid on the world, and big raindrops struck silver-bright on gleaming Spangenhelms, running in droplets down over the steep helmed sides and down noseguards and aventails, over stubbled and unshaven cheeks, brushed away, soaking into neckcloths, beading on scarlet woollen cloaks, trickling over mailed and plated shoulders. The riders sweated, despite the steely rain. Not a living creature did we glimpse. The rain came down more heavily.
Then the pass widened. We came round a broader turn and a light wind blew in our faces and there opening before us was a lake surrounded by bare rocky mountains, its pewter surface stippled with rain. The cliffs on our left broke down into massive tumbled boulders, while on our right they ran along the lake shore, the water lapping almost to the foot of the cliffs but for a narrow gravel spit. On the other side of the lake were more green hills and then crueller mountains beyond.
Aetius sat his horse and took it all in.
‘A majestic scene,’ pronounced Prince Theodoric.
Aetius smiled indulgently. ‘But I can smell horses.’ The prince looked puzzled.
‘Many horses, and not ours. The smell of them blowing over to us across the lake. Look at your own, how her nostrils flare.’
‘I thought that was at the water. It’s long since they drank.’
‘Well, don’t let them now. Time enough to drink after. Ready your lances.’
He ordered Jormunreik and Valamir to climb up to their left and scout. A few minutes later they came scrambling breathlessly down again, reaching for their armour even as they gave their report.
Yes, many horses. And many men.
‘A few hundred,’ said Valamir, tying his long hair back into a ponytail and setting his tall steel Spangenhelm back on his head, ready for the fray.
Aetius rubbed his unshaven chin. He doubted Attila himself was here. One of his generals would be leading. ‘This was no ambush. A scouting party, that is all. An accident of fate.’
‘A misfortune we shall face with direst fortitude,’ said Theodoric, sitting very straight in his saddle.
The lad was becoming more ridiculous by the moment, but still Aetius did not mock him. He had been young himself once. ‘A misfortune for them,’ he said. ‘Poor, lightly-armed scouting Huns, suddenly running into a column of Gothic wolf-lords in these desolate mountains. They are doomed.’
The princes looked cheered at the thought. I was very anxious about it, myself.
‘Doubtless they were only mapping passes through the mountains. A surprise for us. But a good soldier should not be surprised at surprises.’ He ordered the two wolf-lords back on their horses, then rode out of the end of the pass and down to the lakeshore. And there, across from us to our left, was a milling horde of Huns, arrows to the bow.
Ahead of us across the lake, at the far end of the cliffs beyond the narrow gravel shore, was the second group. He looked back. Very well, then, three groups. Behind us, on the cliffs under which we had just passed, dismounted Huns lay in wait, spiky with bows. Others had rolled big boulders to the edge of the ravine and were waiting patiently for our flight. Retreat would be nothing but self-slaughter.
Aetius did not hesitate. Already the party of Huns up on the cliffs were turning their arrows towards our defenceless backs, and over to the left the second group was doing likewise. There was one way to go, with shock and force. A small figure on a skewbald pony was at the head of the group before us, below the cliff face, still, watching. Then he raised his arm and dropped it, and the Hun arrow-storm began, slicing through the rain. Arrows and rain crosshatched, making a cage in the air.
Aetius ordered me to ride in the centre, then twisted in his saddle and yelled to the column, ‘Shields on your backs! Spears couched low! Fast trot, keep formation. Full charge only when I give the order. Forward!’
The wolf-lords were no fools, and few had not strapped their shields across their backs already, seeing that the heaviest arrow-fire would come from behind. Then the column was trotting forward into the lake shallows, a Teutonic-style attack column of the kind they knew best, four abreast and twelve deep, with myself jostled unpleasantly in the middle, speechless with fright. This was not appropriate work for a Clerk-in-Consistory. No wider front was possible as we were squeezed between the steel-grey lake on the left and the black, shining cliffs on the right, the left-hand files riding their horses up to their bellies in the cold water, the right brushing their knees against the rockface. Arrows fell through the rain but to no avail: our shields were stuck like pin-cushions but our backs doubly protected by both shield and armour. We kept in tight formation.
Then Aetius rose up in his saddle and flashed his sword in the grey air and bellowed with sudden ferocity and drove his rowelled spurs into his horse’s flanks. Our disciplined trot turned into a canter, water and gravel kicking up beneath two hundred flying hooves, spurs driving into sodden flanks, chamfrons covered in silver beads of rain and misted with horses’ breath. Then we were galloping, long ashwood spears couched low like lances, braced back against the rear horns of our wooden saddles. Two hundred yards to cover and the arrow-storm thickening, a splash to the left and a cry to the right, arrowheads thocking into shieldboards, men tumbling. But most kept low and our charge was lightning-fast, and already the nearest milling Hun archers were wavering and breaking ahead of us, fingers fumbling on their bowstrings. This was not what they had expected or foreseen, this heavy cavalry charge embarked upon so lightly, so quickly, with such dash and conviction.
In a flash the last few dozen yards were covered, there was a glimpse of sun through the thick clouds, and suddenly our galloping horsemen were coming on like spangled wraiths through the rain and flying water, blinding with sunlight, and then crashing into the heart of the Hun pack and splintering them apart, their leader on his skewbald pony rearing and turning and making for higher ground.
Lost and uncertain among these alien mountains, the Huns were taken by surprise and by the ferocity of this attack from such inferior numbers. Mounted archers of the steppes, they could not gallop free and circle and come back with a low, level volley of arrows. Trapped between lakeshore and cliff, there was no room for their usual tactics. Where was the wind on the plains, where were the wide grasslands? Here there were only tall dark cliffs and steep mountain paths and jagged rocks and heavy rain, and this bludgeoning charge. There were ponies tumbling, stuck through the ribs, and lightly armoured warriors impaled on the long ashen lances of the Gothic horsemen. Cries of men and horses mingled. Where they could, stocky ponies and their riders fell back and surged away into the low green hills in bewildered retreat before that calamitous attack. But many of the Huns were too close packed, the terrain around was too steep for easy retreat and they were beaten down by this onslaught of weighty metal and ashen spear.
The clash of arms, the bell-like ring of steel on steel, warriors flecked with drops of rain and blood, aghast Asiatic faces sliced open, stocky bodies riven through, and nowhere to move or fly, not even space to pull up an arrow and draw a bow in the impacted melee. The wolf-lords rose up in the saddle, drawing their great two-handled swords from their back-scabbards and slicing down into the helpless throng. Over the water, the other two Hun war parties held their fire, unable to risk killing their own, stricken and motionless, watching the ghostly carnage across the pale lake.
At last the bloody skirmish was done, and all the Huns either dead or vanished. On a flat rock high above them, turning on his skewbald pony, one of the Hun warlords looked down on the victorious Gothic column. Aetius reined in his horse and looked up at him through the thinning rain. The warlord was expressionless, his cheeks ritually scarred, his iron-grey ponytail dripping. It couldn’t be him. It couldn’t be. The warlord drew a short shining sword and levelled the point directly at Aetius. Aetius gazed back, unmoving. Then the warlord pulled his pony round, sheathed his sword and vanished into the mountains.
We rode down to the lake at last and let our horses drink. The men drank, too, leaning back in their saddles, tilting their flasks. Then they dismounted and dragged down dry brushwood from under the shelter of some trees up a nearby valley, and burned their dead upon a pyre, pagan-style, but with prayers to the Christian God. The rain slowed and stopped and the last of the day’s sun leaked through and spilled molten copper upon the placid surface of the lake, and the funeral fires reflected in the water and dark smoke drifted away over the green hills. Then the column of wolf-lords, forty-four in number, with their two princes and the fierce and now well-respected Roman general, remounted and rode up into the hills above the drifting smoke, knowing that the Hun war party might attack again at any time. There would be no sleep nor rest from riding tonight.
It was late into the night when we came to an abandoned stone farmstead on a high plateau, with a half-broken stock wall. Aetius gave the order to dismount here and take our rest, with sentries posted. We made a single small fire within the shelter of the wall and rolled ourselves in our blankets.
As if to honour their dead, the wolf-lords recited in low voices the lays of their people. Long wanderings of their doomed and tragic tribe, driven from their ancient homelands in icebound Thule by a still more warlike people they called the Sweotheoden. Then half-destroyed by nameless Easterlings in Hrefnawude, or Ravenswood, in a great and terrible battle when the arrrow-storm pelted the shield-wall in the dark pine forests of that land, a battle etched in the memory of their bloodstained lays. They fled east and then south to the shores of the Scythian Sea, and then westwards again like autumn leaves, to find their final heartland in sunwarmed southern Gaul.
At dawn, after only two or three hours’ sleep on the hard ground, we arose and smothered the fire and rode on. Coming to the edge of the plateau we looked down, and eastward across the burning plain below we saw a hill-town shimmering in the hazy morning air, set atop a single cone of golden rock amid the waterless flatland.
