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The Gate of Fire
Book Two of The Oath of Empire
By Thomas Harlan, Beth Meacham
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2000 Thomas Harlan
All rights reserved.
THE SHRINE AT DELPHI, ACHAEA, 710 AB URBE CONDITA (31 B.C.)
The sun beat down, hot, on the narrow courtyard between the house of the Oracle and the columns of the Place of Waiting. The woman stumbled a little on the steps of the house — the stones were deeply grooved from the passage of tens of thousands, and the footing was tricky in her elegant shoes. Guardsmen caught her arms and held her up. She smiled, though her face was bleak, and rewarded them with a light touch on their bronzed shoulders. After the smoky darkness of the Oracle's residence, the brilliant sun and the shining, colorfully painted walls of the temple complex stabbed at her eyes. She drew a veil of dark red silk over her face and walked, slowly, toward the end of the courtyard that faced the south.
There, a line of graceful columns framed a long view of the mountainside plunging down to a gleaming blue limb of the sea. Far below, the water sparkled like a coat of silvered iron. The air seemed tremendously clear to her as she leaned against one of the columns, her hand resting on the dark orchre surface. Paint crumbled away under her touch, leaving a tiny smear of pigment on her fingertip. She felt worn and old; tired — attenuated — by the long struggle. Unseen by her guards, or the servants that had crept out from the House of Waiting to join her, tears seeped from the edges of her kohl-rimmed eyes. She blinked and looked to the west, down the long tongue of water that led to the Middle Sea.
At the edge of vision, smoke rose curling and dark, the breath of wood, tar and canvas.
The release of our dreams, she thought, Apollo and Ra have called them back to the heavens.
The tears cut narrow tracks through the artfully applied paints and powders that subtly accented her strong beauty. She stood away from the pillar and turned toward the captain of her guardsmen.
"Rufus, we must ..." She paused, seeing the servants part. A small figure waddled through the crowd of women, each tiny hand held by a smiling maid. Her heart caught, seeing the wide eyes and beatific, innocent face. The guard captain stepped back, his black eyes flitting over the crowd. One scarred hand rested lightly on the copper pommel of his short sword. The Queen knelt, forgetting to keep the veil across her face.
"Oh, beautiful boy ..." She held out her arms and her son climbed into them. She stood, swinging him to rest on her hip.
One dream remains on earth, she thought, and the lines on her face smoothed and an iron spark returned to her eyes. I will have victory yet!CHAPTER 2
CONSTANTINOPLE, CAPITAL OF THE EASTERN ROMAN EMPIRE, 1378 AB URBE CONDITA (623 A.D.)
"Make way! Citizens, make way for the Legion!" The lean, brown-haired man stepped aside, into the shelter of a deep doorway, as a long line of armed men rattled past. The Roman soldiers were clad in patched red cloaks over worn and pitted armor. Their iron helms, snugged taut under their chins with leather straps, were dented and scratched. The rings and scales of their mail were corroded and irregular, patched with rawhide strips. Some had only partial armor, their arms and legs protected by boiled leather bracings over heavy woolen trousers. Their faces matched their gear — worn by months of struggle on the walls of the city. Still, they jogged past with a certain air — something cold and cruel like the winter sky above, certain of victory.
The man settled his shoulder against the doorpost, flicking a dark green woolen cloak around his knees. Droplets of chill water spattered against heavy black boots. The snow that had fallen during the night was melting in the trapped heat of the city, leaving the streets filled with a foul brown slush. A heavy leather baldric was slung over one shoulder, holding a long hand-and-a-half sword in a sheath at his back. Under the cloak the glint of metal scales revealed an iron shirt.
At the end of the double column of men, an ouragos — a file-closer in the tongue of the Eastern Empire — passed, his eyes sweeping over the man, seeing the sharp Latin features, a medium height, the trim waist and broad shoulders, and the jutting points of his waxed mustache. The soldier kept an eye on the Westerner as he jogged past, his armor jingling in the cold morning air.
Nicholas kept from smiling and showing his teeth. The cold look in the soldier's eye put him on edge, but there was absolutely no need for a street brawl at this time.
It's the mustache, he thought smugly. Every man envies what he cannot have.
