Authors: Richard Blake
Tags: #Fiction, #Historical
Also by Richard Blake
Conspiracies of Rome
The Terror of Constantinople
The Blood of Alexandria
The Sword of Damascus
The Ghosts of Athens
The Curse of Babylon
First published in Great Britain in 2013 Hodder & Stoughton
An Hachette UK company
Copyright © Richard Blake 2013
The right of Richard Blake to be identified as the Author of the
Work has been asserted by him in accordance with
the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced,
stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any
means without the prior written permission of the publisher, nor be
otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that
in which it is published and without a similar condition being
imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
All characters in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance
to real persons, living or dead is purely coincidental.
A CIP catalogue record for this title is available from the British Library
eBook ISBN 978 1 848 94705 4
Trade paperback ISBN 978 1 444 70973 5
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To my dear wife Andrea
And to my little daughter Philippa
And to my mummy
The couplet in Chapter 19 is from
, by Richard Duke (1658–1711).
The verse in Chapter 27 is from the
Epic of Gilgamesh
(c.1500 BC), translated in 1920 by Albert T. Clay, and published on the Project Gutenberg archive of public domain e-texts. Translation:
May he make thine eyes see the prophecy of thy mouth!
May he track out (for thee) the closed path!
May he level the road for thy treading!
May he level the mountain for thy foot!
The verse in Chapter 27 is from Homer,
, Book I, 1–4. Translation: Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679).
The quotation that heads Chapter 42 is attributed to Tacitus, but is from Dio Cassius (c.AD 150–235),
, book 59, c. 30 and translated from Greek by the author.
The poem in Chapter 57 is in Middle Persian (c.7th century). Author and translator unknown. Source: Wikipedia. Translation:
I have a counsel from the wise,
From the advice of the ancients.
I will pass it upon you.
By truth in the world,
If you accept this counsel,
It will be your benefit for this life and the next.
The quotations in Chapter 58 are from Herodotus (c.484–425 BC),
, Book VIII, c. 54 and Book VII, c. 223–4 – translated by the author.
Canterbury, Wednesday, 17 June 688
What do you say to a boy of fifteen when you’re sending him to his death? The easy answer is you say nothing. After so many repetitions of the dream, there was nothing more to be said. I was staring into the face of someone who’d been dead over seventy years. He’d volunteered to serve. He’d then volunteered for nearly certain death. If that weren’t enough, I had been only nominally in charge at the Battle of Larydia. I’d been a mile away when he went into battle. At the head of a frontal assault, I was hardly out of danger myself.
The easy answer never mattered. I looked into his eyes and saw him try for a nervous smile, then reach up to touch crisp and very dark hair. Another moment and I’d hear a voice behind me explain the plan of attack. It had all the boldness of desperation. We were three hundred men against forty or fifty thousand. Once the Persians were out of the mountain passes, nothing at all might stop them till they reached the walls of Constantinople. Hit them in the passes, though – and hit them in a manner suggesting we were the first wave of a bigger force – and they
crumple and make a run for it. But this part of the attack was the ultimate in desperation. Of the hundred men about to run down into the battle not one would return. A boy who was now shivering in the cold of a mountain dawn wouldn’t live to feel the noonday heat.
I’ve said I wasn’t there. I’d been watching events at the front of that gigantic invasion force. No place in this dream, though, for spying on Shahin as he put on his reluctant show. I knew that he was down in the pass, his back to me, ready to present a
to his master. I could almost see the cold glitter of the thing in its box, and the dark luxuriance of the box on a table spread with yellow silk. But almost seeing isn’t actual seeing. I was dreaming of events above the pass. I focused once more on the boy.
Fifteen is no age for dying. I’ve had six times that and more, and I could live a little yet. Familiarity aside, what makes the dream bearable on every repetition is that the boy never sees me. Behind me, the voice was now going over the plan. It made no mention of wider issues. It was the sort of talk you’d want if you were ever about to attack a force inconceivably larger than your own – cover those beside you; keep in their cover; don’t drop your weapon; don’t stop for booty; listen for the signal to pull back;
and go to the toilet now
! That always got a big laugh. The boy was looking through me, at the owner of the voice. Also behind me, the little priest was holding up an icon of Saint Michael. He would soon claim that no earthly hand had painted it, and that all who fell this day would be received straight into Heaven, washed clean of their sins. That would be followed by a loud cheer. Then as the sun rose higher in a sky turning a painful blue, they’d get into position for their downward rush into the butcher’s market.
And, all the while, I looked into the eyes of a boy whose mangled body I’d see later that day . . .
It was dawn already. My jailor was in the room. ‘Get up, you lazy old bastard!’ he shouted in English, pulling the blanket off me. ‘Who should listen to you, blubbering away in your sleep, when every better man’s already finished saying his prayers? Get up, and give thanks to God that you aren’t yet in Hell!’
Unpredictable stuff, opium. You can hope it’ll blot out all the discomforts of age and give you a good night’s sleep. Mostly, it does. Then, every so often, it’ll give you the sort of spiritual burp that leaves you wondering if you’re not better off without it. I opened my eyes and waited for Brother Ambrose to come into what passes nowadays for focus. I found the gloom and the loud twittering of birds outside most provoking. But he’d not be nagging me this morning into my fine outgoing clothes, or stuffing me into that wheelbarrow again. That could warm my heart, if not my hands or feet.