We had thought to come here having made our peace with Attila, though Aetius always knew it would never happen. The emperor had expected us to come peaceably to Azimuntium, at a relaxed and serene pace, having seen Attila slain behind us and the Hun threat dissipated for good. I could still hardly believe such clumsy stupidity. We had tried to assassinate Attila himself! How we would pay for it in time. The whole world would pay for it. But we would be the first to suffer. Now we had to bring Her Majesty home urgently, ourselves already battered and reduced in numbers, with the darkest clouds rolling towards us, just over the horizon.
We rode round the edge of the plateau and down a narrow valley where a limpid brook flowed over rockfalls from pool to pool, and small trees grew and birds chittered, and eventually down and out onto the plain along a dirt track towards the town. We broke into a fast trot again here. The sun moving across the sky was our constant bane. Time was against us. Aetius sent outriders far to our left and right, but they could see nothing, and on a plain like this, a hundred thousand horsemen would kick up some dust. After a while, though, approaching us from the north-west we saw a small band of vagabonds, mounted and spiky with spears. Aetius reined in and we waited, the sun blazing down on us as if in angry warning.
Eventually the band came near, not slowing in their approach nor showing any sign of fear. There were but four of them and they made a motley crew. There was one youngish fellow, very scarred and bruised, a deserter perhaps; an arrogant-looking Easterner with long black moustaches; a grim-faced older fellow with cold eyes; and a fat, grubby oaf with a scarecrow thatch of hair, whose poor horse looked ready to collapse beneath him. None was clean-shaven, and all carried weapons and wore looted Roman armour. Aetius rested his hand on the pommel of his sword. He detested looters of slain soldiers. Battlefield carrion crows.
‘Where did you come by that armour?’ he demanded peremptorily.
The four slowed and reined in. They seemed in no hurry to reply.
‘Answer me, damn you.’
The fat oaf, quite unafraid, looked round at his three bandit comrades and grinned. ‘Well, I should say we came by it at Viminacium.’
Aetius’ hand tightened on his sword. He had executed looters on the spot before now. ‘Viminacium was destroyed.’
‘Quite so, your lordship, though not without a struggle, I should say, if you wanted to go and inspect the ruins, what’s left of ’em. And it’s bye bye to the field army, too, from what we heard on the road, over near the River Utus. Six whole Eastern legions gone up in smoke. Still, I always did say the Eastern legions wasn’t no match for the Western lot. Not that we been over River Utus way ourselves. There’s a few Huns about here and there these days, so you want to keep a low profile if you take my advice. Of course, if you’d rather-’
Knuckles subsided into injured silence.
‘So you admit it? You are common looters?’
Neither ‘common’ nor ‘looter’ could be tolerated by Arapovian. He snapped back crisply, indicating Knuckles, ‘This one’s birth was not of the noblest, it is true, though beneath that ape-like exterior he has a noble heart. But I am Count Grigorius Khachadour Arapovian, the son of Count Grigorius Nubar Arapovian, the son of-’
‘Oh, ’ere we go,’ sighed Knuckles. He shook his head at Aetius. ‘I hope you’re not in a hurry, though you look like you might be. Now you’ve got him started, we’ll be listening to the names of his forefathers till tomorrow nightfall.’
‘Silence, both of you.’
Knuckles ignored him. ‘We’re from Viminacium.’
‘No one survived from Viminacium.’
The legionary looked around at the other three and grimaced with down-turned mouth. ‘Well, comrades, seems like we must be fucking ghosts of ourselves, then – thought I was feeling a bit funny.’ He looked back at Aetius. ‘Ghosts can’t commit crimes, sir. If there weren’t no survivors out of Viminacium, we’re the walking dead. And if we’re the walking dead, we ain’t no looters and we don’t belong to no legion except the legion of the damned.’
It was impeccable logic.
Aetius’ hand on his sword-hilt relaxed again. Though these four were as irritating as hell, he began to sense they were indeed no ordinary looters, and spoke the truth, or something like it. He threw his cloak back over his right shoulder to show his general’s epaulettes. The scarred young fellow and the cold-eyed older man immediately sat straighter in their saddle and saluted.
Aetius smiled grimly. ‘So you are deserters, not looters.’
Still holding his salute, the older man rasped back icily, general or no, ‘We are no deserters, sir. There was nothing left to desert from. ’
Aetius eyed him. ‘Name, rank and legion.’
‘Marcus Tatullus, centurion, primus pilus, the VIIth Legion, Claudia Pia Fidelis.’ He spoke these last words with exaggerated emphasis, his gaze fixed on Aetius, a look of agony behind his deep-set, unblinking eyes.
Likewise still holding his salute, the younger scarred fellow loudly pronounced the legionary motto, ‘Six times brave, six times faithful.’
‘Make that seven,’ said the centurion. His voice sounded strange.
‘Gaius Malchus,’ said the young fellow, ‘cavalry captain, VIIth Legion, sir!’
Aetius began to understand, though it was hard to believe. He felt a flood of emotion within him, and fought to control it. He looked at the last of the four, the thatch-haired troglodyte. ‘And you?’ he said, more quietly.
‘Anastasius, sir, son of the whore Volumella, one of the most noted whores on the Rhineland frontier in her day. Though most people call me Knuckles. I believe it suits me better.’
Aetius couldn’t help but smile, though his heart was heavy with emotion. ‘And your rank?’
‘An ordinary boot, obviously, sir. Of the lowest possible class, and common as muck in a cowshed.’
Aetius looked them over and saw them anew. I saw his breastplate heave and I knew his great heart shook. These were no common men, sitting their horses battle-scarred and travel-stained, unspeakably weary, and yet not broken. These were the backbone of the old empire, and with such the empire would live to fight again.
‘You survived Viminacium? You fought against the Huns there and survived?’
‘If you could call it surviving,’ said Knuckles.
‘You survived,’ affirmed Aetius. ‘Ride with us.’
‘You’re headed back to Constantinople, I take it, sir?’ asked Malchus.
Aetius nodded. ‘Via Azimuntium, that hill-town yonder. To provide escort home for the Empress Ath-Eudoxia. She is in residence at the convent there.’
‘The empress?’ Malchus whistled. ‘The Huns are all over this plain. From what I’ve heard, they’re operating in at least four different battle groups.’
‘At least,’ said Aetius. ‘We’ve already met one of them – only a thousand men or so. Yes, they’re everywhere. And,’ he smiled grimly, ‘they are no more favourably disposed towards us than before.’ He turned back and raised his hand. ‘Column: fast trot!’
As an officer, Malchus rode just behind Aetius, on his shield side. Tatullus rode behind him, and Knuckles and Arapovian brought up the rear. The wolf-lords whispered among themselves, and soon it was known throughout the column that these four were the sole survivors of a terrible battle with the Huns, which had seen over a thousand Romans slain. Some of the Visigoths could not help glancing round at Knuckles and Arapovian and seeing those ragged wanderers with new respect. The wolf-lords admired nothing so much as valour in battle.
Knuckles nodded back at them. ‘Got a biscuit?’
One of the wolf-lords grinned and rummaged in his saddlebag and threw him a hunk of stale bread. Knuckles caught it in his huge paw and began to gnaw it with a certain awkwardness as he trotted.
‘So I got a noble heart then, have I?’ he rumbled, spraying crumbs at his companion beside him.
Arapovian rode looking straight ahead, aquiline features expressionless. ‘Accept the compliment graciously, and do not expect me to repeat it.’
‘I don’t do graciously,’ said Knuckles, ‘son of a whore like me.’
‘I believe,’ said Arapovian, ‘though I do not understand it, that you are almost as proud of your ancestry as I am of mine.’
Knuckles snorted with laughter, and breadcrumbs flew out of his nose.
Azimuntium was a town of less than a thousand souls, though its numbers were now swollen with terrified refugees. Thick walls ringed it round, built into the jagged bedrock, and a steep cobbled ramp led up to the stout wooden gates. Once the column was within the gates, a great cheer went up from the people, as if we were come as liberators. Little did they know. Aetius could not look them in the eye. Our mounted column snaked up a narrow cobbled lane to the Upper Town, high-battlemented gatehouses marking the way. It was a fine defensive site.
The Lord of Azimuntium, Ariobarzanes by name, met us at the entrance to the courtyard of his tumbledown palace. He was a weak old man in a less than spotless gabardine, supported on a vine-staff, crouched in the wooden gateway with an ancient hound at his side.
‘The empress is in the convent,’ he said. ‘She is finishing mass.’
‘There is no time to finish mass,’ said Aetius. ‘We ride out immediately.’
‘She left strict instructions.’
Aetius cursed under his breath. Then he ordered lookouts posted on the walls.
‘The enemy are near,’ said Ariobarzanes.
He turned sharply. ‘How do you know?’
