Ghosts of Athens, Chapter Twelve

Chapter Twelve

“The barbarians!” Martin cried – “the barbarians!”

“Shut up!” I snarled. “Barbarians don’t hide their kills.” I put a hand on his shoulder and shook him until he stopped babbling. “Let’s have a look round the back of this thing.” I stepped off the road and forced my way into a mass of brambles. I barely noticed what these did to my red leggings. I did notice, though, how the bushes still hadn’t fully recovered from a recent flattening. The tomb had been built of marble only on the three sides visible from the road. Its back was of unrendered brick. At some time in the distant past, a hole about thirty inches across had been smashed into the brickwork. Its worn edges showed signs of recent disturbance. I couldn’t see anything in the blackness. But I reached in and felt about. The naked body was female. It had been doubled over as it was pushed through the small hole. I felt no congealed blood beneath the chill breasts. I ran my fingers up the body. Instead of a neck and then a face, I found myself touching a nasty and roughly crusted stump. I pulled my hand straight out and stood hurriedly back. Swallowing continually, I fought against the urge to double over and vomit.

“Oh, there you are,” Priscus rasped in his most cheerful voice since, off Cyprus, we’d turned west. His chair was about a dozen yards back along the road. Emerging from the mist, the whole front half of the party had caught up and now had come to a halt. “I was telling Nicephorus you’d not be able to resist grubbing round all these broken stones.” He got down from his chair and walked with an uncertain jauntiness to the edge of the road. He looked into my twitching and doubtless very pale face, and grinned. “So, dear boy, will you enlighten us with your discovery? Is this the tomb of Socrates himself?” He let out a sneering laugh. Suddenly, as if reading my thoughts, he looked down at the hand that was still poking through the gap at the bottom of the tomb. He arched his eyebrows and smiled. He was getting ready for one of his more flippant comments, when Nicephorus came up beside him. One glance downward, and the colour drained from his face.

“My Lords,” he stammered when he’d found his voice, “I do urge the unwisdom of delay on this road.” Rich that was, from a man who’d had us take half the morning to cover three miles. Keeping my face expressionless, I stared back at him.

“What, My Lord Count, is the meaning of this?” I asked firmly. I wanted to know. I also wanted of keep Martin from looking stupid in front of everyone else with a return to wailing about the barbarians. Correction – I just wanted to know. “Why do you suppose there is a fresh and headless body hidden just off the road?”

“Athens is safe, My Lord, only within its walls,” was the best answer I got. Everyone else at the front of our long procession had now edged forward. I could see the cart where Sveta was looking after the children. As yet, she hadn’t poked her head through the leather flaps. If no one knew what, everyone else had guessed something was wrong, and there were nervous looks on all the faces of the carrying slaves. I heard Simeon’s voice raised in harsh complaint about the delay – he wanted his lunch. His earlier bounce quite gone, Nicephorus darted his tongue over dry lips and began a more insistent urging that we should get ourselves to Athens with all possible speed. The assemblymen had now crowded forward for a look at the body. They said nothing at all, but didn’t look happy.

“So you are telling us this is indeed murder,” Priscus snapped. “Don’t you suppose your duty involves at least checking whose body it might have been?” Odd that he should be telling anyone to investigate a probable killing. Then again, it gave him an excuse to be horrid to Nicephorus. Whatever the case, I nodded. With hands clenched, Nicephorus looked up at the grey sky and then down again at the hand. He was looking for something to say, but not, it was plain, with any success. “Well, don’t just stand there, man,” Priscus added. He swore and wheeled round to look at the main party. He pointed at his own chair’s carrying slaves. “Go and do as His Magnificence directs,” he ordered. Mouths open, they looked uncomprehendingly back. Priscus swore again. He stepped towards them, hand tightening on his stick. But Nicephorus now gave into the inevitable and jabbered something at the slaves that bore a passing resemblance to Greek. They let go of their carrying handles and picked their way with slow reluctance though the brambles. I got them to pull at the loose brickwork until they’d made a hole big enough for pulling the body out. It had set in its doubled up position, and getting it out was a right bitch. But a few kicks from me, and more jabbering from Nicephorus, and out it finally came. It lay huddled on the rocky ground beyond the brambles.

“Ooh, but isn’t she lovely?” Priscus crooned, now beside me. He bent down and ran appreciative hands over the pale corpse. Propping his stick upright within some of the bricks the slaves had pulled out, he got onto his knees and reached into the tomb. He pulled his arms out and moved closer on his knees. This time, he poked his entire upper body inside. Deeper and deeper he reached. Then, with a cry of ecstasy, he was out again, holding the severed head between his hands. One look at the fear-twisted face, and I had to look up at the sky. I could now smell death all about me.

