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The August sun shot hot arrows, slanting with the lateness of the day. Even this late and this close to the pitiless worn hills of Vaspurakan -- Armenia that was, before the Empire of the Romans had won it, lost it, and won it again -- the sunlight pierced the Romans and Turks who fought in it, an enemy to both. There would be no moon tonight, and no battle, unless the dead fought those who would rob them.
Slanting rays kindled the dust that rose from the brown earth and stone parched from the long summer. The broad river that glinted the brown of long-tarnished silver as it flowed near Manzikert, with its sheltering black walls and leafy gardens, might have been as far off as the Jordan, or the Golden Horn. Emperor Romanus's loyal -- and not so loyal -- men would have to pray they would live to see the Horn again. The Jordan was past praying for.
The sun beat down on Leo Ducas's armor. It was as great a torment as the air itself, laden with dust, the reeks of horses, sweat, and blood, and the threat of treachery.
Far forward, the actual fighting was marked by clouds of dust and rising and falling waves of clamor. The cataphracts of Byzantium advanced, paused, thrust forward again. Although this was Leo's first war against the Seljuk Turks, he knew how the riders forced their horses over bodies pierced with arrows.
They had been friends, once, those bodies. Or enemies -- demons, some said, although any student of the learned Psellus (even if he had been dismissed) was not foolish enough to call the Seljuks demons. After Romanus's army won the day, they might even be granted some sort of burial.
More arrows buzzed back and forth.Outnumbered the Turks might be, but the Byzantine auxiliaries were no match for archer-cavalry on their deadly little steppe ponies. Slingers and infantry reinforced the Roman army; but it was the heavy cavalry charge of his cataphracts on which the Emperor relied. Again, Romanus hurled his forces forward.
Leo peered through the dust. Surely, that bright glint was the labarum, the great banner bearing the Chi and the Rho with which the Creator of All had inspired Constantine to found a Christian empire. Where the banner flew, the Emperor made his stand, guarded by Varangians with their deadly axes.
Thanks be to God. Leo blessed himself. This army -- large as it was, such as it was -- was the Empire's best hope for recapturing its eastern provinces. Defeat it or even check it severely, and it was unlikely that this century would see Armenia returned to the orbit of Byzantium by this Emperor or any other.
Leo stirred in his saddle, trying to ease the weight of what felt like several inches of padding, mail, iron klibanion, vambraces, greaves, gauntlet, and mail hood. His cloak was rolled up behind him on his saddle. If he had to wear that, it would probably puff about him like a bellows, if it didn't stifle him: either way, he would melt. He bore the Christian name of an Emperor and great general and a family name that should still have been enriched by the purple, but he would have traded both for a drink of water or a clean breeze.
Best not think of water. Best not think of his harness galls or how his horse must chafe beneath his weight. Not even to his mother would Leo dare admit it: he was a poor excuse for a cavalry officer. Better the families had let young Alexius come in Leo's place. The boy was some sort of cousin -- the ladies of Byzantium kept track of such family intricacies -- and he and Leo had been raised almost as brothers. Alexius was only fourteen, eager to fight, and expert past his years; but he had been denied because of the death of his brother Manuel and his mother Anna Dalassena's grief.
Or what passed for it: the noble lady who had married into the powerful Comnenus family was at least as skilled as Leo's own mother in combining family and politics.
Leo's father had protested that he had always found his son an apt pupil, but Psellus, friend to patriarchs, proedrus of the Senate, and intimate of Leo's entire family, was very much heeded. So Leo had been sent to carve out the best future available for him. He had no vocation for monastic life; his blood was too good for a youngster's position in the civil service. God forbid he should be a eunuch: he was too old, in any case, to be cut. So, Leo accepted the very generous family donation that paid his way into a most aristocratic regiment indeed.
Psellus was riding higher than ever before in his distinguished career. Though he was a scholar, not a soldier, he was an accepted friend of Leo's uncle the general. Andronicus Ducas hunted with him and always came back looking glassy-eyed: no doubt from the high plane of Psellus's discourse. Friend to Emperors Psellus was now: nevertheless, he had begun life as a man so poor that he had had to leave off scholarship to dower his sister. He liked to point out that there had been patricians in his line. It was not as if he were an upstart, like the Latin Cicero, who had probably been another impossible bore.