‘Ask any of the refugee shepherds in the town.’ He waved a hand knotty with purple veins. ‘Shepherds without sheep – the Scythian heathen have taken them all. May the Lord of Hosts defend us.’
And cold steel, thought Aetius.
‘We also hear they have razed Philippopolis.’
Aetius said softly, ‘The entire city?’
Ariobarzanes tilted his head. ‘The entire city. The Flower of the River Hebrus. The waters of the river ran red, and the savages hung the body of the bishop naked from the walls.’ His watery eyes searched Aetius, and his voice trembled. ‘I tell you, Christendom has never before faced an enemy such as this. They will raze the world flat.’
‘He who lives longest will see the most.’
And they were standing there, kicking their heels while the empress finished saying her Kyrie and her Agnus Dei. It was madness. He sent his new centurion, Tatullus, to demand entrance to the convent. Tatullus returned, saying that his way had been barred by nuns.
‘Nuns,’ breathed Aetius. ‘In the Name of Light!’
Frustrated, he went down to the Church of Saint Jude, with a long, low hospital building behind. In the gloom, a very tall, thin old man with an unkempt beard was striding about, ordering the shutters to be thrown open and pots of fresh flowers to be brought in. ‘End of summer, but anything you can find!’ his voice boomed down the room.
There was a single middle-aged woman bustling about to do his bidding, and two plump older men standing in one corner arguing. In another stood three of the Visigothic wolf-lords, their wounds from the skirmish in the mountains freshly bandaged, looking uncomfortable. In one of the eight narrow beds along the wall lay an old peasant, eyes glazed, mouthing to himself, and in another was a tired-looking woman, having recently given birth, her newborn at her breast. Sickness always made Aetius feel uncomfortable and he moved to leave, but something about the commanding old man held his attention. He frowned.
‘You, man,’ he called out. ‘I remember you.’ The old man turned and regarded Aetius vaguely. ‘I remember your face. But it was… many years ago. What is your name?’
‘I thought I might be of use here,’ said the old man with airy evasiveness. ‘I came to Azimuntium to examine some remarkable old texts in the synagogue here, you know, dating from the time of the Maccabees-’
‘Do not play games with me. Where have I seen you before?’
‘I have been around a bit,’ he continued, still airy. ‘In an empire of a hundred million souls, a few second meetings are not unlikely. All is for the best, et cetera. Now, where did I put that ewer?’
Aetius stepped up to him and held him. ‘ Your name.’
The old man looked fractionally down at him, he was so tall. His eyes were deep-set and serious now. ‘My name is Gamaliel.’
Aetius stared. ‘It was you who came to the camp of the Huns, with that British officer, in search of his son. It was you. Spinning tall tales of how you once knew Aristotle.’
‘I am a citizen of the world.’
‘But that was years ago, decades ago. You’ve hardly aged – well, not much. How old are you?’
‘Older than you and younger than Methusaleh,’ said Gamaliel blithely. ‘Nuts and berries, nuts and berries. But I eat very little. Now, madam, please will you open those shutters?’
At this, the two men arguing in the corner approached.
‘Forgive us for interrupting,’ said one. ‘We are trained medical men on our way back to Constantinople.’
‘Seeking shelter here from the rumoured horsemen of the steppes,’ said the other. ‘Though not afraid, we are careful.’
‘Not a good place to seek shelter,’ muttered Aetius, still half lost in memories of his own boyhood. ‘They’ll be here before we finish yakking.’
One of the men regarded Aetius with alarm, but the other drew in breath and addressed Gamaliel.
‘As a strict Pneumatist of the Alexandrian school, founded by the revered Athenaeus of Attalia, in Pamphylia, as I’m sure you know, himself a pupil of the stoic Posidinius of Apamea, a purist of the noblest standing, in the face of multifarious insults and contumely from those wayward and contemptible Episynthetics, those magpies of medical learning, led – or should I say misled? – by that scoundrel Leonidas of Alexandria-’
Gamaliel who had begun his examination of the ailing peasant, but the two learned doctors followed him over.
‘Your point being?’ interrupted Gamaliel, a little testily.
‘My point being, my dear man,’ said the doctor, ‘that this demand of yours that the shutters be opened, on, I take it, grounds of fresh air, is, I’m afraid, woefully ill-advised. Such fresh air might be fatal to a man in this one’s condition,’ he indicated the old peasant, ‘although with brief perscrutation I can see that he will shortly be in the grave, come what may. However, since we must abide by our Hippocratic oaths until that melancholy end, I refer you to the teachings of the Alexandrian Pneumatists, who have made it very clear that the pneuma – that is, the vital breath – being not the whole soul, but rather only the potentiality of it-’
Another woman brought in a jug of late flowers. Nearby, Prince Torismond appeared and was saying something to Aetius about a large dust-cloud to the north.
‘-a compound,’ continued the erudite man of science, ‘of varying proportions of air and fire, the vehicle of cosmic sympatheia, and in truth quite unlike that preposterous agglomeration of indivisible Democritean particles hypothesised by the Peripatetic Atomists… The pneuma, I say, is the seat of corporeal vigour, from which flows the vital breath throughout all the nerves and vesicles of the body. And the pneuma is only diluted, perhaps fatally, by the admixture of lifeless outdoor air-’
‘Fascinating,’ murmured Gamaliel. ‘Hold out your tongue,’ he said to the old peasant.
Behind them, Aetius swept from the room.
‘However,’ said the second doctor, ‘notwithstanding my colleague’s animadversions upon my own school, for I am myself an orthodox Peripatetic Atomist, having participated at Athens, Mother of Learning, in the experimental decapitation of both eels, goats, tortoises and grasshoppers, I can assure you, as against the doubtless well-intentioned but hopelessly misguided teachings of the Alexandrian Pneumatists, that it is the head, and not the pneuma, which is the seat of the vital power, and it is the crowding of atoms to the head which causes all manner of night sweats, interferences of vision, and spasms of the bowels.’
Gamaliel frowned. ‘What are you saying? We should cut his head off?’
The Peripatetic Atomist smiled indulgently at the old fellow’s foolish jest. ‘My dear man, I am saying, in short, that in a man of his late years, doomed to expire shortly as he is, his body is too soft and relaxed, his atoms are slowed and weighed down with too much moisture, and he needs must be condensed.’
The pregnant woman in the bed behind them groaned.
‘Condensed?’ scoffed the Alexandrian Pneumatist. ‘On the contrary, the atoms of his pneuma are already too condensed. They need to be more spaced apart. This can be achieved by moderate suffocation, or else by bleeding with leeches.’
Gamaliel regarded them. ‘Gentlemen, when you see a ruddy man, full of air and fire, does he seem to you strong or weak?’
‘Strong,’ admitted the Atomist.
‘And when you see a man as pale as whey and obviously of thin or little blood, as this one, does he appear to you strong or weak?’
‘Weak. But, sir, the learned Galen-’
‘Oh, bugger Galen!’ snapped Gamaliel impatiently. ‘Now gentlemen, I could listen to you all day, but I must be about my work. Madam, all the shutters open, if you please. And boil some water. A large vat, yes.’
‘Water!’ exclaimed both doctors. ‘Too much moisture, too much softness! Highly dangerous!’
‘As for this one,’ said Gamaliel, turning to the woman, and then bending down to her kindly, ‘how old is… he? She?’
‘Near a week since, sir,’ she gasped. ‘She.’
‘A blessing,’ he said, then turned to the nurse. ‘Find some mouldy bread, rye if possible.’
‘We have made our examination of this one already,’ said the Alexandrian Pneumatist, ‘notwithstanding her protestations of modesty – always amusing in one so low-born. She suffers from a filthiness of her uterine matter, which is not all ejected. We recommended an application of dung, ideally of swine, being the foulest of dungs, on the sound principle that filth drives out filth.’
‘Absolute twaddle,’ said Gamaliel, washing his hands. ‘Mouldy bread is what she needs. Mouldy rye bread.’
Both doctors laughed with disbelief. ‘My dear sir!’ ‘You know about ergot, the fungus that grows on rye-grain? Reappears in the loaf afterwards, if left to go mouldy. Mildly toxic, yes, hallucinogenic, yes, but also a powerful emmenagogue. Stimulates contraction of the uterine muscles. Now, out of my way. Swine dung indeed!’ He pushed the open-mouthed doctors aside and bent down to talk to the woman. To the doctors’ even greater astonishment, he wasted his time actually explaining to this unlettered peasant what treatment he would be administering to her, and why. He explained to her gently and patiently that the mould would make her feel a little sick, a little light-headed and unwell, but within a day it would make her better. The woman smiled faintly.
‘This is quite wrong, a gross categorical error,’ said the Pneumatist. ‘A woman’s afterbirth is not mouldy, it is filthy, and must be treated as such.’
