Part One: Constantinople, Wednesday 14th September 617 AD
Hungry, cold, stiff from lying too long on the bare stone, Rodi opened his eyes.
It was the Old Woman who’d prodded him awake. Hers wasn’t the last face he’d see. But this was the last time he’d know the grey light of dawn. Reflected through an iron grille, it came from overhead. The sounds he heard were behind the door of the cell.
‘Christ have Mercy, child!’ she whispered. ‘They’ve come for us early.’
Rodi sat up. He tried to shrug. Two days from arrest to sentence. Seven days more till execution. It was supposed to be seven days for repentance. It had been nine days of increasingly numb despair. It was too late for shrugging – too late for any gesture to remind him or anyone else he’d once been other than a beast awaiting slaughter. Besides, the iron collar had settled on one of the few remaining spots where its chafing didn’t hurt like a branding iron.
‘It doesn’t matter,’ he said. It didn’t matter. He knew the drill. The prison was close by the big church of St Andrew. From here to the Hippodrome was just over two miles. Whether their procession through the streets of Constantinople began at dawn, or when the sun was risen, made no difference to how things would end. There’d still be no breakfast.
The others in the long cell were waking. The sex killer just across from Rodi was awake. He made another snatch at the boy’s feet. His last try was no better than his first. The only blessing Rodi was able to count was that, if a torment to him, the eighteen inches of chain securing every collar to the wall kept the others away from him. The Old Woman could reach him. But she was no problem. She didn’t want to kill him, or to rape him.
With a rattling of keys and a long groan, the door swung open. No priest to nag them this time. No shambling halfwit to ladle out just enough swill to keep them from dying before they could be killed. It was someone he hadn’t seen before – someone who, from the way he put a cloth over his mouth, hadn’t been them before, or any like them.
The fat man stepped into the cell. He looked about. Cautiously, he took the cloth away. Nervous, he put up a hand to touch his bright orange wig. He cleared his throat. ‘Which one of you is Roderic of Aquileia?’ As if fighting off the urge to vomit, he paused. Then he repeated himself in Latin.
Rodi said nothing. The fat man spoke again. Rodi looked at the shackles that kept his hands from reaching up to adjust his collar. He knew if he still said nothing, the fat man wouldn’t go away. But why make it easy for him?
The guard stepped forward. ‘Here’s the one you’re looking for,’ he laughed. He kicked at the boy’s stomach. Rodi went into his best imitation of a scared hedgehog. Not much curling up to be done, though, with that iron band about his neck, or with the iron bar that connected manacled hands to manacled feet. Even so, he twisted enough for the blow to fall on his ribcage.
‘They’ve come to burn you first!’ the sex killer chattered. ‘The fire’s already hot!’ The others in the cell went into a shrill chorus of laughter and of prayers. Every chain rattled at once. The fat man spoke to the guard. The guard’s face darkened. The fat man nodded, and pressed both wrists together. He looked a moment longer at Rodi, before stepping backwards from the cell.
There were two guards now. One stood with drawn sword. The other leaned over Rodi. He set about the back of the collar with the tool that had been used to put it on. He pulled the boy to his feet. ‘Don’t try anything,’ he snarled. Rodi looked down at his feet. It seemed that, if he moved them not more than three inches at a time, he should be able to shuffle forward. For the moment, it was all he could do to keep from falling over. When threats did nothing, the guard lifted him in one arm and carried him out.
‘God go with you, child!’ the old woman cried.
It was dark in the corridor – dark and cold. Once the crash of the closed cell door had ceased echoing, it was very quiet.