Aetius stood on the walls beside Military Gate V. Near him stood the lean, ancient figure of Gamaliel.
‘You again,’ was all Aetius had said sourly to him in greeting; but he had put him in charge of the nearby Emmanuel Hospital, all the same, and ordered the monks there to do his bidding. There would be plenty of work there soon enough, and this old trickster seemed to know his stuff.
Below in the street children were playing, happily oblivious for a moment of the world and its shadows. People of all ages sat awake through the night now, huddled around fires, talking. The children sang an ancient nursery rhyme: ‘Tortoise, tortoise, what’s going on?
I’m weaving Milesian yellow and yarn.
How did your father happen to die?
Fell off his white horses and drowned in the sea.’
It seemed an ominous rhyme. In a sudden flash, Aetius pictured himself dying. A sign of old age: young men never imagine they will die, but now he felt all too often the stab of a dagger or a spear in his belly, saw himself lying in a blood-soaked hospital bed, arms outstretched in supplication but slipping away, the battle still raging on the walls. He hoped this was no foreseeing.
Tum magna sperabam, maesta cogitabam – Then greatly I hoped, but sadly I thought.
Gamaliel was talking about the Hun pantheon, as if delivering a lecture. He said the gods were fighting a battle among themselves by proxy.
‘The Hun gods fight well, and fight dirty,’ muttered Aetius. ‘Astur and Savash and the rest. Attila believes in them as he believes in himself.’
Gamaliel turned to him gravely in the darkness. ‘Men believe in a god who is a reflection of their own hearts. Dark heart: dark god.’
‘Then whose god is true?’ said Aetius.
‘Whose heart is true?’
Another was brought to him in the night, led by Prince Torismond, looking distinctly amused. It was the Cretan alchemist, Nicias.
Aetius growled, ‘I thought you were in Antioch, or Alexandria.’
‘I was,’ said Nicias woundedly, ‘collecting together another set of alchemical equipment – and very costly it was, too. Then I returned here to experiment upon the, ah, pre-mortem dismemberment of tunny by alchemical means.’
‘You’ve been blowing up fish?’
‘You alchemists are strange.’
Nevertheless, the man of science assured him that, after further unplanned experimental outcomes – Aetius noticed that Nicias still had no eyebrows to speak of – a happy conclusion had finally been reached, when a large tunny was simultaneously exploded and incinerated, while still in the water.
‘A miracle to behold, I’m sure,’ said Aetius. Not without some misgivings, he gave Nicias permission to station his wretched firepots and God knew what else on the towers of the Gate of St Barbara, overlooking the entrance to the Golden Horn. He could take command of the single artillery machine there, and hit anything that moved. Vandal warships, ideally.
‘Oh, and if you see any ships bringing Western legions to help us, let me know.’
Nicias looked puzzled. ‘Is that likely?’
‘It is not. Now scram.’
The alchemist scuttled off.
‘The next thing we hear,’ said Aetius, ‘he’ll have burned the imperial palace to the ground.’
The sun came up on the third morning after the earthquake, and the autumn mist gradually cleared from the country around. But away to the west there was a section of the horizon that did not clear. That was not mist but dust.
They were coming, in their countless thousands.
Along the walls, Aetius saw to his horror, the empress herself was processing with some of her ladies’ maids, talking to the soldiers, doubtless wishing them well and the blessings of Christ upon them; all grace and comfort. But this was no time for such things. This was a time for hot fire and cold steel. Aetius marched over to her.
‘Your Majesty, I must insist that you return to the palace immediately. This is no place for you now. Besides,’ and his voice was harsh, ‘you’re getting in the way of my men.’
She regarded him evenly, no fear in her eyes. But then she had never seen the Huns fight. There would be fear soon enough, with all hell unleashed.
‘Master-General,’ she said, ‘you govern your little domain here like an Oriental despot.’
Even now, she was playing with him. He felt his anger rise. This was no time for games. She had no idea how bad the situation was. She knew nothing. He swore foully and said that if she didn’t get off his walls he’d throw her off himself. At last she reacted, her eyes wide with astonishment and even disgust, and seconds later she and her retinue were hurrying back to the steps and down into the city.
Behind her he roared again, this time to his troops: ‘Bar all the gates! You’ve got five minutes!’
‘Sir,’ said Tatullus, pointing, ‘there are still refugees coming in ahead of them. Look.’
Aetius looked. Against the long, low terracotta horizon that was the Hunnish horde and their siege-engines, there came a few dozen last stragglers hurrying across the plain. Behind them, catching the eastern sun, arose a gigantic cloud the colour of old blood, and in its midst the watchers on the walls saw the huge shapes of what they most feared: siege-engines.
They must lock everything down. This would be terrible, a battle they must win, with all of Asia cowering helpless behind them, dependent upon them. But they could not possibly win. Not alone. Aetius knew that, Tatullus knew it, all the men knew it. The fate of half the world was in their hands, and they would fail it. But they would go down fighting in fury.