‘Filthy?’ said Gamaliel, standing straight again. ‘Nonsense. You could cook it and eat it quite happily. Very strengthening. In fact, you could eat it raw if you really wanted, nice and fresh.’
‘The man’s mad,’ they muttered, and they backed away, appalled.
Gamaliel smiled and moved on.
Up on the walls, five men were on lookout post: Prince Torismond with his two Gothic wolf-lords, Jormunreik and Valamir, and two of the survivors from Viminacium, Knuckles and Arapovian. Rumour had spread that the empress had been taken ill earlier that day, and was treated by an old Jewish doctor. A couple of other learned medical men from Athens and Alexandria had also been in attendance, arguing furiously about the empress’s pneuma. And all this time, the clouded horizon came nearer.
‘Doctors!’ opined Knuckles. ‘Don’t give me fuckin’ doctors. Translate stuff, that’s all they ever do. Translate what you tell ’em into Greek and chuck it back at you. What’s this pneuma?’
‘Breath,’ said Arapovian, watching the north over Knuckles’ ox-like shoulder.
‘There you are, then. You go to a doctor, and you tell him you got a sore throat that won’t shift, and he tells you to poke your tongue out and he peers down your gullet, and then he pronounces, “Ah, yes, my good man, now what you have there is what we doctors call laryngitis.” Which is just Greek for “sore throat”. And you think, But I just told you that, you cockwit! And he says, “That will be one fine gold solidus for my invaluable diagnosis, if you please. Next client!”’
Aetius appeared beside them. ‘What is it?’
‘A dust-cloud,’ said Arapovian, ‘a few degrees west of north. And growing.’
The wolf-lords rumbled that they could see nothing, leaning their great copper-banded arms across on the top of the wall and gazing out into the twilight. Aetius could see nothing, either, but the Easterner had the eyes of a hawk. If the Huns were on the horizon, from this height, maybe a hundred feet above ground, that would be – he did a quick calculation, learned decades back from his old tutor – twelve miles off, perhaps a little more. Even slow-moving cavalry would be here in three hours, and the Huns did not move slowly.
It was time they left, with nightfall to hide them.
In the gloom of the convent chapel, there was a priest intoning the ancient litany, and, kneeling before him, a woman in white, veiled in keeping with the teachings of the Church, and, either side of her, two veiled handmaidens. The priest looked up, his expression angry.
‘The sacraments have been administered?’ demanded Aetius.
‘Who are you, and how dare you interrupt the holy mass?’
‘I see they have. Shut up your gospel, Father. The service is finished. It’s time for the empress to leave.’
Immediately one of the handmaidens stood before him. ‘Night is falling, and the empress is in no fit state to leave.’
Aetius frowned. Two other of her handmaidens helped her to her feet. She turned. Through the dim gauze he saw a woman who looked old but once beautiful, her eyes still large and luminous. In truth, she was only in her middle forties. She looked at him and clutched one of her maids.
Aetius’ heart sank. ‘Take her to the hospital,’ he ordered.
There was a moment of hesitation, then the empress bowed her head and her handmaidens led her away.
Athenais lay in a fever, very pale, her broad brow damp with perspiration. Gamaliel sent out for some fresh willow leaves. He said an infusion would help, but it would take time, and she must drink boiled water. His cures struck those around him as mad. Heat should be used to drive out heat, surely? The empress should be laden with blankets, and given strong spiced wine. But they did his bidding, under the stern eye of Master-General Aetius, who seemed to have some connection with this bearded and peculiar ancient.
The general was hovering in the door of the hospital, about to leave, when the empress summoned him over. For a moment, her fever seemed to clear. She gave him a sad smile.
‘What kept you?’ she said. She might have been referring to his whole life.
He looked at the ground. ‘I was needed elsewhere.’
‘And still are?’
He looked troubled. ‘We must leave when we can. There isn’t much time.’
‘Do not leave,’ she said, misunderstanding. She reached out a trembling hand. ‘Stay.’
A nurse lit a candle for her bedside. After a moment, Aetius called for a chair to be brought.
In the night she was feverish again, talking in her delirium, repeating an old rhyme: ‘Many a couple love one another, Though they never come together, Nor shall know each other’s name ever.’
Suddenly she half sat up and stared at him. ‘Let us ride away.’
‘We will,’ he said quietly, ‘once you are well.’
One of her handmaidens eased her gently down again.
‘Far away,’ murmured the empress. ‘Do not let the angel of history harry us to the bitter end.’
The handmaiden looked awkwardly, questioningly, at the general. He nodded her away.
‘Somewhere there is escape from it,’ Athenais murmured, barely audible, her dark hair streaked with grey and plastered to her face.
‘You should rest now,’ he said. And then very carefully, with gross presumption by all the rules of court etiquette, he reached out his big scarred hand and stroked the hair back from her cheek. He took up the damp cloth on the edge of the bowl beside her and pressed it to her brow. She breathed in deeply, seemed calmer again.
‘Somewhere there is escape from it,’ she repeated softly. ‘Somewhere we might awake one morning out of the clutches of this nightmare.’
He did not want to hear her words, but he could not leave her.
‘In two or three generations’ time, all this will be at an end.’ She was looking intently at him again, and he could see she knew who he was. She was not so delirious. ‘Rome and her empire… These things are at an end. Can you not see, Aetius? In two or three generations’ time, these things will be only glorious memories in the minds of old men, monks and scholars in their chilly skylit cells, dreaming of the Golden Antique Past, and of the Kingdom to Come, and of Christos Pantocrator who will descend from heaven and spirit their souls away to a far, far better world than this. And why should they not dream? For the present will be nothing but dust and darkness and ashes. The lights are going out all over Europe, the darkness is coming. Only in a few isolated places will the flickering candles be kept burning. But the strong, brave dream that was Rome in her might and youth’ – she clutched his wrist with one hand – ‘and her centuries of confidence and pride… They are gone. It is done, and only darkness and ignorance remain.’
Gently he released her grip and laid her arm back beside her. In the corner, in the gloom, her handmaidens were watching.
‘The barbarians pour over the borders,’ she murmured, falling into oblivion again. ‘Or else they invest the empire from within, and in a dream people stagger on, the living dead, their civilisation long since finished, believing in nothing. A ghost culture kept going only by comfort and illusion and wealth.’
They said the prophecies of the dying were the most powerful of all.
When Gamaliel returned, Aetius leapt to his feet and went to him. They spoke quietly in the shadows for a while, then the old physician mixed up more of his willow-leaf infusion, and added other ingredients from two more vessels. One of her handmaidens held up the empress’s head and she drank and then she slept.
Aetius would not leave, though he looked worn out.
‘You want me to assure you that she will live,’ said Gamaliel.
Aetius said nothing.
‘Well,’ said the old man. ‘You know the cynical old saying: “Ubi tres physici, duo athei – where there are three doctors, there are two atheists.” But I am the third of them. God is with us, in ways we cannot even imagine.’ He laid his hand on Aetius’ arm. ‘A leader of men needs sharp wits, which means good sleep.’
Against his will, Aetius followed someone else’s advice for the first time in decades.
The general was shaken awake only a few hours later.
‘There are campfires burning all over the plain.’ It was Prince Theodoric.
He flung his cloak round him and they hurried outside, onto the walls. It was a pitch-black night, with no moon and thin skeins of cloud dimming even the stars. Someone offered him a torch to see his way but he damned him for a fool and told him to put it out. And then they were on the walls of Azimuntium, and the plains all about them were a sea of blackness studded golden with myriad campfires, like a fallen starlit sky.
‘So,’ he nodded. ‘They have come.’
‘The demand has been delivered already: an arrow over the gates.’
‘Let me guess. Surrender or die?’
‘In as many words,’ said Theodoric. ‘What do we do now?’
‘A small hill-town and a column of forty spearmen, facing a Hun battle group of thousands? We ride out and attack ’em, of course.’
Theodoric looked unconvinced. They watched the flickering campfires for a time, then Aetius gestured at the nearest. ‘How far out are they, would you say? The nearest?’
‘Hard to tell by night. Not so far.’
‘Choose four of your best men. Mounted.’
‘Myself among them,’ interrupted Arapovian.
Aetius’ eyes narrowed. ‘You are as good as the wolf-lords? ’
‘Better. I survived Viminacium.’
He grunted. ‘Prince, take three of your wolf-lords, and this one. Ride from the postern gate. The night is very dark. See if you can take a captive out there. Do not endanger your lives, not for one moment. Do you understand?’
Theodoric nodded and the four departed for the stables below.
The postern gate was opened without a sound, and left open, spearmen ranked inside. The four rode out at a walk with their horses’ hooves and muzzles bound in sacking, praying that the beasts would make no other noise, no friendly harrumphs to the horses of the Huns among the black felt tents. It would be pure luck if they did not. The riders wore dark cloaks, no helmets, and rode with their faces streaked with earth and bowed so as not to catch any light. The only weapons they dared carry were whips.