Brilliant, Psellus might be: Leo did not trust him. He was too brilliant and too old still to have the place-seeker's supple back. Psellus worshipped his position and things as they were, Leo suspected, more than he worshipped God. For all his vanity, Psellus had shifty eyes. And he hated the Emperor.
Think of the battle, Leo chided himself. The others in the rear guard studied it, rapt. Perhaps the problem was that Leo's gifts for war were as meager as for scholarship. That made him a family disgrace. The Ducas men were warrior-aristocrats: the songs of the Akritai always showed them as lords and fighters. There had been Emperors in their line recently, as they never wearied of remembering, Autocrators sealed to their Empire, peer of the apostles, vicegerent of Christ on Earth. Once your line was anointed, the chrism could not be washed off, even in blood. Leo was a good enough theologian to see the fallacy in that line of reasoning, but Ducas enough not to relish anyone pointing it out.
Leo had served his uncle at least adequately on this campaign. He thought he had even won himself some respect to match the status borrowed from his name. From the great strategoi on down, no one could forget that before Romanus had won the purple in aging Eudocia Dalassena's silken bed, a Ducas had ruled as Emperor of the Romans. Certainly, his uncle Andronicus never did.
What was that cheering? Leo stood in his stirrups. The center was advancing. Someone behind him in the ranks set up a shout. It died quickly, crushed against the immobile, waiting silence of Andronicus Ducas. The strategos shot a glare under his helm at Leo. Another reproof: your cousin Nicholas does not crane forward, does not twitch, does not fret like a horse with a fly on its withers. But his cousin Nicholas had been practically born to the Tagmata regiments and was in Andronicus's confidence as deep as any of the younger men could be allowed.
With his father, the Caesar John, in exile, Andronicus was not safe for Romanus to leave behind. In that, though perhaps in little else, Leo thought the Autocrator had shown good sense. Disloyal, Leo; your uncle owes his service to the Emperor of the Romans.
If only he had not grown up in Constantinople, with its twin obsessions: religion and politics. Surely, a man who had grown up quietly on a small estate might be content to see the Emperor -- any Emperor -- as worthy of loyalty . . . until the taxes or the levies came due. But families like Leo's made sure that their sons and daughters knew that any action provoked not just consequences, but political repercussions for at least three generations.
Now, at least, Empress Eudocia's chamber was not the only place Romanus Diogenes wielded his lance. Like silk lured by heated amber, the Emperor followed the retreating crescent formation of Seljuk cavalry back into the dusty hills. On his right flank fought an honor roll of the great Themes of the East.
Surrounding the Emperor were the Varangians, loyal to their oath, if not fond of this particular Autocrator; the men of the eastern Themes; and the Tagmata, those military aristocrats with whom Leo might have ridden had he not been Ducas and deemed naturally of his uncle's faction. Flanking them were Pecheneg mercenaries and any other auxiliaries who had not deserted yet. Nicephorus Bryennius had command of them, and he was welcome to it.
The Seljuk army was smaller than that of the Romans, and "they have a eunuch commanding them," muttered a heavy-armored Norman nearby. The barbaroi were squeamish that way. Astonishing all the Franks and Normans had not all vanished with Roussel of Bailleul to Khilat or wherever it was the mercenary warlord had gotten himself to.
"That sultan of theirs -- Alp Arslan -- he doesn't command?"
"He stays in the rear," someone chuckled. "Dressed all in white for what they call their Sabbath, like a walking target, God grant it."
"Who leads them, then?"
"This one is named Tarang. They say he's a eunuch," someone snickered. The laugh came out oddly distorted by the nasal of the man's crude helm.
"Eunuch or no, he has more . . ." "At least ours leads from up front . . ."
All the books said that was bad strategy. Even Bryennius, who was a strategos as well as a writer on tactics, and his friend Attaleiates, who had ambitions to be both, frowned at the idea.
"At least, the Empress thinks so . . ."
"You want the strategos to kill you before you get in range of the Turks? I swear, one glare from him would be enough to freeze yours off so you'd call that Turk your brother."
The men subsided into grumblings. Here, where the reserves waited, the battle's ebb and flow sounded like a bloody sea.
