I, Priscus of Panium, heard of his arrival and rushed down to the Harbour of Julian to meet him.
He smiled at me. ‘And who might you be, old man? An aged mendicant, supplicating for alms?’ He laid his hand on my shoulder. ‘Let us talk later. I must speak to the emperor even more urgently than to my old tutor.’
‘Divine Majesty. Master-General Aetius requests an audience. ’
There was a pause and a fumbling, while Theodosius seated himself upon his gilded wooden throne, and then he was admitted to the imperial presence.
‘Aetius. So far from home.’ His voice was as frosty as a Pontic winter, with a wind blowing down out of Scythia.
‘Majesty.’ He knelt and kissed the hem of the imperial robe in formal adoratio, privately detesting the gesture, and stood again swiftly. ‘You have still no news from the field army under General Aspar?’
Startled to find himself so abruptly questioned by a mere soldier, even if he was a general, Theodosius heard himself stammering, ‘They – they have not yet engaged, no.’
‘And it is true about the VIIth at Viminacium? Entirely destroyed?’
‘Such was the judgement of God. Also… also Ratiaria, downriver. That, too, has been overrun by these wretched Huns.’
‘ Ratiaria, too? Already? The III Pannonia? How many men did that number? And the weapons factories?’
The emperor could not look him directly in the eye, those limpid grey eyes. He surveyed the mosaics on the wall to his left, desperately hoping to radiate the regal serenity of God’s viceroy upon earth. ‘The III Pannonia, too, is destroyed, and the weapons factories are now in enemy hands.’
Attila. He knew. Now he had ownership of the most important armaments factories in the East. He knew.
‘Then I come to offer you urgent military assistance. I have cohorts remaining from the Ist at Brigetio, from the IInd at Aquincum, the XVIth at Carnuntum, the IVth Scythica at Singidunum. I know all are well trained – I appointed their legates personally. I could pull them back from the Danube frontier and attack Attila’s flank as he rides south on Naissus.’
‘And if Attila should turn on the West?’
‘Attila will turn on the West. But not yet. He will wish to neutralise the East first.’
The master-general spoke with such energy and conviction, as if he had been waiting all his life for this moment, this final confrontation. Theodosius understood then, with distaste, that Aetius actually enjoyed all this… this war business. It gave him his sense of purpose and destiny.
‘More importantly,’ resumed Aetius, ‘I have – with the Emperor Valentinian’s permission, of course – the core of the Western Field Army still stationed in Sicily, waiting for orders to sail for Africa. Two thousand horses and twenty thousand men, in peak condition, under command of my good general Germanus.’
Theodosius turned aside and touched a handsome polished wooden cabinet as if for reassurance. ‘And why should I trust you in bringing such a powerful force into the heart of our domain?’
‘We are not wholly ignorant, Master-General Aetius – despite the fact that we are known for our love of learning, ’ he added sarcastically.
‘I sense mistrust.’
‘You sense aright.’
‘Then let me speak plainly. Your enemy is Attila, King of the Huns, and none other. Not your cousin Valentinian, nor Galla Placidia, nor I. Do not look for your enemy among your own. Your enemy is far cleverer and more ruthless than any of us. He is also cleverer than you, Majesty, though he has read fewer books.’
The emperor compressed his lips and stared hard and unblinkingly at Aetius. What he saw before him, though he was no great judge of men, was a blunt and unlikeable soldier, without learning, refinement or even common courtesy; but an honest man, for all that.
‘We have learned,’ he said, ‘that there were detachments from the Herculian Legion fighting alongside the Huns at Viminacium.’
‘Bogus! Do not believe it!’ Aetius smacked his fist into his palm, his eyes burning, and began pacing the room impertinently. ‘I knew it!’ he said with peculiar exaltation. ‘The fight has already begun! The fight of intelligence.’ He wheeled on the emperor and barked at him as if he was one of his lieutenants. ‘Who brought you this information? ’
Theodosius had already lost his chilly composure, despite himself. ‘My… my chamberlain. One Py-’
‘Search his room.’
Theodosius hesitated, then spoke to a steward.
Aetius continued pacing; it was most disconcerting. He snapped at another steward to bring him a map. The steward fled.
‘You said Naissus?’ said the emperor with some puzzlement. ‘But Attila will be destroyed by the field army before he rides down on Naissus.’
‘Well,’ said Aetius, inclining his head, ‘just suppose that he is not. Heaven forfend that so great a disaster should befall, of course, Your Majesty, but we must prepare for even the darkest eventuality.’
‘God is with us.’
‘I don’t doubt it. But “Trust in God, and keep a good hold on your sword,” my father, Gaudentius, always said.’
Theodosius crossed himself. ‘Ever since we heard of the fall of Viminacium, the bishops and people have given themselves up to ceaseless intercessions to the Holy Mother.’
‘Good, good,’ said the uncultivated general, pacing about, his hands clasped behind his back, clearly not listening. The steward returned, trembling like a rabbit, and laid the map on the marble-inlaid table. Aetius took one glance at it and turned to bellow at him. ‘Not a map of the city, you arse, a map of the empire – from here to the Danube! At the double!’
Again the steward fled.
‘He is not a soldier in your command,’ protested the emperor.
‘Damn right he’s not, he’s too bloody useless.’
Theodosius rose to his feet, his eyes burning with indignation. Tall, though of feeble build, he suddenly appeared a much more imposing figure.