An old warrior stood in the darkness beside his tent, his campfire long since burned out. The four riders stopped in the shadow of a slight depression. The old warrior was naked to the waist, belting up his breeches. Arapovian dismounted, moved round behind him and dropped a cloth bag over his head and gagged him before he knew what had happened. The next tent was a mere ten yards off but the occupants were already sleeping, and the four made no sound louder than a mouse in a cornfield. In their haughtiness the Huns had not posted a single lookout.
They bound their captive with their whips. Another, smaller figure came out of the tent behind so they felled him and gagged and bound him likewise, and then pulled them back to the town behind their horses. The old warrior struggled mightily and threatened to cause trouble, so Jormunreik knocked him cold with a mighty fist to the back of his neck, and then they dragged him along peacefully enough in the dirt behind them like a travois. It was all done in two or three minutes, the postern gate latched and bolted again, the prisoners shaken back to consciousness and hauled up to the gatehouse for Aetius’ inspection.
‘Asla konusma Khlatina,’ growled the old warrior, his head still covered. ‘Sizmeli konusmat Ioung.’
‘Oh, I’ll wager you speak Latin very well,’ said Aetius evenly. ‘As I speak Hunnish.’ He glanced aside. ‘Light more lamps.’
They sat the two captives on stools and pulled off the first bag from the smaller warrior.
‘You’ve brought me a woman,’ said Aetius, glaring round at them. ‘You dolts.’
Prince Theodoric began to protest at this unchivalrous attitude, but Aetius silenced him. ‘Don’t add to your doltishness,’ he snapped. ‘It’s the Huns who don’t value women, not I. They’ll laugh in our faces if we demand favours in exchange for this one.’ He held the lamp up to the woman’s face. Dark hair, olive skin, a long, narrow face: she was no Hun. ‘My apologies for any rough handling, ’ he said more gently. ‘Where were you captured?’
‘Philippopolis,’ she said. ‘My husband-’
‘Calm yourself. You are free now.’
She tried to speak again, but another voice interrupted.
‘Leave her be,’ it growled. ‘She is a good ride.’
They pulled off the other bag to reveal an old warrior with fine long grey hair and oiled moustaches, his naked torso copper in the lamplight, as lean and hard as that of a man half his age. His arm muscles bulged and strained against the whip.
‘You are in no position to give orders,’ said Aetius. ‘And I have no desire to know about your carnal preferences.’
‘Astur curse you,’ spat the old warrior. ‘Cut my throat and have done. But know that I have no fear of you or your women, who sneak about in the night like pigeon-livered slaves.’
Jormunreik stepped nearer to him, but Aetius held up his hand. He was beginning to enjoy this obstreperous old warrior’s company. Then Arapovian came forward, examining the old warrior’s face more closely.
‘You were at Viminacium. You met us on the road.’
The Hun glanced up at him, uninterested.
‘You said the next time you met us, you would kill us.’ Arapovian’s eyes glimmered with cold mirth. ‘Well, here we are.’
The Hun bared his teeth.
Arapovian turned to the general. ‘This one is compensation for the woman. This one you can bargain with. He is a khan.’
‘You, your people will bargain for,’ said Aetius. ‘What is your name?’
‘I am the Lord Chanat, son of the Lord Subotai. In my youth I once visited your Ravenna, doing the bidding of King Ruga. I have never forgotten your city.’
‘Indeed. The foul stench of it stays in my memory still – worse than the stench of these sneak-thief women standing about me now.’
Aetius grinned. ‘If you think Ravenna smells bad, you should try Rome.’
Chanat scowled at his flippancy. ‘In those days, the Romans tried to kill King Ruga’s nephew, the boy Attila.’
Aetius nodded. ‘I knew him once. We rode together.’
Chanat looked momentarily puzzled as he scrutinised the Roman.
‘From what I have heard of those days,’ said Aetius, ‘it was not so simple. King Ruga was not averse to his troublesome nephew… disappearing, one way or another. And he was very fond of Roman gold.’
‘You lie!’ Chanat struggled against his bonds, but Arapovian snatched at his whip and tightened it.
‘Ancient history,’ said Aetius, waving his hand. ‘Is King Attila with you now?’
‘You think I would tell you if he was?’
‘Not really. We’ll find out soon enough.’
Chanat snarled. ‘Now Attila Tashur-Astur is our King, and a Great Tanjou, and you tried to kill him again, in your sneak-thief, womanly way, to cut his throat as he lay sleeping, as you visited us in pretended peace and friendship. ’ He leaned forward and spat. ‘You failed, of course. At all times, Astur watches over him. Nothing can stand against him. And now he has come to kill you.’ He looked around. ‘All of you.’
Aetius ignored him. ‘So. We have ourselves a Hun khan, as well as one of his captured concubines.’
‘I have seven wives,’ said Chanat with dignity. ‘But it is long since I have known them.’
Aetius considered, then ordered Chanat taken to the dungeons. To the woman he said, ‘The sisters in the convent will care for you.’
The woman looked after Chanat with something like agony on her face. ‘My lord!’ she cried. Then she turned desperately to Aetius. ‘I will stay with him.’
‘You… you would go to the dungeons with him?’ Aetius frowned. ‘But you mentioned a husband?’
She spat. ‘A pig.’
Chanat turned in the doorway, a grin of triumph on his broad, high-cheekboned face.
Aetius said, ‘I’ve heard of ravished maidens in old tales falling for their divine ravishers, but this is ridiculous.’
‘Your women would rather go with us, eh, Roman?’ crowed Chanat.
Aetius waved his hand irritably. ‘Take them away.’
At dawn, he sat his horse at the gate, with Prince Theodoric and two of the wolf-lords. Lord Ariobarzanes came down the cobbled street to wish them well. He stopped beside Aetius. His old hand shook on his walking stick, but his voice was even and his words uncompromising.
‘Not one breath of surrender, now,’ he said. ‘The men of Azimuntium do not surrender. Never, ever, ever. Remember our demands. We want our flocks and our herds returned to us, every single animal they carried off, and the shepherds they have enslaved. When that is done, their captive will be returned to them, this Chanat, and then the Huns may ride back to their own land unmolested. ’
Aetius smiled. He liked the old man’s attitude.
‘All barbarians are the same,’ said Ariobarzanes, ‘They despise weakness, they admire strength.’ His voice dropped to a mutter. ‘As old Rome did once.’
Aetius kicked his horse forward and they rode out, unarmed, under a fluttering white flag of truce.
A gang of Huns on motley ponies immediately rode with them, arrows to the bow, aimed at their hearts.
‘There is no need. We have no weapons,’ said Aetius.
The Huns’ faces were expressionless and the light in their eyes burned hard and their bows did not waver. They were small compared to the wolf-lords, riding half-naked, their arms and chests pure strength and sinew.
‘Who is the leader of your battle group?’ asked Aetius.
One of the warriors indicated a black tent and grunted. They dismounted and were herded in. There in the half-light of early morning, beneath the smoke-hole of the tent, on a plain wooden stool sat the Lord Attila.
He regarded them steadily. The atmosphere was very different from that of the embassy – the supposed embassy.
No word was spoken for a time. And then another figure entered, a small, antic shaman with ribbons in his hair. His cheeks were very smooth and boyish but his eyes were old and cunning, and his hair bound up in a topknot was tatty grey.
‘The years roll back, Little Father,’ he murmured, coming close to Aetius with careful steps and staring at him. ‘This fine old warhorse, I have seen him before, a young colt in the fields of the Huns.’ He glanced back at Attila. ‘He drew a sword, white boy drew a sword.’
Attila’s glittering yellow eyes never left Aetius’ face, but now he waved his hand and told the shaman to be silent.
‘Where it chatters, Little Bird, water’s but shallow.’
The shaman disregarded him, and began to caper more and more, though slowly, an arthritic old clown on tired legs. ‘The years roll back, the years roll back. Yes, your uncle Ruga of blessed memory, uncle nuncle was he, he struck you to the ground, you were always a terror as a boy, scarce out of the womb and cut from the caul you were trouble. O Terror of the World, Great Tanjou, my Lord Widow-maker, Scourge of God and all your other magnificent titles which I forget now, he struck you, Uncle Ruga did, and white boy drew a sword in your defence. You hunted together, you frolicked, you did, on the sunny plains in your youth.’ Little Bird paused for breath. ‘I remember that big boar. Huge it was, and rancid-tasting by the time you dragged it home. What joker-gods look down! He was your friend, this one. Now look at you, like two old buffalo fighting over the herd!’
There was a long silence, and then, as if he could not speak a word directly to Aetius, Attila turned instead to Prince Theodoric.
‘So, a Visigoth prince once more in the camp of the Huns. I did not have the pleasure of making your acquaintance when you made your. .. embassy. I had other things on my mind, my impending assassination and so forth. Your name, boy?’