Winter had taken its time coming to the Eastern capital. Only after an autumn filled with fits and starts of cold weather, after warm, balmy days and sudden chill winds, had it settled in to stay. Each night, fresh snow settled on the roofs of the temples and insulae, covering the grime and filth of too many people packed into a city that had been under siege, off and on, for almost eight years. Nicholas took a long step over cracked marble paving stones. Steam drifted up from the jagged opening — a sewer ran under the street and the smell was thick. His narrow nose barely twitched at the stench — he had arrived in the city during the summer, when it had been far, far worse. At the end of the street were huge piles of rubble — crumbling clay bricks and broken roofing tiles — blocking the way.
He clambered up over the loose, shifting, snow-covered debris. His hood fell back, revealing a long narrow head with close-set ears. The sun gleamed through heavy clouds, causing him to shade his eyes — an odd dark shade of violet that had gained him the attention of more than one woman — with a gloved hand. Beyond the rubble a boulevard had been forcibly cleared behind the great outer wall of the city. The houses and shops that had grown up under the shadow of the Wall had been smashed down with picks and hammers five years before, when the Emperor Heraclius had first arrived in the city. The space behind the Wall was filled with men, horses, wagons, and all the accoutrements of war.
Nicholas picked his way down the impromptu hill onto the military street. He walked carefully, avoiding the notice of the masons and engineers that were coming and going under the shadow of the massive walls. He looked up, watching the movements of soldiers atop the forty-foot-high edifice. They seemed unconcerned, even nonchalant. This was the inner wall, which had never been breached by an enemy. Great square towers rose along it at regular intervals. The barbarian turned left at the base of the rampart and walked a little way before he came to a gate set into the cliff of stones. More soldiers on horses were filing through the arch, which was deep and narrow, faced with two massive ironbound doors. A grimy statue of a man in an archaic toga and crown of laurels was perched at the apex, a weather-worn hand raised in benediction.
Coming out into the pale sunlight, the man snugged his cloak close around his neck. Between the looming inner wall and the lower, but still formidable, outer works, was an open terrace called the peribolos. It was narrow, perhaps fifteen paces across, and filled with more gangs of workers with mauls and picks, engineers in tented hats with wax tablets under their arms, lines of soldiers in red and gray, marching south toward the sea. Rising up above the stream of humanity was a second rampart, the protichisma, and that was where the work of battle was focused. This wall was only thirty feet high, but studded with towers and battlements like the inner works.
Nicholas glanced about and then made his way to the base of an open-sided wooden tower that had been built alongside the Wall. As he climbed the stairs housed within, his eyes were restless — counting the numbers of men in the street, gauging the strength of the massive granite blocks that old Emperor Constantine's engineers and the Hippodrome factions had mortised together to make the outer rampart of the greatest city in the world. This was a friendly city to him, at least at the moment, but in this line of work it was hard to let go of old habits. Today, seeing this awesome strength, he was pleased, but he wondered idly what he would think if he stood beyond the walls, looking down from the hills of Thrace at the object of desire.
I would see a damnably huge city, girdled by walls and towers and battlements unmatched in the world That is what I would see.
The wind out of the north was cold on the top of the Wall, biting at his ears and snapping his cloak around his shoulders. The heavy gray clouds had parted again, letting streaks of wan sunlight through. The air here was fresh, though, and he breathed deeply, smelling the pine resin of distant fires and the sharp tang of the sea. That smell, after the fetid closeness of the city, brought a smile to his face. There were many days when he hated the urb. Memories of a pine deck twisting under his feet, sea spray in his face, and the boom of surf from the Caledonian shore tugged at him. Sadly, he put those thoughts away. Fifty paces to his left, the octagonal towers of the Number Two Military Gate rose up, dark and foreboding, their surfaces scarred by the impact of bolts and stones. He walked that way.
