Crown of Empire
Published in July 2016 by Endeavour Press
Italy, 618 AD
The biggest of the three guides repeated himself: “You will be wanting us to stay, Your Honour?”
Rodi looked away from the snow-covered mountains. He’d been wrong to think he was nearing one of the peaks. They were as distant here as they’d seemed at dawn. As for the Lombards, it was hard to say which of them had the thickest accent. When they still bothered with it, the higher classes spoke a language reasonably close to his native Gothic. Since the exchange of passwords down at the disused postal inn, these guides had been growling away like a trio of irritable hunting dogs.
“That is a matter for your king’s brother to decide.” His voice was finally breaking. The imperious tone he’d tried for ended in a squawk. The guide with the nastiest face went into a kind of snigger. The big one puffed out his chest.
As if on cue, Aripert was watching from the brow of another of the little dips in the track. Stiff all over, frozen, hungry, Rodi climbed from his undersized mountain horse. Leaving it with the guides, he made his way on foot up the last dozen yards of his journey. Though mostly free of snow, the track had patches of wet ice. It would never do to slip – he’d little enough credit with the guides as it was. Sprawling on his backside in front of Aripert and his men wasn’t an option. He picked his way carefully upward.
Aripert pulled his hood back, the bright yellow of his hair a sudden contrast to the whites and greys of an overcast afternoon – a contrast also to the dark anger on his face. “It’s bleeding cold up here, Rodi,” he said in Latin. “Next time you call me out of Pavia, I trust you won’t be a day late.”
Aripert was a year older. When they made their formal embrace, he was a head taller. Looks aside, the real difference lay in their status. More than once, Rodi had wondered if his guides weren’t about to toss him into a ravine. But one look at their people’s effective ruler and they were bowing like household slaves. Aripert ignored them. He stepped away and went back to sit on the boulder someone had brushed clear of snow.
“I won’t ask if your journey was any better than mine.”
He took the hot drink his page had carried over. “Nice thing about a winter battle, mind you, is that the bodies don’t smell till spring comes on.” He lifted the cup and drank. The smear its contents left on his upper lip almost suggested a moustache. He gave the cup back. He pulled off a glove to dab at himself with a napkin. He raised both legs to inspect his boots. They suited him. Things always suited Aripert.
The point where they’d met gave a full view over the field of slaughter. Behind them, the track was sheltered by a steep incline. The far side of the pass closed inward like the hypotenuse of a triangle. It was easy to imagine how, surprised by the wild ambush down the incline, the Franks had run into the broad snowfield beyond the track, and tried to get in formation. If that was how it happened, it had been in vain. Stripped naked by those who’d killed them, right hands hacked off, braided into three tight heaps of flesh, most of the dead couldn’t have been much older than Rodi – a few might even have been younger. Twelve days they’d lain here, watched but undisturbed, a light dusting of snow to blur the starkness of death. Once he and Aripert were done with their work, the guards could be withdrawn and the bodies would be so much meat for the wolves.
The wind was starting its low, desolate moan again. “Feeling squeamish, Rodi? Scared their ghosts will come after you? It’s thanks to you we caught them here. But you’d not have wanted them to get through the passes. Hasn’t Italy enough trouble of its own?”
With a crunch of leather into snow, Aripert relaxed his legs. “Oh, come and sit beside me.” He snapped his fingers at the page. “Wine for Roderic of Aquileia!” he called in Lombardic. “Bring wine for the emperor’s messenger boy!”
He waited for Rodi to get as comfortable as he could manage. He pointed at the nearest heap of the dead. “The report tells me there were 200 we intercepted. No prisoners. None escaped. The information you sent me was exactly right. So too the response I ordered.”
He switched from Latin into Greek. “Something not in your encrypted message was why a Frankish army should be invading in an unusually cold November – and why the army sent was barely more than a raiding party. Now we’re face to face, I expect a few answers.”
Rodi sipped a mouthful of the drugged wine. Like a stone across water, his eyes skipped over the dead. It would have been worse for Italy if they hadn’t been stopped. But he’d as good as signed their death warrant.