The prince told him.
‘What verminous company you keep. Your men slew many of my men in the mountains.’
‘We were attacked.’
‘My heart bleeds for you.’ Attila’s eyes glimmered. ‘You would make a precious hostage, would you not? Why should I release you?’
‘In exchange for your Lord Chanat,’ said Theodoric. Aetius clenched his hands behind his back. Yes. The boy was doing well.
‘So,’ rasped Attila. ‘You ride with the Romans now?’
‘My brother and I and our retinue ride as the friends of Aetius.’
‘Friends and assassins?’
‘I knew no more of that low plot than did the master-general here.’
‘How many men left in your retinue?’
Theodoric smiled. ‘Enough.’
Attila smiled too, differently.
‘The Visigothic nation remains neutral,’ said the prince.
Then Attila leaned forward, and his eyes burned, and all in the tent felt the ferocious power that was in him. His voice changed and his face darkened. He fixed the boy with his gaze. ‘You should ally with us. You should know which way the wind of history blows.’
There was a silence and then Theodoric replied, with audible contempt, ‘My people ally with the Huns? I think not.’
Attila sat back again. ‘Have a care, boy. I could send you back to your father as a barrel of chopped flesh.’
‘Then you would have the entire Visigothic nation against you, as well as the legions of Rome.’
‘The Huns have dealt with your nation before. Have we not harried you across all of Europe, from the shores of the Sea of Ravens westwards? You ran from us as if you were trying to catch the setting sun, wailing like women!’
The boy’s blue eyes blazed, like fire seen through ice.
Control yourself, lad, Aetius willed him. He is only testing you.
When the prince spoke again his voice remained calm. ‘You did not deal with us well in the mountains. The Visigoths will flee from you no more. The next time, like the last, we will turn and fight.’
‘That is not your decision, boy. Your father still rules the Visigoths, does he not? Unless you intend perhaps to usurp him?’
Now Theodoric had the measure of Attila and his games. Calm was strength. He only replied, ‘Return the stolen flocks and herds to the people of Azimuntium, and the kidnapped shepherds, and we shall return your Lord Chanat to you. Then we shall ride away south.’
Attila stroked his beard awhile and pondered.
Someone else came into the tent, without requesting permission, and the little grey-haired shaman whimpered and fled out of the back. Even Aetius blanched when he glanced at the newcomer. This was a Hun witch.
She was very tall and thin, her chest flat and bony, her face like that of a corpse, her hair dyed an unnatural tawny red. She wore a sloughed snakeskin round her throat, and though she was very dark skinned her eyes were a pale blue. Everything about her was wrong. She strode over to Attila and spoke in his ear, her voice a strange, high insect whine. Aetius thought he caught the name of Anashti, the moon goddess. As she spoke, she looked at Theodoric and showed her teeth. They were filed. Aetius knew what she was saying, and hoped Theodoric didn’t. The lad was holding his nerve well so far. She was speaking of the deep, strong mana of sacrificing the first-born, especially the first-born of a king, and she held out a wooden cup.
Attila looked at Theodoric. ‘Would you care for wine?’
Theodoric did not hesitate. ‘I would not. It is poisoned.’
The King laughed a harsh laugh. ‘You are not the greatest fool I have ever met. Yes, it is poisoned. You would have died in agony.’ He waved the witch away. ‘She is a jester, is she not? But she has no notion of politics and power. She thinks it can all be done by spells.’
They remained silent. Then Attila stood.
‘Lord Chanat is worth many sheep. And I like men brave unto folly. Sometimes.’ With those words he turned at last to Aetius, and handed him a note. ‘Take this to your pig of an emperor. You and I, we will meet again.’
‘On a battlefield?’ replied Aetius quietly. ‘After a battle’s end? After the deaths of countless thousands of men?’
‘Life is sacrifice,’ said Attila. ‘The world is an altar of sacrifice.’
Attila kept them waiting all day and on into dusk.
Aetius stood tirelessly on the battlements, waiting. The moon was not yet up, but he could imagine it glimmering across the Euxine Sea to the east, and shining blue-white on the snowy flanks of the Caucasus, and silvering the Danube delta, and that haunted White Island there where Achilles and Helen lived. Sailors said that they heard the sounds of their lovemaking as they sailed past, and saw Achilles’ sword play like a ghostly flame high in the rigging.
Then Gamaliel came to him. The empress grew neither stronger nor weaker.
Aetius said nothing.
‘And Attila? Do you trust him?’
‘Not one inch,’ said Aetius. ‘I know him of old. But horses can’t gallop up walls like these, and I saw no siege-engines. Even this little town would be hard to take without siege-engines.’
‘You observed well.’
‘One of the reasons I went to parley: to check out the camp.’
Gamaliel was amused. ‘But this is only one battle group.’
‘One of many. The others will have the engines.’
‘And where are they?’
Aetius looked bitter. ‘Ask the citizens of Sardica, of Adrianople, perhaps even of Thessalonika. They will be fully experienced in the Huns’ use of siege-engines by now, and there is nothing we can do to help. The East has no army to speak of, only the last of the Imperial Guard, and any odd Isaurian auxiliaries we can round up to resist the attack on Constantinople itself.’
‘That is coming?’
‘Oh, yes. That is coming.’
After a pause to digest this black news, Gamaliel said, ‘I used to pray that men would love God more than power.’ He paused. ‘I am still praying.’
Aetius only grunted.
Gamaliel said, ‘Do you remember the other boy with you in the camp of the Huns?’
‘The Greek slave Orestes.’ He nodded. ‘He is still there. Older and balder.’
‘No, the Celtic boy, Cadoc, the son of that good officer Lucius.’
‘My God,’ said Aetius softly, sad and still with memories. Never look back, they said, Not if you want to stay strong. But now… ‘I remember him, just.’ It seemed so long ago. Such length of time, and all so greatly changed. He ached with unaccountable longing. What is that longing? For another world.
Then he straightened his shoulders. No. There was more to be done.
As if reading his thoughts, Gamaliel said, ‘Things are coming to a great conclusion. An age of the world is ending, another is being born, and we are its unlikely midwives.’
There was a stirring out in the dusk. The Huns were mounting up.
‘Riddle me no riddles, please,’ snapped Aetius. ‘I’ve enough to think about.’
‘Do you remember the Last of the Sibylline Leaves? They are important. That boy, Cadoc, and his father Lucius before him, they are the last who remember them. The parchments were all destroyed, all but one, saved by General Stilicho himself. Lucius and Cadoc, in far and forgotten Britain, they are the living Last Sibylline Leaves.’
Aetius was tiring of the old man. ‘I don’t believe in sibyls and prophecies and spells. They are the things of childhood. I believe in a line of good infantry – or a column of Gothic wolf-lords, if it comes to it.’
‘Nevertheless,’ said Gamaliel, ‘the Son of God was born under a star descried by eastern Magi, was he not? And of a virgin? According to the ancient Jewish prophecy?’
‘There’s religion and there’s superstition. Don’t confuse the two, old man. “By their fruits ye shall know them”.’
Gamaliel raised his bushy eyebrows. Then he changed tack. ‘This Attila, he is a superstitious man, is he not?’
Aetius hesitated. ‘He has shamans and witches about him, yes, though he pretends to scorn them.’
‘You know he believes. His people believe in him, too, for now, and that he is the son of Astur, the All-Father, and possessed by the bloody spirit of Savash, their god of war. This is a struggle not just between armies, but between what people believe.’
Torchlights were moving over the plain. Aetius strode to the edge of the battlements to order the wolf-lords to stand ready.
‘Remember the verse,’ urged Gamaliel after him. ‘“Four will fight for the end of the world, One with an Empire, One with a Sword, Two will be saved and one will be heard, One with a Son and One with a Word.” And also the verses about a King of Terror from the East-’
‘Baulk the main gates!’ roared Aetius.
‘Sir!’ replied one of the men down below. It was the centurion, Tatullus. ‘Listen to that!’
There was a kind of muffled movement, a tramping, and then he could hear it: the baaing of sheep.
Attila always admired the brave and bloody-minded. The men of Azimuntium had triumphed.
After the herds and the flocks had been returned, along with the captured shepherds, filthy but well enough, Aetius ordered Chanat brought up from the dungeons.
The old warrior glared at him. ‘A horse.’
‘You Huns have horses enough. You can walk back to the camp.’
Chanat growled, ‘Slaves walk.’
Aetius turned to the woman. ‘And what about you? Will you return to your lawful Christian husband, or do you wish to go with this ageing barbarian?’
The woman gave Chanat a look that said it all. Chanat grinned. ‘I take the woman instead of a horse. She is slow but comfortable.’ The woman bowed her head in shame, but stayed by his side.
Aetius sighed and looked away. ‘Open the postern gate.’
‘You have no courtesy, Roman, no hospitality for your guests,’ said Chanat as he departed.