Priscus, though, was going into some ghastly imitation of Salome with the head of John the Baptist. Holding the girl’s head between outstretched hands, he stared lovingly at the face. He brought it suddenly forward to bury his face in the dark, unbound hair. “Perfectly lovely, don’t you think?” He mumbled between long inward breaths. “Can my darling Alaric tell me more than this?” he finally asked with a sly upward look.

I swallowed and made my own inspection. “She was from the better classes,” I said. I’d established from one touch of the hand that she hadn’t been of the free poor, or from the lower class of slave. “Free, or” – I looked at the whole body: it had been finely-proportioned – “some rich man’s concubine.” I’d have put money on the first of these possibilities – most of the slaves I’d seen had the fairish hair of Slav prisoners, and this girl’s hair had been a dark and perhaps a glossy brown. I swallowed again and thought of the flask of perfume I had in my satchel. Without any breeze to carry away the miasma, the smell of corruption was turning unbearable. How Priscus could have been rubbing his face in that hair without puking up would have been a mystery if I hadn’t known him better.

I forced myself to look harder at the body. Bad weather might have kept off the flies. Nor had the rats been round to have a go at it. Even so, it might have been there four or five days. I looked at the head that Priscus was now twisting about to view from every angle. You needed some imagination to see how pretty the face had once been. It really was a ghastly thing to behold – dark where all else about the body was unnaturally pale, and damaged as if it had been dragged over the rocky ground. I looked away from the grey, sunken eyes.

“Tell me more – tell me more, my darling,” Priscus groaned as if in the approach to some powerful orgasm. He gave a quick look past me to where Nicephorus was watching in silence.

I gritted my teeth and told myself firmly who and where I was. “No point asking if it was murder,” I said with an attempted smile. It was a failure and I gave up on the effort. “With live beheading, you expect a cataract of blood. Even after death, you’d expect to see more than we can. The hair shows no evidence of wetting. But the body itself may have been washed after live or dead beheading. I’d say, however, she was hung upside down and bled to death, and only then beheaded.” I made myself step closer to the severed head and willed my finger not to shake, as I pointed at the two punctures, about an inch and a half apart, on the right side of the throat.

“Oh, Alaric,” Priscus called out, still in ecstasy, “you really are a bright young lad! I quite agree the little dear was hung upside down and bled to death. That would explain the blackening of the face. It also explains the paleness and lack of corruption.” He shuffled forward on his knees and put the head back onto its neck. It rolled a foot away. But he took it up again and pushed it until the damp earth held it roughly in placed. He bent down and put a kiss on the rigid lips. The head rolled away again. Now, he took it back into his hands and kissed it with long and passionate intensity.

Leave aside sick-making – this was embarrassing. If Priscus couldn’t control himself soon, even the slaves might dare to comment. As it was, the assemblymen had all set their faces like stone. But he did control himself. He ran trembling fingers once more though the hair, then put the head down and reached for his stick. “Sex killing or magic, dear boy?” he asked in Latin. He laughed and smacked his lips. “What opinion might the evidence suggest to you?” he added as he staggered back to his feet.

I had to admit he’d summarised the range of possibilities. I’d let him force the legs apart to see if there was evidence of rape. Of course, that might leave us no wiser – it could be a sex killing and magic. But, as I cleared my throat for a reply, Priscus moved out of the way, and the slaves could now see the whole body. “Lemmy! Lemmy!” one of them moaned, pointing at the puncture wounds. “Lemmy! Lemmy!” he repeated, now louder, as he dashed through the brambles to get back to the road.

“Not so fucking fast, my lad!” Priscus snarled with the full return of his old manner. Ignoring the thorns that tore at his leggings, he bounded onto the road and caught up with the slave. He felled him with a single blow of his walking stick, and started on a good, hard kicking. The man squealed and twisted on the ground, his own repetition of the word “lemmy!” drowned out by Priscus, who was laughing as maniacally as if he were back in the days of his father-in-law, when he could torture and kill as he thought fit. But it was a momentary burst. As the slave fell silent, Priscus groaned and flopped onto the road beside him. He reached forward and rubbed his hand in the slave’s hair. He held up shaking fingers that dripped fresh blood. He carried them to his lips and groaned again.

But he’d got his way. All about, order was restored. Now he’d had time for a good look of his own at the body, Nicephorus was looking merely annoyed. Obviously impatient to get back to Athens, the assemblymen were looking grimly away. Though scared, the slaves were all back in place, ready to take up their burdens. Simeon was looking out from his chair, deep in a sniggering but low conversation with the Bishop of Ephesus. The only real noise came from Martin. A few yards to my left, he was on his knees, praying desperately in a high, sibilant Celtic.

“He says that it’s a lamia,” he finally managed to say without choking, though still in Celtic. “This is the work of a demon that feasts on human blood.”