Andronicus Ducas did not move. He had been ordered to wait, and wait he would, never showing impatience, hunger, thirst, or much beyond some image of the ideal strategos from the works of Nicephorus Phocas or Leo's imperial namesake.
Never mind that he, like Leo and the rest of the army down to the laziest servant, had fasted before Mass and while the Cross was paraded through the camp, and it had been mid-day since they left the camp. Still, Andronicus Ducas, protovestiarios and protoproedros and a throng of other titles, waited, as still as a mosaic Saint Michael with bitter eyes.
He was an immensely tall and powerful man: son of a banished Caesar, nephew to an Emperor, and Leo's patron as well as his uncle.
Further and further the Seljuks withdrew. They were fast. Let a strategos get troops into an area, and they melted away, to turn lightning-fast on their fierce little ponies and strike viciously, with arrows, mace, and sword. That was how Basiliaces had gotten himself captured and why Tarchaniotes had disappeared. Terrible thing for a strategos to be taken.
But not as bad as desertion or treachery.
Now Leo could see the first wave of Romans hastening toward the brutal horizon of Vaspurakan's hills. A hot gust of wind teased more dust beneath his helmet and into his eyes: he could almost feel the grit scrape between his eyelids as he narrowed his eyes. Again, the waning sunlight glinted bloody off the rhomphaia, the great axes of the Varangians; again, he could see the labarum.
Romanus dreamed of making himself another Basil Bulgar-Slayer by recovering the Eastern Themes. Of course, Psellus disparaged Romanus's military skill. He would have found ways of mocking a total triumph, if that would let him arrange things as he wanted, with his choices on the throne and ruling the Senate. Romanus was no fool. He had been an effective dux of Sardica under the Emperor Constantine Ducas. Still, he had admitted to plotting to displace his Emperor. That was by no means an unusual sin in Byzantium. It had been his record -- as well as his personal charms -- that had saved his life and won him Eudocia's favor; and Leo would have wagered his nonexistent patrimony that the proedros of the Senate, that Michael Psellus lost sleep, hair, and a goodly portion of his immortal soul raging about it.
"Do they not advance too rapidly?" he ventured to ask his uncle.
Andronicus glared beneath his helmet. "The Autocrator is an experienced general," he said. Which meant everything and nothing. "We have no money to pay our troops. Is it a wonder that we have no scouts or spies worthy of the name, and our barbaroi fall away from us?"
That was not an answer.
Use your own judgment, Leo.
Attaleiates, far superior to anything Leo would ever be as a soldier, would have answered the question, "aye." Attaleiates swore -- out of earshot of all but aristocratic nonentities such as Leo -- that the campaign had a nemesis to face as well as Alp Arslan, the mountain lion of the steppes
Under the heavy armor, Leo's sweat suddenly cooled, and he shuddered at a memory of his own -- the wizened face of an old woman at whom one of the Hetaeria had shouted and urged his horse.
She struggled out of his path, agile despite her age from years of scrambling on these hills. Even so, he was mounted, and she tired fast. When she saw she could not escape, she turned at bay. Leo had a glimpse of her face: sunken, sun-baked, toothless, but with remains of that cleverness and intensity with which his mother had invariably gained her victories in the maze of Constantinopolitan family life. Rage flickered across her face Then her eyes went strange, and she shrilled out a curse at Romanus and all who rode with him as traitors and murderers. Leo had started forward.
Had she been seeress as well as refugee from some village plundered by the Franks? Just so Leo's nurse -- who had been his mother's before she was his -- had ranted when confronted by some domestic tragedy; and a devastated village was far more than broken glass, stolen food, or the death of distant cousins.
When he had seen the crone who resembled his nurse struck down, he had tried to raise her, trying to see how badly hurt she was: not broken too badly to walk, thank God. She had clutched at his arm, pulling him down until he had recoiled, disgusted at the thought that she might snatch a kiss from a fine young soldier -- in front of the army, which made the humiliation worse. He had drawn back, but given her what coin he had about him. She babbled at him, drawing his face down to hers again.
"Going to kiss her? Back to your post!" At his uncle's orders, Leo withdrew.
To his surprise, his uncle had later appeared at his side. "Did she speak to you?" the strategos asked.
"She babbled something. To tell you the truth, sir, I was more concerned with her breath than her words."