‘You weren’t a guest, you were a prisoner.’
‘But I think we shall meet again. Maybe on some bright, bloody battlefield, and it will be a glorious death for both of us. But you should ride away quickly now. The shadow of Astur follows you over the earth, and we, too, are riding south. The next time we meet, the Lord Attila may not be so accommodating!’
After the gate had closed on the pair, Aetius turned to his wolf-lords. ‘Saddle up fast.’
He insisted that the empress ride in a carriage, but she well knew what threat lay over them, and that time was against them: not just this party, but the entire city of Constantinople. She rode on a horse, clutching her reins, pale and silent. Lord Ariobarzanes came down to bid them farewell, grimly satisfied with the return of the sheep and cattle, and swearing that if ever the Huns appeared in his domains again, the men of Azimuntium would destroy them. Finally, the old Jewish healer or whatever he was came and spoke to him. Aetius asked him to ride with them, but he said that his path was by another way. His arms were full of ancient scrolls which he had taken from the synagogue, fearing that they would fall to the Huns, to be used for lighting campfires. As if one man could gather all the scrolls of the ancient world and save them from the fire to come.
Aetius had other things to think about, such as checking their provisions, exchanging a half-lame horse for a better one, and deciding what route they should take before the path of the oncoming whirlwind. But still Gamaliel followed him, shambling around the courtyard of Azimuntium before the gates as the wolf-lords and the empress’s retinue assembled, tripping over the tattered hem of his old grey robe, talking of the Sibylline Leaves, which were destroyed but not yet silent. He told the general to remember the prophecy recorded by Livy, that Rome would stand twelve centuries plus six lustra, which period was soon coming. And the king who destroyed two kingdoms. All is not all that it seems. The story is not yet finished. Is it ever? Which is the real, time or eternity? In dreams there is no time.
Aetius peered into a pannier, checking grain, finding the old man very distracting.
‘Last night,’ said Gamaliel, ‘perhaps you dreamed of your boyhood again. You were back at school under the stern eye of the magister. ’
‘Dreams play us false,’ snapped Aetius.
‘Did the dreams of Pharaoh play him false? Or Nebuchadnezzar? God speaks in dreams. The wise man listens and attends. Have hope, Aetius. Have precious hope.’
Aetius mounted, called for the gates to be opened, and turned back to look over the column. So feeble, so few in number. The wolf-lords with their banners floating in the breeze… the empress with her dark, pained eyes. Then he muttered to Prince Theodoric at his side, ‘Time to go. Attila will be hunting us. The game has begun.’
‘He thinks war a game?’
‘He thinks all of life and death a game. Forward!’
THE SOLITARY CITY
Elsewhere, all over the Eastern Empire in those days, the armies of the Huns roved unchecked, destroying all in their path. The shadow of Astur was indeed over the earth. The clumsy attempt on Attila’s life would be paid for with the lives of thousands.
At the seaports of the Adriatic, refugees took ship and fled west, spilling out of ramshackle boats and making landfall along the Italian coast. Stories of devastation soon reached the horrified ears of the Court of Ravenna, and Valentinian, rather than leading the Army of the West to face Attila in a last, desperate attempt to halt him, as a man of a different stamp might have done, ordered his finest legions to huddle uselessly about him, camped on the debilitating summer marshes, while his Eastern brothers burned.
Attila and his horde left Moesia, Macedonia, Illyricum and Thrace nothing but scorched earth. They razed to the ground the cities of Nicopolis and Marcianopolis and the great regional capital of Sardica. Their fury and their appetite for destruction knew no bounds, and they slew all they found. They destroyed Philippopolis, and Adrianople, and Edessa in Macedonia, and on the Euxine coast the lovely cities of Salmydessus, and Apollonia, and Tomi where Ovid in exile once wept. On the Aegean coast they destroyed Amphipolis, and the great port of Thessalonika, taking all that city’s rich stores of silver and lead away in their huge covered wagons. Some of their war parties rode on further, as if unable to rein in, and laid waste to Thessaly and even ancient Hellas itself. They found Corinth and Athens deserted, but destroyed many of the finest monuments of those revered cities in vengeance. Their victims numbered in the thousands, tens of thousands. The stench of rotting bodies was always on the wind.
Constantinople, the sweetest dish, the Red Apple as they called it, was left till last. The walled city of Constantine, the New Rome, was all that stood between the Huns and the treasures of Asia: the teeming millions of Syria and Egypt, the cities of Nicomedia and Ephesus and Antioch, the ancient centres of Christianity, far greater and more populous than any the Huns had yet devastated. As the terror of the coming storm increased, so, too, did the slow and horrified realisation that this was a storm which would not cease. Constantinople once taken, the Huns would cross the straits of the Bosphorus, and the rest of the world would be at their feet.
The Byzantines had visions of the Huns riding their rough ponies into the very Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, or the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, laying waste the site of Calvary and man’s redemption itself. Huns traversing the desert east and besieging far Damascus; crossing the Sinai and trampling the rich cornlands of Egypt, burning and flattening Alexandria, barbarous steppe horsemen amid the immemorial pagan temples and palaces of that ancient kingdom. Huns riding across North Africa, via the burning shells of Cyrene and Leptis Magna, and on to Carthage, meeting up with their Vandal allies under Genseric. There was no limit to the destruction they might wreak.
Constantinople must stand; even though her sister Rome would not stand with her.
I, Priscus of Panium, have seen the Hunnic destruction with my own eyes, and I have also read other chroniclers. Callinicus tells us that ‘More than a hundred cities were captured. There were so many murders and blood-lettings that the dead could not be numbered. For they took captive the churches and monasteries and slew the monks and maidens in great quantities.’ It was amid this impious slaughter that the mythic terror of the Huns was born. As Attila observed, terror is a fine weapon, and very cheap; and panic travels faster even than galloping horses.
That other noble chronicler, Count Marcellinus, wrote simply of that year of catastrophe, ‘Attila ground almost the whole of Europe into dust.’
There was one small town in those days, however, which did not fall. Tragedy did not visit it, History passed it by. It remained humble and unremarked, a common, ordinary, unheroic little town. I mean the town of Panium, standing there on the green hillside, valerian and stonecrop growing in the cracks of its ancient golden limestone walls, and the bell tower of the church peeping above. It had stood thus for many centuries, and it will stand for many centuries more, its people placid and unknown, goat bells sounding in the olive groves, cicadas chirruping in the sun-dried grass. In the evenings the old men still gather in the courtyard by the well to gossip and to drink the thin red wine. Just a simple green hillside, a little town of shepherds and farmers, a single half-literate priest. No, History never visited Panium, and it remains there still. It has no stories, for it has no scars.
Aetius took a gamble and rode directly back to the capital down the open road. The Huns did not snap at his heels. Indeed, there was no sign of them. They were waiting, looting, slaughtering through all the surrounding land, leaving Constantinople alone in mournful isolation, her provinces cut from her like limbs and destroyed in the fire. ‘ How doth the city sit solitary…’ Aetius rode at the head of the column, face set, expressionless, never so alone. Athenais ached to see him.
This waiting, this torment, was also directed at him, as he well knew. Attila’s games, his complex furies and hatreds. He is isolating me, saving me till last too, he thought. As if I have somehow betrayed him, and my betrayal is the worst, and must be punished the most.
As they came across the flat plains past the last outlying and deserted farmsteads, and saw the great brick-banded Theodosian Walls ahead of them, and the domes and spires of the city within, it seemed as if they were arrived at a dreadful judgement and reckoning, entering upon some vast stage-set directed by History herself, and they were only actors, their speeches and destinies already written. Through late orchards they came, fruit falling from the trees ungathered, abandoned monastic houses, past Maltepe Hill and the shallow valley of the Lycus and, all defenceless, the forlorn and foredoomed Church of Theotokos, its precious furnishings and icons already taken by the priests and hurried within the safety of the Walls.
There was a brief and bitter meeting between the emperor and his general. Theodosius was aghast that the assassination attempt had failed. Vigilas? Dead from exhaustion. Aetius told him of Attila’s little joke with the fifty pounds of gold. And Chrysaphius? Aetius did not spare the details. It was time this stupid but well-intentioned man began to understand his enemy.
‘Attila cut his throat in front of us. Before that he tortured him a while. Broke his nose, smashed his anklebone underfoot and so forth.’
Theodosius held his hand to his mouth, looking at Aetius indignantly for having exposed him to such truths.
There was worse. Aetius produced the note Attila had given him.
To the Emperor of the Eastern Romans, slave, liar, coward and traitor. It is a wicked slave who conspires against the life of his master. You have forfeited your position and the Will of Heaven has henceforth placed you in my hands. We are coming to collect the debt you owe us. Attila, Tashur-Astur.
Theodosius looked on the verge of hysteria, but gradually calmed himself again. ‘We must buy him off. It is our only choice.’