Yet here were refugees from the outlying villages, humble peasants, fleeing to the Walls for shelter from the coming storm. Stumbling in cracked earth, a few pitiful possessions hauled in sacks, mothers clutching infants, children trotting, so weak and undefended, glancing back into the mouth of hell. Asses heavily laden, usually such wise and philosophic creatures, bellowing and cantering, their big eyes terror-stricken, eyes rolling back to the whites.
The kind of decision kings and emperors make every day, thought Aetius bitterly. Which innocents shall I condemn to death this morning? Whom shall I damn and whom shall I save?
The first horse-warriors were minutes away, galloping with all savagery. They would fall on the refugees like scythes.
Already some of the refugees were outside the bolted gates, wailing for entrance, but there was no help for them now. Some lay in despair where they fell, in the very shadows of the walls, and never stirred again.
‘Let them come,’ said Aetius quietly. ‘There is room for all.’ He remembered the mad bird-catcher in the woods. Room for all, in death’s capacious basket. ‘Open the gates!’
‘But, General, the enemy are-’
He was already striding towards the steps himself. ‘Get that gate open, and bring me my horse. Wolf-lords, to me!’
In a moment the thick crossbar was raised and the massive iron-banded gates were being dragged back. Aetius vaulted onto his white horse and it reared up, champing at the bit. Behind him the wolf-lords mounted likewise, their horses packed together, jostling, shields and scabbards clanging, short cavalry bows clamped in their right hands, reins in the left.
The empress was watching from the bell-tower of the nearby Church of St Kyriake. Then she looked away, as if no longer able to bear the danger, or the evidence of what kind of man he was.
Aetius and the column of a mere forty-four streamed through the middle wall and then the outer, over the hastily lowered drawbridge and away onto the plain, looping out round the dumbfounded refugees like sheepdogs rounding up the flock. Immediately the people picked themselves from the dust, barely able to believe such a redemption, and hurried over the drawbridge into the welcoming arms of the city. The wolf-lords formed a galloping circle, their ancient steppe-warrior formation as if written into their blood, lowering their bows outwards towards the red cloud away to the west. Before it they could already see the nearest ranks of horsemen. The wolf-lords themselves were now well within range of a volley from those lethal, high-sprung Hunnish bows. But something had happened. The Huns had slowed and stopped. Somewhere their leader had brought them to a halt, as if to take in the poignant scene before him.
Attila grinned. What a scene of bravery and manliness! What touching salvation for these wretched, earth-grubbing peasant-farmers, as they stumbled gratefully within the Walls. Let them stumble. The Walls would come down soon enough anyway, and the refugees have to face the terror of the Huns all over again. And then there would be no salvation for them, and their skulls – large and small, one and all – would soon take their place in the biggest pyramid of human bones the world had ever seen. So Astur’s justice would be done, and all mankind would tremble.
Aetius slowed, too, seeing what had happened. It did not surprise him. He ordered his wolf-lords to range up and save their energies. Away to the north more figures arose from the earth itself. In dusty travel-stained garments, like creatures out of the apocalypse, more refugees who had been sheltering unseen down in the Lycus valley came running towards the open gates with stricken faces. It seemed that Attila would let them all pass. His games.
Attila sat his horse and watched from less than an arrow’s range. The dust they had raised fell and drifted among their horses’ hooves with the gentle breeze, and the army of the Huns for the first time became visible. It was indeed numberless as the stars.
The watchers on the walls looked out over it and knew that they were to die soon. Some groaned and turned away. The citizen bands, especially, looked ready to desert the walls altogether, but the Palatine Guard marched among them and rallied them, saying to trust in God and the Walls.
Beside Attila sat the witch Enkhtuya, her teeth and mouth stained red with berry juice. Many of the Hun horses, too, beside their usual charnel decorations, had their pale manes and tails and fetlocks stained berry-red for this titanic battle, as if they had already waded deep in blood. They champed and stepped high at this abrupt interruption of their advance, as if even they were touched with bloodlust. But Attila, at that moment at least, was touched by something else. Curiosity, perhaps. A little sardonic shadow of a smile as he watched his old friend, companion of his boyhood, the light to his shadow, Aetius, moving among the fleeing crowds, helping them home.
Like Jesus among the poor; like Jesus feeding the five thousand. His smile grew fiercer.
Enkhtuya purred beside him. ‘See how his heart is sorrowful. How he has compassion upon the destitute and wretched of the earth.’
Attila’s expression was violently conflicted, as if he hated his enemy more than ever because he was forced to admire him. As if he felt his coiled inner strength might begin to melt because of it.
‘Drop some arrows on them,’ he said.
Conscience prevents cruel deeds. But cruel deeds regularly practised cancel conscience. Enkhtuya stroked her twisted snakeskin torc and the arrows began to fall.
