Curse of Babylon: Prologue and Chapter One

Prologue

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 might 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 certain object 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…

Chapter One 

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.

‘Haven’t you been told, Ambrose,’ I croaked, ‘that the inquiry won’t be resuming today?’ He really should have guessed that much. He hadn’t, of course. Are jailors always stupid? Or have I been invariably lucky in the various places of confinement I’ve known? I called on every ounce of strength left to a man of ninety eight. After one failed effort, and one slight worry that I’d pulled a muscle, I sat up in bed and shuffled myself round until my feet were resting on the floor. ‘You’ll soon have your formal orders,’ I said, now in better voice. ‘You’re to get all my stuff packed up and moved to the monastery round the corner.’ I managed a toothless smile. ‘Now, what have you brought me for breakfast?’

I watched his face turn from bafflement to a snarl of hate. ‘Is that all you can think about?’ he asked in a voice that was supposed to scare me. ‘Breakfast?’

‘A very important meal,’ I replied in a voice that I knew might send him over the edge. My head was clearing of the dream, and of the poppy fumes that had sent it. I looked about for my stick. Ambrose had knocked it out of reach, worthless pig that he was. My false teeth of ivory and gold were still where I’d left them on the bedside table. Those could stay put. But I did reach for my blond wig. I could do with that to keep the chill from soaking in through my scalp. And it was more provocation of my own to a man who, still spraying abuse at me with every breath, knew that such power of compulsion he’d had over me was now ended.

I looked at the covered tray the boy had brought up with him. The smell would have made a dog vomit. ‘Ooh, nice runny cheese, if my nose tells right,’ I said. ‘The monks of Saint Anastasius won’t spoil me like this!’

Ambrose pushed his bleary face close to mine. ‘Don’t think you’ve got away with it,’ he snarled. ‘You’re a murdering bastard – and I’ve now found the proof.’ He stopped, presumably giving me time to fall to pieces. Instead, I was coming properly back to life, and could feel my spirits rising like the sun itself at the thought that I’d soon be out of this ghastly place. I popped my teeth in and smiled. Ambrose stood up. ‘There’s a hole on the seventh stair down,’ he gloated. ‘It’s a fresh hole. I wonder what was pushed in there, and why?’

Dear me – the low beast had finally done his homework! I couldn’t have that. Nothing he said now could unstitch the deal I’d made. But he could still raise an unpleasant stink. He might even try his hand at blackmail. Yes, he was the type for that. I licked my upper teeth into place, and smiled again. ‘Oh, Ambrose, Ambrose,’ I said in my most emollient tone, ‘this isn’t a day for unpleasantness. We must soon take leave of each other. I like to think that, in spite of one or two disagreements, we have forged an unbreakable bond of friendship. Why not join me in a last shared drink?’

A last shared drink? There hadn’t been a first! The way he’d been at my breakfast ale without asking, it was a wonder I hadn’t seen to him months before. But it was nice ale, and he’d not pass up a last chance to thieve his half of it. Following his usual custom, he swaggered over to the window. He pulled its shutter fully open, and shouted something vulgar to anyone who might be passing by beneath it. This done, he hitched up his robe and began a piss that would leave a stinking puddle on the sill.

‘I should have known you’d get off,’ he said bitterly. ‘Your sort always do. Lord High Bishop Theodore himself ain’t nothing up against you people.’ He’d splashed someone again. He leaned forward to look out of the window. ‘What the fuck do you expect, walking so close to the wall?’ he shouted. He turned bitter again. ‘If there was any justice in this world, your penance would have been a flogging that broke every bone in your shrivelled old body. Theodore himself telled me no less.’

His lecture and his piss would last a while yet. The door was barely ajar, and his boy was waiting outside. I shut my eyes and told myself that ninety eight was no great age. I opened them and stood up. Avoiding the board that always squeaked, I crept over to my writing table and took a lead box from under a heap of papyrus too mildewed to be used. Back to the bed I silently tottered. I poured myself a cup of ale and, unable to see them as more than a blur, dropped two crumbling tablets into the jug. It was new ale, and the slight foaming of the tablets wouldn’t show once they were dissolved. I took another look at Ambrose and added a third. I frowned at hands that wouldn’t stop trembling. Thanks to that, I’d nearly added a fourth and fifth.

