Tom Harlan brings his Oath of Empire series to a shattering conclusion in The Dark Lord.
In what would be the 7th Century AD in our history, the Roman Empire still stands, supported by the twin pillars of the Legions and Thaumaturges of Rome. The Emperor of the West, the Augustus Galen Atreus, came to the aid of the Emperor of the East, the Avtokrator Heraclius, in his war with the Sassanad Emperor of Persia. But despite early victories, that war has not gone well, and now Rome is hard-pressed. Constantinople has fallen before the dark sorceries of the Lord Dahak and his legions of the living and dead. Now the new Emperor of Persia marches on Egypt, and if he takes that ancient nation, Rome will be starved and defeated.
But there is a faint glimmer of hope. The Emperor Galen's brother Maxian is a great sorcerer, perhaps the equal of Dahak, lord of the seven serpents. He is now firmly allied with his Imperial brother and Rome. And though they are caught tight in the Dark Lord's net of sorcery, Queen Zoe of Palmyra and Lord Mohammed have not relinquished their souls to evil.
Powerful, complex, engrossing --Thomas Harlan's Oath of Empire series has taken fantasy readers by storm. The first three volumes, The Shadow of Ararat, The Gate of Fire, and The Storm of Heaven have been universally praised.
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About the Author
Thomas Harlan is the author of the highly regarded “Oath of Empire” fantasy series, starting with The Shadow of Ararat, The Gate of Fire, and The Storm of Heaven. An internationally-known game designer, he lives in Salem, Oregon.
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The Dark Lord
Book Four of the Oath of Empire
By Thomas Harlan, Beth Meacham
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2002 Thomas Harlan
All rights reserved.
ALEXANDRIA, CAPITAL OF PTOLEMAIC EGYPT, LATE SUMMER, 30 B.C.
Grimacing, the Queen turned away from a casement window, sleek dark hair framing her elegant neck and shoulders. Outside, the roar of shouting men filled the air. Beneath her slippers, the floor trembled with the crash of a ram against the tower doors. The room was very hot and close. Swirls of incense and smoke puddled near the ceiling. For a moment the Queen was silent, considering the array of servants kneeling around her husband's funeral bier.
"Antonius Antyllus," she said, at last, as a fierce shout belled out from the courtyard below and the floor shook in response. "You must take my son."
The stocky Roman, clean-shaven face pinched in confusion, half turned towards the back of the room. At the Queen's arched eyebrow, a slim young man in a pleated kilt stepped forward. The boy was trembling, but he raised his head and met the Queen's eyes directly. Antyllus made a questioning motion with his hand, brow furrowed. "Pharaoh, I cannot take him away from you ... where will he go? Where would he be safe from your enemies?"
"Home," the Queen said, stepping to a silk and linen-draped throne dominating the room. As she moved, her attendants drew a gown of shimmering black fabric from a chest. A blond handmaiden knelt and raised a headdress of gold and twin scepters. Beside her, a dusky maid bore a jeweled sun disk, ornamented with an eight-rayed star in bronze. "To your home, to Rome, as your son. His Latin is excellent. He has been raised, as his noble father wished, a Roman."
Antyllus shifted his feet, unsure, but finally nodded in surrender. There was a huge crash from below and the drapes swayed. The legionary tried to summon a smile, but there was only bleak agreement in his fair, open face. "Another cousin," he said, looking upon the young man, "among dozens of our riotous family...." His eyes shifted to the corpse on its marble bier and grief welled up in his face like water rising in a sluice. "Father would wish this, my lady, so I will take your command, and his, to heart. Your son will find sanctuary in the bosom of my mother's family — they are a huge clan and filled with all sorts...."
"Go." The Queen raised her chin, sharp sea-blue eyes meeting those of a man in desert robes, his lean, dark face half shrouded by a thin drape of muslin. "Asan, you must take Antyllus and Caesarion to safety — a ship is waiting, at the edge of the delta. Will you do this thing, for me?"
The Arab bowed elegantly and stepped away into the shadows along the inner wall of the room. Antyllus did not look back at the Queen, boots ringing as he strode to the hidden door. Caesarion did, looking to his mother with bleak eyes. His youth seemed to fade, as he ducked though the opening, a weight settling on him, and the Queen knew the boisterous child, all glad smiles and laughter, was gone forever.
Voices boomed in the corridors of the tower and the shouting outside dwindled, replaced by the clashing of spears on shields. The Queen did not look out, for she was well used to the sight of Roman legionaries. Instead, she settled on the throne, long fingers plucking at the rich fabric of her gown. Narrowed eyes surveyed her servants and councilors, a meager remnant of the multitude who once clung to the hem of her glory.