“They can say what they fucking like,” I hissed at him. “But I hope you still have enough sense to recognise murder by some person or persons unknown.” It was a waste of breath, though, to try reasoning with Martin once he’d screwed himself up to this pitch of superstitious terror. Even persuading him it was all the work of barbarians, and that they were hiding behind the other tombs, would have brought him closer to his senses. I left him sobbing and shaking and picked my way carefully through the brambles to where Nicephorus was lounging, now with restored ease, among the trash of Athens.

“We’ll need to get the body back to Athens,” I said. “Unless you can identify it, we’ll publish an announcement tomorrow morning.” I looked up at the sky. It was hard to see anything through a mist that was undeniably increasing. But the chill and general darkening about us indicated more rain. My clothes were already in a state that would never have been tolerated in Constantinople. But, if we could avoid a regular soaking, I might enter Athens with some semblance of pomp.

“And who will carry the body, My Lord?” came the half-mocking reply. He looked at the grinning crowd about him. “Will any of you carry this thing within the walls?” he asked of them in slow and simple Greek. His answer was a cheerful shaking of heads. He walked out of the crowd and looked at the body from the edge of the read. “No one will touch it,” he said. “Surely you can accept that no one will allow it within the city walls.” I could have tried giving the man a direct order. Since I hadn’t been arrested, I was arguably still clothed in the full power of my Alexandrian commission. But I knew it would have been a waste of time. One of the assemblymen now looked at me and opened his mouth as if to say something. But he fell silent again. They’d do nothing. The slaves would do nothing. The trash were looking happy enough, but might turn nasty at the drop of a hat. Not Priscus himself, and backed by all the other agents of the Phocas terror, could have got the girl and her severed head carried along behind us.

Nicephorus was right. Though he had none in mind, justice of any kind would have to wait. Besides, it was coming on to rain again. I might already have felt one of its first drops on my forehead. My brocade really wouldn’t stand a soaking.

“Very well,” I muttered. “Let’s get ourselves to Athens. We’ll discuss this again later.”

“See, His Magnificence agrees!” Nicephorus cried triumphantly at the assemblymen. “It’s a dead slave and nothing more.” He repeated himself in the local version of Greek. There was just a laugh and a few giggles from within the crowd. Someone shouted back. But his words were too fast and too twisted for me to catch even their sense. Now, they all shuffled forward, some pressing into the brambles to see what the fuss had been about. Hands bleeding where he’d dropped down onto the jagged stones, Martin was already beside me. Clutching his side and wheezing after the sudden exertion, Priscus looked as if he were in need of help back into his carrying chair. But he’d need to force himself to another burst of strength, I thought grimly. If the body was to be shoved quickly out of sight, I’d need more out of him than a token helping hand.

***

We hurried on, now in a terrible silence. A breeze had come up again from behind us, and I could smell the rancid, unwashed clothing of the Athenians. Martin still hadn’t recovered his composure, and I’d shoved his trembling bulk out of sight into my chair. I walked beside, every so often squeezing out a few words on what we were passing. But there were no more nuggets of fact recalled from Pausanias, and I gave up on any effort at all to keep up the pretence of the cheer that had felt so unshakeable just half a mile back. We did pass the cenotaph of Euripides. It was topped with a statue that seemed to have weathered the past thousand years in good shape. The inscription was both long and wholly legible. But there was no chance of stopping even to look at this.

Now and again, Priscus pulled the curtains aside and looked out of his chair. He’d managed to lick all the blood off his right hand, and was back to looking pleased with himself. As often as he saw I was watching him, he beamed over at me and sniffed at the deathly smell that must still have clung to his damp clothing. If ever there was a lamia, it was surely him. He hadn’t seen the girl die. But he had seen the next best thing, and its thrill had brought him back to more life than I’d have thought possible when we’d stood moping together over the galley side.

The mist only let us see the walls of Athens from about a hundred yards. We’d already entered the demolished and mostly cleared area of what had been its outer suburb. The walls themselves were about twenty feet high, and looked as if they’d been hastily thrown up with whatever building materials could be recovered from the demolished area. From the look Priscus gave them, they’d never have served in any region where a civilised enemy might be able to penetrate. Doubtless, they were enough to keep Athens safe should the barbarians ever show up in search of food and plunder.

“Hadrian endowed a big library when he was here,” I said quietly to Martin. “It may still contain a few interesting books.” No answer. I pushed my head inside the curtains. Nearly filling the stuffy, fart-laden interior, Martin was praying silently to the shrivelled tongue of Saint George that had been the Patriarch’s leaving present to me in Alexandria.

No point talking about books. No point telling him how every stone we might be about to touch was holy. Still, we were at last about to enter Athens. And it still hadn’t rained.

© 2015, richardblake.

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