‘You cannot buy him off. He will take the gold and then attack you anyway.’
He paced and fretted for long minutes. Finally he said, his voice quailing a little, ‘Can this city truly withstand the might of the Huns? With our own armies destroyed, and the help of the Western ships and legions… withheld?’
‘Yes. I believe it can.’
Thedosius looked sorrowful. ‘All my best generals are slain: Aspar cut down at the River Utus, Solimarius hunted to death like a dog by a Hun war-party in the Chersonesus, Zenobius – his earthly remains – perhaps somewhere in the ashes of Thessalonika, which he died trying to defend with a handful of mercenaries. And so you see…’ He opened his hands helplessly. ‘The city is yours to defend. I commit it into your hands. Do what you must.’ He hesitated a moment longer, looking at Aetius as if not seeing him, and then retired to his private chambers.
Outside the audience chamber, Athenais joined Aetius.
‘Your Majesty is in better health again?’
She smiled and did not answer. Instead she said, ‘The emperor is a good man.’
‘I know that,’ said Aetius. ‘No Valentinian.’
‘That is treason!’ Her tone was not entirely serious.
He grimaced. ‘Theodosius is all sweet reasonableness and gentle light, I know. But he has poor night vision. His wide eyes do not penetrate into the dark places either of the world or of men’s hearts.’
‘Whereas you have good night vision.’
‘Plenty of practice.’
The empress sighed. ‘He believes that all men are essentially like himself. A great folly, perhaps.’
‘A great folly for certain. Reason is weak, and unreason has unimaginable power against it: the power of ancient and irrational forces.’
‘Those powers burn strong in Attila.’
‘Strong as the sun.’ Aetius laughed harshly. ‘And the emperor, God save his Imperial Majesty, believes that he can negotiate with him. Can you negotiate with the sun?’
There was a silence, then she touched his arm and said his name.
He pulled away. ‘Excuse me, Majesty. I have work to do.’
There was still no news of the approaching Hun whirlwind, but the air was thick with heaviness and dread. It would not be long now. And so, amid signs and portents and the panicked babbling of crowds and self-appointed doomsayers in the choked streets of the capital, Aetius set about preparing for the coming onslaught.
He surveyed the city’s walls from the Sea of Marmara to the Golden Horn, wondering again at their colossal strength: squared stone facings of tertiary limestone, founded in bedrock, with mortared rubble for infill. The towers were built as separate structures, a masterstroke of that great overseer of the work, the Praetorian Prefect Anthemius, back in 413. An assault on the walls or settling of their foundations would do no harm to the towers themselves. And they were so massively built that even the largest artillery machines could safely be operated from their rooftops without damage to the structure below them. He inspected the artillery as he went, approving the low-slung onagers and the multiple arrow-machines with grim satisfaction. He even approved a couple of new-fangled machines supposed to hurl detonating fire-pots. None of the men operating the machines looked much good at hand-to-hand fighting; they were city guards and technicians only, but they would do. He inspected them all and gave praise or censure where due. Each artillery battery that he inspected, and spoke to of the coming attack, he left more sombre and more resolute than before.
The two Gothic princes in his party were awe-struck by the Walls: that feat of engineering which they had often heard of but had dismissed as exaggeration. Torismond leaned out from Military Gate V, overlooking the Lycus Valley, taking in the multiple defences of the city before any attacker could even begin to scale the primary walls, starting with the outer ditch sixty feet wide and thirty feet deep. He paused and turned to Aetius, looking puzzled.
‘Sir, I can hear something.’
Aetius nodded. ‘Keep watching.’
A light wind arose from the bare stone below, then as if from underground, there came a low, rushing sound. There was a trickle of water across the dusty facing of the ditch below, then a sudden, mighty onrush of waters, foaming in from the sea, where the sluice-gates had been opened on Aetius’ orders. The princes whooped with glee. Within minutes the great moat was flooded to a siege-depth of twenty-five feet. The seawater settled and stilled, glinting and opaque.
‘The Huns don’t like water,’ murmured Theodoric.
‘You see that the moat is divided into segments,’ said Aetius, ‘rather than being a continuous ditch. Why?’
Torismond frowned. ‘I’d have thought that weakened us. Those dividing walls – the Huns can come across them on foot.’
Aetius snorted. ‘One at a time, single file. We can pick ’em off easily enough. No, those dividing walls are Prefect Anthemius’ most brilliant device of all. What will the Huns do when they first encounter the aqueducts outside the city?’
‘It had crossed my mind,’ murmured Theodoric. ‘They’ll destroy them.’
‘Poison them, block them up, break them down, whatever. Quite so. But, firstly, every one of our cisterns will be filled to the brim before then. Secondly, those dividing walls below you conceal further underground aqueducts. The Huns will never realise. Our water supplies will continue, if severely reduced, even with our great arched aqueducts destroyed.’
The princes gaped at such ingenuity.
Having crossed this first obstacle, by swimming or boat, pontoon or cumbersome infill of timber and brushwood lashed together, the attackers would have to scale a low crenellated wall and then face an exposed terrace thirty feet wide. This was the first killing-ground, bare under the sun before another, higher crenellated wall, seven feet thick, thirty feet high and with ninety-six towers along its length. Even the most skilled artillery attackers, utilising the most minutely calculated trajectories for their missiles, would find it virtually impossible to hit this second wall at its foundations and effect any serious damage. Should the attackers succeed in scaling the second wall, they would face another broad, cruelly exposed terrace, wider still than the last, and then the final obstacle: the Walls themselves, beyond compare, no walls in the world higher. Sixteen feet thick, a sheer forty feet high, and with a further massive ninety-six defensive towers. Not even Babylon’s walls at her apogee could rival the walls of Constantinople; walls whose broad tops, Herodotus tells us, the young men of ancient Assyria used to race around at evening-time, in chariots drawn by four horses abreast. A thousand years ago.
Aetius observed the princes’ faces now shining, all youthful confidence and eagerness for battle, and reminded them that the Huns would have learned much in the siege and destruction of dozens of former cities. There was also disease. There were also food and water shortages, with the city’s swarming populace swelled further by refugees. They could expect no help, no relief forces, no lifting of the siege by outside agency. There would be no mercy shown if the city fell to Attila, only the same universal massacre that he had perpetrated before.
‘And we have no defensive forces to speak of,’ he added.
‘We have artillerymen, and the wolf-lords.’
‘Forty-four wolf-lords, yes. Two centuries of Imperial Guard, some auxiliaries. Attila’s army could be a hundred thousand men, and he has the whole of Thrace and Moesia behind him for looting and forage. We have failed to disrupt a single supply line. Neither his men nor his horses will go hungry, even as winter approaches. We have only what is already within the walls. And perhaps a few hours to prepare ourselves for the assault.’
The princes looked very different now, but Aetius had no remorse. The truth must prevail.
As if to confirm his grave diagnosis, a centurion appeared before them and snapped to attention. It was Tatullus. Only the third centurion in the entire city, and already appointed Aetius’ second-in-command.
‘Sir. Manpower report.’
‘Sir. Two centuries of Palatine Guard stationed beside the palace, a hundred and sixty men, on orders to remain there. Four survivors from the VIIth Legion, including myself, sir. Two auxiliary alae of Isaurian mercenaries, loyalty uncertain, numbers severely reduced, survivors from Thessalonika and Trajanople. Total head-count, around eighty. Currently barracked off the Forum of Arcadius. Full complement of city watch, couple of hundred, untrained, armed with staves. Able enough to police a crowd but in battle couldn’t fight off my granny, sir. Artillery operators, unarmed and unarmoured, untrained in any hand-to-hand, but full complement. A machine on fifty-six of the ninety-six towers. No specialist archers, sir. No-’
‘No archers? In the entire city?’
Tatullus remained expressionless. ‘No, sir. None.’
Aetius compressed his fists. ‘Very well. Continue.’
‘That’s the manpower report, sir. No cavalry. And that’s it. Apart from civilian population, around a million, plus further forty or fifty thousand refugees.’
‘And forty-four Gothic wolf-lords,’ said Theodoric. ‘Archers, spearmen, swordsmen.’
Aetius brooded. Around three hundred fighting men in all. ‘Billet all refugees on existing households – none to be camped rough in the streets, do you hear? The city is to be kept scrupulously clean. No handouts from the state granaries until I give the order. Have the city watch oversee it. Order the auxiliaries to the walls. And your three men along with’ – he turned to Theodoric – ‘your wolf-lords.’
A hundred and thirty men, including eighty mountain mercenaries from the wilds of Cappadocia. Christ have mercy. The Palatine Guard must be released to fight on the walls. He sent an urgent message to the palace.
Almost immediately, there before him was another messenger, his face white and taut. One of the palace staff.
‘Have I the honour of addressing Master-General Aetius?’
‘You have. Speak, man.’