"Forgotten your milk-speech, have you?" So what if he had had an Armenian nurse. So what if his mother had Armenian blood. Neither was reason to taunt him. Leo shrugged. The old woman had mumbled things about treachery, slaying of kin, nothing worthy of mention.
Silently, stirrup to stirrup with his uncle (a mark of favor that won him a glare from his cousin Nicholas), they had ridden back to camp. That night the chaplain had given the army curses, instead of comfort and sacraments.
The campaign was ill-fated. Leo did not need the crone's words or his friend's croaking to tell him that.
"Are you trying to break your neck before you get to fight?" A guardsman slapped Leo's horse. He reined it in, hating the guardsman for exposing him. It was his duty, and duty was all part of Imperial and family service: scorn either, and not only would he not be granted another chance, he would speedily lose his life.
As he might right now if he did not put his mind on his duties. We are not the rich branch of the Ducas family, he had been told since he was a child. Enough remained to procure him this place in the host; for the rest, he must set himself to imitate his uncle. He had the height. He had the somber, aquiline look of all his family. But there the resemblance ceased. Leo fretted: Andronicus sat like iron behind his kite-shaped shield, waiting for word from the Emperor.
Leo must only obey. He had profited from obedience before. Twice, he had ridden between the reserves and the Emperor himself -- the last time when Romanus rejected Alp Arslan's request for a truce. The Seljuks had even been made to prostrate themselves. Granted, the Autocrator had been more arrogant than prudent in the manner of his rejection. Still, he was Emperor of the Romans, while Alp Arslan, this mountain lion, as his name ran, from the steppes of Asia was -- what?
Overmatched by a greater force, for one thing, and with the wit to know it. But a lion, even outnumbered, still possessed fangs and claws. Who would have thought that the half-bestial Seljuks could fight so long and so craftily? Maybe it had been that Persian minister standing at Alp Arslan's back. Persians, as any Roman knew, were treacherous as well as fierce.
What was that wave of riders breaking from the Byzantine line? A shout, jeer and cheer mingled, went up from Romans and Turks alike. The half-wild Uz mercenaries broke from the battle lines and trotted over to join their distant kin. Barbarians and not of the Faith, of course: not to be trusted.
Andronicus Ducas' gloved hand gripped his saddle for only a moment. Romanus hasn't paid them for months, boy, he muttered. Then his Caesar-mask fell back in place.
Leo swallowed hard, his mouth dry. He longed for light or water. Don't think of the Golden Horn. Don't think of the river, or of Lake Van, or of the black walls and leafy gardens of Manzikert.
The world narrowed to the uplands on which the Emperor fought. With their twisty, dried-up riverbeds, their rocky outcroppings, and their hollow shadows, they were hell-made for ambushes. The hot wind blew up in the hills, drawing a cry like unearthly battle horns from the caves and deep recessed crags there. The sky was darkening. Leo raised an eyebrow. He knew what the authorities would say: the Emperor should not have been in the forefront. The battle should not be lasting this long.
"Prepare yourself, boy," muttered Andronicus Ducas. "I shall have use for you soon."
I am not "boy," Leo thought, swallowing his anger with a lifetime's practice. He could hear his mother's urgent whisper: He kept you with him? He spoke to you about the campaign and made use of you? Good, good. When can you expect promotion?
The armies of Rome paid their troops well -- when they paid at all -- and paid their officers in pounds of gold. But it was not the gold that Leo's family craved, but influence. You set hand to a weak tool, he thought. But it was unthinkable to turn in their hands and gash them.
Mists were drifting down now from the bare, rock-strewn hills. It was getting difficult to see as the sun sank lower. It cast long beams over the waiting soldiers, turning his uncle's boots red as if he had waded in blood -- which Heaven avert -- or traded his own footgear for that of the Basileus and Autocrator. Heaven avert that too, whatever Andronicus and his father, the banished Caesar John, thought.
If the Autocrator were going to summon the reserves, it was time and past time to do so. Even an officer as green as Leo could see that. But it was no part of his duty to urge his uncle forward. Look at how his cousin waited, motionless, as obedient to command as any Spartan. The thought of them and how they fell, obedient to command -- another bad omen, which Heaven avert. Still, if the reserves were to be of help, they must be summoned soon.