From the walls went up a feeble shout of warning as the sky behind darkened with ten thousand arrows, arcing up like a midnight rainbow. But it was too late. The arrows fell in a murderous shower and many of the stumbling refugees were struck down. Screaming broke out, panic and confusion. Some of them even began to run away from the walls again, thinking in their terror and bewilderment that the defenders of the city had shot at them. The wolf-lords immediately raised their shields and moved into a circling gallop again. A few slung their shields across their backs, nocked arrows to their bows and loosed them at the Hun lines in return. A paltry reply to such an onslaught, but it showed of what mettle they were made.
Aetius wheeled his horse round, white and speechless with rage. He galloped out past the milling refugees and drove them back towards the open gates of the city, at last managing to shout instructions at them, saying that the Walls were their refuge, and the arrows were coming from the Huns. He scooped up a fallen child, a little girl of no more than four or five, whose forehead had been sliced open by a flying arrowhead. The wound was not deep but she was blinded with blood and tears and was screaming. He slung her across his lap, laid his hand in the small of her back and told her to stop squirming. Then he pulled his horse round again and rode out in front of the circling wolf-lords and reined in and stared. He did not speak or move, not even when another iron shower came overhead. Several fell about him but he was not hit. He stared like a lost traveller on a lonely moor, staring into the rain.
Attila raised his arm and the arrow-storm ceased again. Aetius’s stillness spoke more than any enraged shouting or shaken fist could have done. Behind him came the cries and groans of wounded people, struggling to their feet, trying to make it to the city. Ahead of him across the half-mile of burned plains and abandoned farmsteads, the hundred thousand horsemen and their lord, his arm still raised. Across that half-mile the two men regarded each other.
‘Well,’ whispered Attila, ‘you Romans know all about the Massacre of the Innocents.’
His arm dropped, and the sky darkened again.
Aetius wheeled his horse, holding the terrified girl across his lap, and galloped for the Walls, arrows thocking into the ground around him. Ahead of him, the people stumbled home.
Aetius slipped from his horse as the gates were slammed shut and barred behind him. He pulled the girl down, swabbed her forehead and face with the edge of his tunic and squatted before her. She suddenly looked too shocked to cry.
‘What’s your name?’
She shook her head. He squeezed her thin shoulders.
‘Euphemia,’ she whispered, barely audible.
‘Were you with your family, Euphemia? When you were hiding out there?’
She nodded miserably. ‘My mother,’ she whispered.
‘Did you see her running into the city?’
She shook her head.
Aetius rose and handed her over to one of the other refugee women, with instructions to reunite them if she could. The wounded should go to the Emmanuel Hospital; one of his men would take them there. Then he raced back up the steps to the top of the walls, and down to the Gate of St Romanus. The enemy were coming nearer, and already Attila’s gaze, he could see, was fixed on the lowest point in the defences, where the wall ran down into the Lycus valley and up again, overlooked by Military Gate V to the north. On its summit he could see the nodding horsehair plumes of the wolf-lords, and the long spikes of their spears. They would need them soon.
Attila rode slowly across the plain beneath the noonday sun, along with his generals, gazing all the time at the Walls. It was too far to see, but Aetius liked to think his expression was one of misgiving. His spies and intelligence agents would have given him every detail of these titanic defences. Nevertheless, this was the first time that the Hun leader had set eyes on the Walls of Theodosius for himself. Surely the sight must cause him some consternation? It was no one-walled legionary fortress or cathedral city that he faced now.
Aetius summoned the Armenian. ‘Screw up your eyes, Easterner. Tell me you can see the Great Tanjou, and tell me he looks worried.’
‘I see him,’ said Arapovian. ‘We have met before, remember?’
‘And tell me he looks worried.’
Arapovian grimaced. ‘I have read more expression in the cliffs of Elbrus.’
Aetius grunted. ‘Drop an arrow on him?’
‘Too far. Besides, the last time I tried to shoot him, I got this.’ He dragged up his sleeve and showed the general the scar.
Aetius laughed. ‘You tried to shoot Attila?’
‘He rides at the front of his men, without fear. It was an order of Sabinus, the legate at Viminacium.’
Aetius looked grim again. ‘That Sabinus was a good man. Now, back to the tower.’
He remained alone and brooded a moment on the assassination attempt. Treacherous and underhand though it was, it might have worked. Even now, as the siege began, if they could but hit Attila, weaken him in any way, the faith of his myriad hordes in his god-given power would begin to falter. That was their best hope. To defeat such an army as this in open battle… It was not possible, not with what few forces were left.
The fall of everything he believed in was very close now. It gave him desperate strength. He began to tour the other towers again, to inspect the artillery units, to rally them. His exhaustion and sleeplessness meant nothing to him. There was no point in saving himself. For what? For the nothing that was to come?