To his right, the crenellations of the battlement jutted up like broken teeth. The embrasures between them were stained with long streaks of dried blood and nicked by the passage of arms that had coursed along the Wall in hurried violence for the past three years. Roman soldiers stood in the lee of the great stones, their cloaks wrapped tight around their shoulders. Some held steaming mugs of hot wine. Each man looked him over as he passed, and he nodded to some. The heavy mail tunic that he wore under his cloak and linen shirt felt close and comfortable on his body. It was backed by a tough garment of felt, and then — in a nod to vanitas — a silk tunic. A thin film of ice had formed on the walkway during the night, and his hobnailed boots crunched through it as he walked.
The near tower loomed over his head, rising another twenty feet from the bulk of the Wall. It was squat and massive, brooding over the doubly gated passageway below it. An overhanging platform crowned it, reinforced with a wooden wall covered with hides. It looked out over the half-frozen, blackish waters of a canal that ran at the foot of the rampart. The canal was twenty feet wide and choked with debris; it ran from the southern end of the Wall — at the shore of the Propontis — to the north, where the last half mile descended into a brick-lined tunnel under the old Blachernae palace before it reached the waters of the Golden Horn. All summer the soldiers and slaves of the besieging army had been dumping bundles of brush, wicker, and dirt into it, trying to fill the barrier. The Great Khagan of the Avars intended to break the walls of the city, but his mobs of Slavic spear and axemen had to get at the walls somehow. The Roman defenders had spent just as much time clearing the fill away. Too, the blackened timbers of smashed siege towers and burned-out mantlets jutted from the dark surface of the canal and littered the ground just beyond. Nicholas stopped short of the tower Wall and leaned out of the nearest embrasure.
An open field lay before the city, sloping down to the distant woods and outlying buildings of the Thracian countryside. The field was scattered with snow-covered mounds and lumps — the detritus of three years of war. Beyond it, a half mile away, the Avars had their siege line — a confused jumble of camps and hastily built fortifications in a long arc facing the walls of the city. The barbarians, horsemen from the steppes beyond Chersonensus in the far north, had overwhelmed the Balkan provinces of the Eastern Empire a generation before, but had only recently tested their strength against the capital. The host that their khagan had raised dwarfed the number of fighting men in the city — Nicholas knew there were at least fifty thousand barbarians out there. More were probably coming. The promise of the sack of the greatest city in the world drew the outlanders like flies to rotting meat.
The Wall had thrown back great armies before, and the men that defended the city were not concerned. Nicholas wondered, as he walked, at the audacity of an emperor who would raise an army and then leave his capital, still under siege, to fight another war far away. It seemed insane — insane and wholly trusting in the work of his predecessors — that this city could stand against anything that the Avar Khanate could bring against it.
He's not been wrong so far, he thought. But if there is ever a first time ...
A sandy-haired centurion was standing at the base of the tower, leaning one thick arm on the top of the fighting wall. His helmet hung at his side, secured by a loop of cloth to his belt. A long sword, thicker and heavier than that usually favored by Imperial troops, was slung at his side. He was staring out over the snowy fields, watching the smoke curl up from the cookfires of the enemy.
"A cold day to be fighting," Nicholas said as he came up to the narrow door.
The centurion turned, watery blue eyes looking the stranger up and down with a patient, steady manner. A little cloud of breath puffed from his chapped lips.
"'Tis cold," the soldier said. "There will be fighting soon, though. Mayhap not here, but at least down there." The centurion turned a little and pointed off down the line of the massive walls toward the sea. "There, at the Golden Gate. The barbs have ten or twelve engines moving — do you hear the squeak of their wheels? They should use black grease instead of that pig fat — it burns off the axles too quickly."
"I hear it. I'm Nicholas of Roskilde. Things are quiet here?"
"Aye." The centurion gazed at Nicholas steadily. "You've business on the Wall?"
Nicholas looked out over the field, rubbing his chin with his right hand. "Faction business," he said. "I'm owing a favor to a kindly man. I was thinking there might be some work afoot up here, what with your friends yonder."
The centurion raised an eyebrow and made a clucking sound with his teeth. "You come looking for some fighting, go down to the Golden Gate. This section is well quiet You must owe this fellow more than a little to risk your neck on the Wall."
Nicholas shrugged, looking back at the soldier with a guileless expression. "Three squares a day, plus wine or mead if there is any."
Suspicion flickered across the centurion's face, then it cleared. "You, ah, find yourself without an emperor or two to rub together, then?"