He was finished. Wiping pissy hands on his robe, he turned to face me. ‘Right, Brother Aelric,’ he called out with fake jollity, ‘where’s me drinkie?’ I smiled again and pointed at the jug. I watched him drain it in a single gulp. He slapped it down on the bedside table and let out a long and appreciative burp. ‘Fucking good stuff!’ he said. ‘Too good for an old sinner like you.’ He thumped his chest and let out another burp. He put both hands on the table and screwed his face up. He now managed a long fart. ‘Lovely tickling of my piles,’ he explained. He noticed a stray sheet of papyrus on the table. ‘Don’t you write in nothing but Greek?’ he snarled with a sudden return to the nasty. ‘Ain’t Latin fancy enough for you?’

Not answering, I smiled into my own cup. It was very good stuff, and it wasn’t the ale I had in mind. Its first effects would be a slight fever before he turned in for the night. Considering his bulk, that might not show till morning. Not long after, the fever would take proper hold, and be joined by griping pains. Another day, and the pains would turn unbearable. Come nightfall at the latest, and there’d be a sudden and catastrophic voiding of blood and failure of every organ. Any Greek physician would know exactly what had been swallowed. In this dump on the edge of civilisation, death would be put down to a visitation of the summer pestilence. There would be much lamentation in public over the body, and much private rejoicing. Until he was replaced, there would be no more starving and beating of prisoners less fortunate than wicked old Aelric – no more compelled sucking off of his rancid member, no more stamping about the monastery by someone whose proper employment in life should have been pushing a dung cart.

I’ll grant he’d kept some curb on his inclinations where I was concerned. I might nowadays be called Brother Aelric: no one dared, even so, to take me as other than the Lord Alaric. But some of his abuse had been most impertinent. More to the point, he was on to me. I couldn’t have that.

Ambrose burped louder. ‘Righty ho!’ he laughed. ‘Time to be off. I’m told there’s a flogging to be done.’ He snorted. ‘That nutter downstairs has been playing with himself again. I ask you – wanking in a monastery!’ He walked heavily to the door. He turned back to me before leaving. ‘It don’t matter shit who your relatives are,’ he said, as if he’d been reading my thoughts. ‘I’ll make the whole world see you for what you are.’

I’d like to see him try, I told myself. But I made no outward answer. He gave me one last glare, before walking out and slamming the door. I waited for the sound of his key in the lock, then took out my teeth and got back into bed. ‘Ho hum! Ho hum!’ I heard him shouting on the stairs, no longer for my benefit. ‘It’s a bad world, I’ll have you know – oh, a bad,bad world!’

I thought of going back to sleep. It would be Ambrose who supervised my packing later in the day. I’d need to be rested for that. I didn’t want anything smashed or stolen. And I’d need to keep him from any search of my belongings. He might find my bronze cloak pin. That would be an embarrassment. But sleep was out of the question until I’d covered my tracks. I threw the blanket aside. Scowling, I looked at the wide-open shutters and climbed back to my feet. I filled the jug from my washing bowl. I swirled the water round and round, before tipping it from the window. I filled it again and let it stand. With the rest of the water I scrubbed my hands. General washing could wait till I was out of here. I might even demand a bath. I’d like a bath.

But, silly old me! I’d dropped my box of poison. Luckily, it didn’t burst open. Instead, it bounced under the writing table. The act of bending down sent all the bones in my upper back into a popping sound that disturbed me. Rather than going back to bed, I sat down at the writing table and looked out through the window. Being locked away on the top floor had its advantages. It freed me from the inevitable smells of a city built without sewers. It gave me a better view than any of my jailers had. I looked east over the low huddle of roofs, some tiled, most thatched, to where the wall marked the city’s boundary with the Kentish forest. The sun was fast rising above the topmost branches of the trees. I put up a hand to shade my eyes and continued looking south east. Though far less dense and unbroken than it seemed, the forest stretched from here to Dover and the sea. Beyond that lay France and then Italy and Rome. Far beyond that lay the New Rome and its Empire which, for almost two lifetimes, I’d done more than anyone else to hold together….

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