"Get out," she rasped, voice suddenly hoarse. Sitting so, facing the closed, barred door to the main hall, she could look upon the shrouded, still body of her last husband, laid out in state at the center of the chamber. "All of you, out!" The Queen raised a hand imperiously, golden bracelets tinkling softly as they fell away from her wrist.
They fled, all save fair Charmian and dusky Iras. The Queen listened, hearing the tramp of booted feet in the hall, then the door — two thick valves of Tyrian cedar, bound with iron and gold and the sun disk of Royal Egypt — shuddered. A voice, deep and commanding, shouted outside.
The Queen ignored the noise, leaning back, letting her maids fix the heavy headdress — a thick wreath of fine golden leaves around an eight-rayed disk — upon her brow and place hooked scepters in either hand. The doors began to boom as spear butts slammed against the panels. She closed her eyes, crossing delicate fingers upon her chest, then took a deep breath.
"I am ready to receive our conqueror," she said quietly, looking sideways at the blond maid, who knelt, tears streaming down her face. "Where is the god?"
Iras lifted a wicker basket from the floor, then removed the fluted top. Something hissed within, thrashing, bulging against the sides of the basket. The dusky maid grasped the viper swiftly, just behind the mottled, scaled head. The snake's jaws yawned, revealing a pink mouth and pale white fangs. Iras worked quickly, squeezing the poison sac behind the muscular jaw with deft fingers. A milky drop oozed out into her hand. A brief spasm of pain crossed the Nubian's impassive face as poison burned into her flesh, then the maid tilted her hand and the droplet spilled onto the Queen's extended tongue.
Kleopatra closed her mouth, clear blue eyes staring straight ahead. The door splintered. Ruddy torchlight leaked through, sparkling in clouds of dust puffing away from the panels with each blow. Then she closed her eyes, long lashes drooping over a fine powder of pearl and gold and amethyst. At her side, Iras broke the snake's back with a twist, and then dropped the creature onto the floor, where the serpent twitched and writhed for a long moment.
The two maids knelt, bowing one last time before their Queen, and then they too tasted the god's blessed milk and lay still, as if asleep, at her feet.
The ruined door swung wide and the legionaries stepped back, tanned faces flushed, the chin straps of their helmets dark with sweat. For a moment, as they looked into the dark room, no one spoke. There was only the harsh breathing of exhausted men. The centurion in charge of the detail glanced over his shoulder, a question plain in his sunburned face.
"Stand aside," a quiet, measured voice said. "There is nothing to fear."
A young man, his hair a neat dark cap on a well-formed head, limped across the threshold. Like the soldiers crowding the hallway, he wore heavy banded mail, a red cloak, and leather boots strapped up to the knee. His sword was sheathed — indeed, the man claimed to have never drawn a blade in anger — and even on this day, he did not wear a helmet.
Gaius Octavius, defender of the Republic of Rome, the victor — now, today, in this singular moment — the master of Rome and Egypt, looked down upon his last enemy with a pensive face. Nostrils flared, catching the brittle smell of urine and blood, and he nudged one of the slaves sprawled below the throne with the tip of his boot. The girl's flesh was already growing cold.
For a moment, standing over the body of the Queen, the young man considered calling his physicians, or discovering if any Psyllian adepts were in the city. But then he saw the woman's cheeks turning slowly blue and knew he had been denied a great prize.
"Khamûn," Octavian said in a conversational voice, "come here."
There was movement in the doorway and without turning the Roman knew the frail, spidery shape of the Egyptian sorcerer knelt behind him, long white beard trailing on the mosaic floor. No one else entered the room.
"Royal Egypt is dead." Octavian stepped up to the throne itself, one foot dragging slightly. "She is beyond us, her flesh so swiftly cold, joining her Dionysus in death...." Octavian barely spared a glance for the dead man in the center of the room. He was already quite familiar with the strong, handsome features — he had no need to look upon them ever again. "Your gift to me, as you have so often called it, has vanished like dew." Octavian turned, one eyebrow rising, his eyes cold. "Has it not?"
Khamûn bent his head to the floor. "Yes, my lord. Alive, alive she ..."
Octavian turned away, back to the dead Queen, who sat upon her throne in the very semblance of life, save for the patent stillness of her breast and the inexplicable failure of the vibrant energy, wit and incandescent charm that marked her in life. The Roman bowed to the dead woman, acknowledging the end of their game. "Pharaoh is dead, Khamûn. But I am content. I will rule Egypt, even if I may not possess her."
The sorcerer nodded, though he did not look up. Octavian looked to the doorway, where his soldiers were waiting, afraid to enter. "Scarus — find those servants who remain and bring them to me. They have unfinished business to attend."
"Here is your queen," Octavian said, standing on the top step of the dais. He looked down upon a clutch of Egyptians the legionaries had dragged from the tower rooms. Others would have escaped, he was sure, but these slaves knew their mistress well. "She has joined her husband and sits among the gods. Look upon her and know Rome did not stoop to murder."