He turned to the matter in hand. “Somewhere in that lot should be Julian of Pella – a bald man, I’m told, dark and in early middle age. No beard – though, since his front teeth were bound together with gold, the lower face may be bashed in. He was Imperial Envoy to the Franks.
“A strange man, I’m also told.” Rodi wondered if it was worth revealing just how strange Julian was said to be. It would explain why he’d been dumped among the Franks, rather than given the comfortable posting his seniority deserved. Best say nothing, he decided. “It seems he wanted to make it clear that the Eunuch wasn’t recognised as emperor outside his own area of control. This may have been the best he could manage.”
Aripert sniffed. He counted off the weeks since the October Revolution. “No time for instructions from Constantinople. Pushing it, in the weather we’ve had, for the news to reach Lyon and any sort of army to get into the Alps.
“I hope you aren’t bullshitting me, Rodi. If the Eunuch wants to keep me on side, I expect to be kept in the know.”
That was easier said than done. The revolution in Italy only two months old; truth and falsehood remained interchangeable commodities. Eleutherius the Eunuch had been plotting his coup all year. He’d carried it through with his usual efficiency and at the right time – just as communications with the East were shutting down for winter, but while the roads in Italy were still passable. Ravenna and the whole Exarchate were at peace. Go beneath the surface, however, and nothing was for certain.
Rodi looked again at the dead. “If I’m right, the letters Julian was carrying will answer your questions – yours and mine.”
“Then I hope you are right.” Aripert fell silent. He watched his men assemble more wood for the fire. Rodi’s guides stood by the horse pen, faces blank above their massive beards. They realised the prince was looking, and stood forward, bowing low.
Aripert raised his legs again. “By the way, any chance of a sub from the old Eunuch? Say a thousand pounds of gold? Battles don’t fight themselves, you know.”
A slight wheedling tone here, Rodi noted. It confirmed that one of the intelligence reports he’d seen in Ravenna told the truth.
He finished his drink. The stimulant was already lifting the weariness from his limbs. He sat up straight and stared ahead. The mountain that loomed above the far side of the pass was a pattern of white and jagged grey, its lower reaches fringed with the darkness of evergreen forest. He looked down again. He tried for a bureaucratic tone. “His Imperial Majesty is aware of your brother’s mobilisation decree. He questions why, against all agreements, it is signed ‘King of Italy’ rather than ‘King of the Lombards in Italy’.”
His voice let him down again. But the haughty look was gone from Aripert’s face. Rodi stood up. “Now, since it won’t be light forever, I suggest we get to work. Kindly ask your men to prise those heaps apart.”
A vision flashed through his mind of the stiffened limbs and congealed blood, and of trailed entrails made brittle by the cold. He put the vision out of mind. His job was to supervise the work, not join in its ghastly details.
Aripert stood up and gave his orders. No one moved. He repeated them, his voice louder. Someone called back an unintelligible protest. Aripert’s face tightened. He climbed on the boulder. “The dead will not harm you,” he said with slow emphasis. “Does not Holy Mother Church say that the good have no wish to return, and that the wicked are not allowed?”
A sermon from Aripert, of all people! But it wasn’t shock at the unexpected that kept his men glowering at their feet.
He tried again. “Prayers were said for them after the battle. Just two men watched over them for 11 days. No ghosts rose up to trouble them. What fear can we have now we are 15?”
He gave way to the inevitable. “Twelve silver pennies for the man who finds the dead Greek – imperial silver, not ours.”
That got them, begrudgingly, to work – all except the three guides who were now making themselves at home beside the fire. Aripert gritted his teeth. “You there! Take your orders from Teusprand!” They looked at each other, then at the fire. Slowly, they got up and stared at the smallest of the heaps.
Almost cheerful, Rodi looked again at the distant mountains. He’d rather not be here. But hopes of getting closer to the truth were now boosted by the sight of Aripert with all the wind knocked from his sails. This wasn’t Pavia, where one snap of his fingers could get generals three times his age dancing attendance.
Aripert sat beside him. “Your intelligence had better be right. The unit that dealt with this lot is keeping watch further up the pass. But a real Frankish army coming through the Alps would be a complication none of us can afford.”