God, he was thirsty.
"Nephew." Now came the summons he had been preparing for all this long campaign. Andronicus barely troubled to raise his voice. "Go, ask the Autocrator how we may serve him." The strategos pleased himself with his irony. It was his nature: iron and irony forged together.
The order came as almost as blessed a relief as the water Leo craved.
His uncle sent him, not cousin Nicholas for all his experience, he exulted. Then he set himself to reach the Autocrator with a whole skin and a live horse.
Leo dodged over bodies and through the lines until he reached the Emperor, flanked by dour Varangians. Even now, Romanus looked like a fine figure of a fighting man. He wore the dress of a common soldier -- except for the crimson boots of the Basileus. Tired as he must be, he sat his horse as if the day -- and he -- were fresh. Basil Bulgar-Slayer must have looked like such a one.
Did he regret not accepting Alp Arslan's terms? Had the Seljuk submitted, the Emperor might thereby have secured the turbulent eastern boundary of the Empire -- then withdrawn, however, and awaited future onslaughts with diminished troops and funds. But he had not; and now it was growing late.
Under his helm, the Emperor's eyes narrowed. He would signal a retreat -- Leo would have wagered any patrimony he might ever have on that. Not a rout, of course: even stripped of the Uzes, even with the casualties it had taken, the army could withdraw to its camp, regroup, then return the next day to crush the Seljuks for once and for all. If his strokes were sure enough, Romanus could win back Vaspurakan and ride home to winter securely in Constantinople and groom one of his own two sons for the purple.
Romanus signaled Leo forward. In this moment, the Emperor saw him not as the kin of his enemy, but as a tool to accomplish a task he badly needed done.
"Tell the strategos to bring his troops forward," he ordered. How Andronicus would glare to hear his dignities handled thus baldly.
The Varangians closed in to guard the Emperor. Not their emperor, perhaps, but they would be loyal to their oaths. Their faces were sweaty. Their axes shone. And Leo wondered, not for the first time, if it were really true that some of the Northerners actually did turn into bears and wolves in the madness of battle.
A wave of Seljuks rode forward. Those little ponies that wouldn't have lasted a moment against a charge from cataphracts on level ground. One of the biggest, his harness brown with dried blood, barked an order. The men raised shields against a deadly, whistling storm of arrows, then braced for a second volley.
Retreat did not necessarily mean defeat, any more than a feint with a blade meant that your next strike might not draw blood.
The camp was unprotected. Every man who had not deserted -- yet -- was in the field, without provisions, and probably exhausted. It was already growing dark, and the Roman armies had found no core of resistance to overwhelm. Help must come swiftly if it were to be help at all and retreat were not to become rout.
"Ride!" Leo waved away offers of companion guards he could see his Emperor needed. Hunched beneath his shield, he rode back toward the reserves, and his uncle, masked in dust, his helm, and his hatreds.
He heard horns on the wind: the retreat already? Andronicus was an experienced strategos, he could anticipate his Emperor's will and need. Faster, Leo. Perhaps you can snatch a remount before you ride into battle. Fear and hope churned in his belly.
His uncle broke from his immobility. Whatever else today meant, it was victory for the Ducas. This was, Leo knew, the moment he had awaited, when the Emperor of the Romans must acknowledge that his enemy had saved the day. He even rode a space away from the carefully arrayed battle lines, as if honoring his nephew's return.
Then, even as Leo saluted, his uncle's face changed. His mouth went grim, and his eyes widened in horror.
Andronicus lunged forward in his saddle. He had his hands on Leo's shoulders, he was shaking him as if he had announced the coming of the Beast of the Apocalypse, and he was screaming, "Tell me it isn't so! He's dead, you say? You say the Emperor is dead?"
The sun struck Andronicus's helm, leaving half his face in ruddy shadow. Nevertheless, on it, Leo saw a small, quick smile of victory.
Copyright © 1996 by Susan Shwartz
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This novel is bolstered by some obviously thorough research, and benefits from being set in a period not overly-trodden by modern authors (the fascinating, little known later Byzantine period, just before the Crusades). It also mixes its history and fantasy concepts in an interesting fashion. However, it's marred by some bizarre (and jarring) narrative jumps and recursions that made it quite hard to read at times.