The servants, faces streaked with tears, looked up, then bent their heads again to the floor. Octavian stepped down, careful to lead with his good foot. A wreath of golden laurels crowned him, and his stained soldier's cloak had been replaced with a supple white robe, edged with maroon. The lamps were lit, joining the fading sunlight in illuminating the death chamber. Both maids had been carried away, but the man and the woman remained, each in their chosen place.
"Has a tomb been prepared for your mistress?" Octavian's voice rose, for more Egyptians stood outside, in the hall, the late Queen's ministers and councilors among them. "A place of honor for her and for her Dionysus?"
One of the slaves, a broad-shouldered man with a shaggy mane of blue-black hair, looked up. His limbs gleamed with sweat, as if he had run a great distance, and he spread his hands, indicating the room. "Yes, great lord, this tower is her chosen tomb."
The Roman pursed his lips and looked out through the tall window, across the rooftops of the houses and temples of Alexandria. Even here, within this great edifice, he could feel the mournful chanting of the crowds, the restless surge of the city. Alexandria was a live thing, filled with furious, fickle energy. Octavian swallowed a smile, acknowledging the Queen's foresight. Let you sleep within the walls of your beloved Alexandria? That will not do!
"This place will not suffice," he said, looking down upon the slave. "You must take her away — far away — into the desert. Prepare there a hidden tomb, safe from the eyes of men, where these two may lie in peace for all time. Let them have each other in death, for eternity, for their time together on earth was so short."
Many of the slaves looked up in wonder and Octavian saw the black-maned man's eyes narrow in suspicion. The young Roman raised a hand, stilling their questions. "Rome does not wish to know where you place her — nor should you tell another, for tomb-robbers will dream of Kleopatra's treasure with lust. Take her far from the dwellings of man. Let her find peace."
Octavian turned away, looking out upon the city again, and he waited, patient and still, until the slaves and servants bore away the two corpses. Then he smiled and laughed aloud, for he was alone. Fools! Let Rome be magnanimous in victory — it costs nothing — and the witch-queen will be well hidden, far from the thoughts and dreams of men.
Drums boomed, a long rolling sound drowning the constant chatter of the crowds, and a pair of bronze horns shrilled as Octavian dismounted from his horse onto the gleaming marble steps of the Mausoleum. Three ranks of legionaries stood between him and the crowd, the men sweating silently in their heavy armor and silvered helmets. The young Roman raised his hand in salute to the crowd and to the city fathers, who crowded onto the edges of the steps like buskers at the races.
Without a word, he turned and took his time climbing the ramp. The drums continued to beat, slowly, in time with his pace. Their heavy sound made the midday heat fiercer, the polished sandstone and marble buildings reflecting the full weight of the sun upon the street. When Octavian disappeared into the shadowed entrance, the horns shrilled once and then drum and bucina alike fell silent.
Inside, in blessed cool gloom, a bevy of priests and Khamûn's spear-thin shape were waiting. Despite the fierce protests of the clergy, legionaries with bared weapons stood in the shadows, their eyes glittering in the poor light, watching their commander walk past, into the center of the tomb.
An opening had been broken in one wall, leaving plaster and brick scattered on the floor. The wall had been painted with a colorful mural — all gold and red and azure — showing a mighty king in battle, throwing down his enemies. A gilded sarcophagus lay on the floor, gleaming in the light of lanterns and a dim blue radiance from windows beneath the roof. Octavian frowned, turning towards the Egyptian wizard. "I thought the Conqueror was entombed in solid gold."
Khamûn bowed, wrinkled face creased by a sly smile. "My lord, one of the later Ptolemies found himself short of coin — he had the body removed, the coffin melted down, and the god's corpse placed in crystal instead."
The Roman snorted in amusement, then knelt by the head of the sarcophagus. A sheet of heavy glass covered the top of the coffin, allowing a distorted, milky view of the body within. Octavian grunted a little, running his fingers over the surface of the lid. The glass was of exceptional quality, with few bubbles or distorts. He raised his head and gestured to the legionaries biding in the shadows. "Bring levers and my grave gift."
The priests in the hall stiffened as two burly legionaries stepped up to the sarcophagus, iron pry bars in muscular hands. Octavian ignored the Egyptians and their half-choked cries of protest. "Open it up, lads, but carefully — I want nothing broken."
The two Roman soldiers grinned, but slid the pry bars under the glass with practiced ease and — after a moment's effort — popped the lid free. Grunting, they managed to get the cover loose and placed aside on the ground. Another man — one of Octavian's aides — opened a box of enameled pine. The smell of freshly cut flowers and incense rose from within.