Nicholas nodded, summoning up a shamed look. "I was on a ship — there was a game of chance — I found myself on the docks of this city, wondering at its awesome size and greatness. More than one night I spent sleeping in the alleys of the Racing District."
"And someone took you in?" The disbelief on the centurion's face was almost comical. "This is not a burg noted for civility and hospitality to strangers — particularly to fyrdmen down on their luck. It seems a poor way of living."
Excerpted from The Gate of Fire by Thomas Harlan, Beth Meacham. Copyright © 2000 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
THE SHRINE AT DELPHI, ACHAEA, 710 AB URBE CONDITA (31 B.C.),
CONSTANTINOPLE, CAPITAL OF THE EASTERN ROMAN EMPIRE, 1378 AB URBE CONDITA (623 A.D.),
THE SKIES OVER LATIUM, ITALIA, THE WESTERN ROMAN EMPIRE,
THE CITY OF MAKKAH, ARABIA FELIX,
THE HARBOR OF PHOSPHERION, CONSTANTINOPLE,
THE HIGHLANDS OF TABARISTAN, NORTHERN PERSIA,
SOMEWHERE IN THE MARE AEGEUM,
MAKKAH, ARABIA FELIX,
THE ISLAND OF THIRA, SOMEWHERE IN THE KYKLADES,
ANTIOCH, ROMAN SYRIA MAGNA,
THE CAMPUS MARTIUS, ROME,
OUTSIDE ANTIOCH, ROMAN SYRIA MAGNA,
THE CRYPTS OF ALAMUT,
THE ZAM-ZAM, SOUTHERN ARABIA FELIX,
THE RUINS OF PALMYRA, SYRIA COELE,
THE HOUSE D'ORELIO, THE QUIRINAL HILL, ROMA,
THE CILICIAN GATES, ON THE ROAD TO TYANA,
THE RUINS OF THE KA'BA, NEAR MEKKAH,
THE EGYPTIAN HOUSE, OUTSIDE OF ROMA,
THE FORUM, ROMA MATER,
THE HILL ABOVE PALMYRA,
CHALCEDON, ON THE ASIAN SHORE OF THE PROPONTIS,
ON THE HEIGHT OF DAMAWAND,
THE CITY OF YATHRIB, ARABIA FELIX,
THE THIRTEENTH DISTRICT, AVENTINE HILL, ROMA MATER,
THE MILE MARKER, CONSTANTINOPLE,
NEAR THE TOWN OF GANZAK, NORTHERN PERSIA,
THE KA'BA, NEAR MEKKAH, ARABIA FELIX,
THE HOUSE D'ORELIO, ROMA,
OTTAVIANO, ON THE SLOPES OF VESUVIUS,
THE PORT OF LEUKE KOME ON THE COAST OF THE HEDJAZ,
THE ISLAND OF THIRA,
THE PALACE OF JUSTINIAN, CONSTANTINOPLE,
THE JABAL AL'JILF, OUTSIDE PETRA, CAPITAL OF ROMAN NABATEA,
ECBATANA, CENTRAL PERSIA,
THE WINE DARK SEA, SOUTH OF THE ISLAND OF CRETA,
THE SIQ, NEAR PETRA, ROMAN NABATEA,
CAESAREA MARITIMA, THE COAST OF JUDEA,
THE BUCOLEON PALACE, CONSTANTINOPLE,
THE QUIRINAL HILL, ROMA MATER,
THE RED PALACE, PETRA, NABATEA,
THE SLOPES OF VESUVIUS,
THE GATE OF SIHON, AELIA CAPITONLINA,
THE PALATINE HILL, ROMA MATER,
THE PALATINE HILL, ROMA,
THE CITY ONCE KNOWN AS AGAMATANU, PERSIA,
THE SEA, OFF OF NEAPOLIS,
THE VALLEY OF SION,
NEAR OTTAVIANO, SOUTHERN LATIUM,
THE BUCOLEON PALACE, CONSTANTINOPLE,
CAESAREA MARITIMA, PALESTINE,
NOTES ON NOMENCLATURE,
Tor Books by Thomas Harlan,