‘Master-General Aetius, you forget yourself,’ he said crisply. ‘Soldierly braggadocio is all very well in the barracks, but you stand now before an emperor. I suggest you remember that if you truly want to help.’
Aetius was chastened. He treated Valentinian with respect and circumspection because he was so dangerous. But Theodosius deserved respect, too. He was not such a fool as some said, and his heart was good. They must work together.
‘Majesty,’ he said with bowed head.
The trembling steward returned and laid out a far larger map.
Theodosius indicated Naissus. ‘And after this?’
Aetius traced a line south, down the great imperial trunk road towards Constantinople. ‘He’ll be after the imperial stud farms of Thrace, too. You should send men out to round up the horses and drive them south, across to Asia if need be. We can’t let Attila get his hands on them.’
Theodosius looked puzzled. ‘A horde of thieving horse-rustlers are going to ride up against the walls built by my grandfather, Theodosius the Great? Ridiculous. Our walls are impregnable. All the world knows that.’
‘Attila’s ambition knows no bounds. And they now have siegecraft. Let me fall on their flanks, here.’ He jabbed the map. ‘We could ride through the mountains. If we met them there we would do great harm. Do you still have your Isaurian auxiliaries?’
The emperor nodded. ‘At Trajanopolis.’
The Isaurians were little more than Anatolian bandits, but skilled at mountain warfare.
‘The Huns have little understanding of mountains,’ said Aetius, ‘where all their speed will be useless to them. They are plains nomads only.’
‘You still imply that the field army… will be defeated by this horde of transient looters, without law or reason. Ridiculous! Never before has this happened.’
Aetius spoke one painful word: ‘Adrianople?’
The emperor compressed his lips.
‘Besides,’ added Aetius, ‘never before have they been commanded by a man like Attila.’
The steward returned, entering the room backwards until the emperor’s address allowed him to turn, and then falling at his feet. He held something in his hand. Theodosius stared at it in puzzlement. ‘Pytheas,’ he murmured in puzzlement. Then he passed it to Aetius.
He examined it cursorily: a small gold ingot, stamped with the legend of Viminacium. Looted Hun gold.
‘Attila pays well,’ said Aetius dryly. ‘Judas only got silver.’
‘Pytheas,’ repeated Theodosius softly, shaking his head.
‘He won’t be the only one. You need to clean out your Augean Stables.’
The emperor looked shaken. Aetius’ heart went out to him. Each day he reigned, this haughty yet gentle scholar must perforce learn more about the cruelty and treachery of men, and how even those he most trusted would betray him for the glamour of gold.
Theodosius made to walk away.
‘Not everything will fall.’
After a while, Theodosius nodded, his back to the general. ‘Do what you think is needed.’ Then he lifted his robes and walked swiftly from the chamber.
Aetius gave orders for the traitor Pytheas to be executed. His head, hands and all the gold of Viminacium found in his room were to be sewn in a sack and delivered to Attila; no other message. At the last minute he changed his mind and called the man back.
‘On second thoughts, we keep the gold,’ he said. ‘Why enrich Attila so that he can buy more mercenaries? Put some iron in the sack with the traitor’s head and hands. And on a potsherd, write these words: ‘Yaldizh djostyara, Utulemek hasimyara.’
It was I, Priscus, to whom he dictated. I grimaced with distaste. I had heard but little of this foul language before. ‘An ugly tongue, my lord.’
‘Matter of opinion. A complex tongue in many ways, utterly unlike the languages of the civilised world. Their compound words, for instance. You know they have a word meaning, “the noise a bear makes when walking through cranberry bushes”?’
‘I thought you admired Herodotus? Yet you hardly have his candour and curiosity about other peoples and cultures.’
‘Hm.’ I trimmed my nib. ‘So. These barbaric words. “ Yaldizh djostyara ” et cetera. Might I be so bold as to ask what they mean?’
‘An ancient Hunnish proverb, which I learned in my boyhood – from the uncrowned King of the World himself.’ He smiled a wintry smile. ‘It means “Gold for my friends, iron for my enemies”.’ He stood up and went to the window, hands clasped behind his back. ‘So that Attila will know clearly who his enemies are.’
‘How will we find Attila?’
‘At the end of the trail of destruction,’ said Aetius, still with a smile not entirely comforting.
‘And who will run the errand?’
‘His own. Flushed from this palace like termites. Now listen to my instructions. The Hun word for fire is “ yankhin ”.’
In the silent middle of the night, numerous slaves erupted and ran about the palace, screaming the word at the tops of their voices. Naturally almost everybody, except perhaps those who were in bed with other men’s wives, quickly emerged, bewildered and blinking, into the shadowy courtyards of the great palace complex. But here and there, one or two dashed with buckets to the nearest wells and fountains, or even over towards the Baths of Xeuxippus. They were immediately seized and, to their astonishment, interrogated fluently in their own sacred tongue by this newly arrived western general. Torture was not necessary. They soon confessed all.
Aetius’ ruse had smoked out six termites in all: four men and two women, one of them a midwife. She might have secretly poisoned a new-born child of the imperial family, but apparently she had always worked diligently. Perhaps her woman’s tenderness had outweighed even her loyalty to the Lord Attila.
To these six, Aetius gave the task of taking back the remains of the traitor Pytheas, and the iron.