Octavian knelt again, leaning beside the coffin, staring down at ancient, withered features. The man within — in his breathing life — had been of middling height, broad-shouldered and narrow-waisted. Now all of his body save the face was carefully wrapped in layers of fabric and even now, after hundreds of years in the tomb, embalming spices and unguents tickled Octavian's nose. Curly hair lay matted against the skull, and the eyes were closed, as if the man were merely asleep. The young Roman frowned, reaching out with a questioning hand, then withdrawing before he touched the ancient flesh.
Carefully! He reminded himself, he's old and fragile — wouldn't do for the great Alexander to lose his nose from your clumsy touch!
"Curious ... he looks nothing like my adoptive father." Octavian's voice was sad.
The old Egyptian, Khamûn, raised an eyebrow in question. Octavian did not turn, but straightened up, remaining on his knees. "My adoptive father, Julius Caesar, believed himself the reborn spirit of Alexander." The young man's voice was soft and contemplative.
"He felt a great pressure throughout his life," Octavian continued, "and it made Caesar mad, I think, always racing to match the achievements of Alexander. Sometimes he complained of urgent dreams, and never accounted he had matched his old glory."
KhamÃ»n said nothing, though his face turned pensive. Octavian continued to speak softly and quietly, musing on the past. "He sent me a letter from Alexandria, soon after Pompey the Great was defeated. He too looked upon the face of Alexander ... he said the visiage was familiar but not his own face. That Woman played to his obsession, I think, plying Caesar with tales of reborn souls. She wanted him to be Alexander."
Excerpted from The Dark Lord by Thomas Harlan, Beth Meacham. Copyright © 2002 Thomas Harlan. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ALEXANDRIA, CAPITAL OF PTOLEMAIC EGYPT, LATE SUMMER, 30 B.C.,
A STREET, NORTH OF THE FORUM BOVARIUM, CONSTANTINOPLE, LATE SPRING A.D. 625,
NORTH OF THE REED SEA, LOWER EGYPT, EARLY SUMMER, A.D. 625,
THE RUINS OF BAIAE, BELOW VESUVIUS,
THE PYRENEES, THE WESTERN ROMAN PROVINCE OF NARBONENSIS,
CONSTANTINOPLE, AMONG THE RUINS,
THE CURIA JULIA, ROMA MATER,
A GLADE, IN AN ORCHARD OF FRUITING TREES,
THE PORT OF MISENUM, CAMPANIA,
PERINTHUS, ON THE COAST OF THRACE,
THE PALATINE HILL, ROMA MATER,
BENEATH A FIG TREE,
CAESAREA MARITIMA, ON THE COAST OF JUDEA,
THE HILLS ABOVE FLORENTIA, ITALIA,
ALEXANDRIA, ROMAN EGYPT,
THE PALATINE HILL,
IN THE ROMAN GARRISON AT PELUSIUM, LOWER EGYPT,
THE IMPERIAL APARTMENTS, THE PALATINE HILL,
THE SINAI, NEAR PELUSIUM,
THE PORT OF OLD OSTIA, LATIUM,
ALEXANDRIA, THE PORTUS MAGNUS,
THE ROMAN CAMP AT PELUSIUM, LOWER EGYPT,
THE MARE INTERNUM, EAST OF SICILY,
THE VILLA OF SWANS, ROMA MATER,
ABOVE THE HARBOR OF PHOSPHERION, CONSTANTINOPLE,
IN THE BRUCHION, ALEXANDRIA, ROMAN EGYPT,
THE SUMMER HOUSE, AT CUMAE,
THE DESERT BEYOND LAKE MAREOTIS, LOWER EGYPT,
THE SQUARE OF FOUR TEMPLES, ALEXANDRIA,
SOMEWHERE IN THE NILE DELTA, WEST OF BOUSIRIS,
THE OASIS OF SÎWA, WEST OF ALEXANDRIA,
THE GATES OF IBLIS,
BENEATH THE TEMPLE OF AMON-RA, AT SÎWA IN THE WESTERN DESERT,
THE TEMPLE OF ZEUS PANKRATOR, CONSTANTINOPLE,
THE WESTERN DESERT,
THE NILE CANAL GATE, ALEXANDRIA,
THE HOUSE OF GREGORIUS AURICUS, ROMA MATER,
OFFICE OF THE HARBOR MASTER, ALEXANDRIA,
THE VIA CAMPANA, JUST WEST OF ROME,
THE PALATINE HILL,
THE SERAPEUM, ALEXANDRIA,
THE CHAMBER OF SIGHT, PALATINE HILL,
THE PORTUS MAGNUS, ALEXANDRIA,
THE IANICULIAN HILL, ROMA MATER,
THE CATANIAN SHORE, SICILIA,
UNDER MOUNT AETNA, SICILIA,
SOMEWHERE ON THE COAST OF SICILIA,
What Has Gone Before,
NOTES ON NOMENCLATURE,
Tor Books by Thomas Harlan,