Ten years after the fall of Babylon, Cyrus's army is on the march again. His slave Croesus, no longer a young man, accompanies him as always, as does the king's son and heir Cambyses, who has inherited none of his father's diplomacy or charisma and all of his vanity and violence. When the warriors of Persia are unexpectedly crushed in battle Cyrus is put to death, and Cambyses assumes the throne. Croesus, once a king himself, is called upon to guide the young man; but the young man cannot be guided, and after taking offense at an insult by an Egyptian ruler, Cambyses takes the full force of his father's empire to Africa for vengeance.
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About the Author
Tim Leach's The Last King of Lydia was shortlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize.
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There is a place, far to the north of Babylon, through the rock and stone labyrinth of mountains that bear no name and many parasangs to the east of the great Hyrcanian sea, where a great plain stretches out to the horizon and beyond. Were one to be born at the centre of this steppe, one would never imagine that such a thing as a mountain or a sea could possibly be, and could believe only that the world was an infinity of earth and rivers and horses. It is here that the Massagetae make their home.
Most of these nomads have never seen a temple or a watchtower or a great city wall. They shun cities as tombs, think of those who live in them as devils who have traded away their souls in the market squares. But there are a few amongst them who make great journeys to the south and west, taking herds of tall horses with them and coming back with treasures – necklaces in lapis lazuli, recurve bows that only the strongest men can pull, clay jars of honey, and, rarest and most valuable of all, the occasional small piece of iron.
These travellers come back with stories too. They tell of mountains that are still capped with ice beneath the summer sun and that steal the air from your lungs when you walk across them, of distant seas that are as great as the plains and are crossed by men in fifty-oared ships. And, sometimes, they speak of places where tens of thousands live crowded together in tents of stone.
The only city that the Massagetae understand is the one that comes and goes in the passing of a single day, when two tribes chance to meet at a good grazing ground. The foundations of the city are laid in moments: a forest of wooden poles, unrolled and joined together with twine, set in a series of circles. Then they are covered with white cloth, so that from a distance the circadian city seems more like a snowfield than a gathering of people. And if it threatens rain during the brief life of the city, it will suddenly change colour, as ten thousand brown horsehides are laid out on top of the tents.
All life is here, if only for a moment. A chanting circle marks a knife fight, two men settling a dispute over livestock or a woman. Children run free in feral mobs throughout the encampment, while all around them men and women drink and talk and argue and barter and make love. A trade pact will be struck, reach a profitable fruition and be broken in bad faith in a matter of hours. A man and a woman meet for the first time, conduct a forbidden courtship and elope from one tribe to another during one passage of the sun. All the life of a city year takes place in a single day and night. The next day, the city is gone, worn ground and horse tracks all that remain to suggest that thousands spent a night and lived a life in this place.
The plains stretch on, cityless, but by no means unchanging. Cutting through the plains in one place is a broad, deep river. The Hellenes called it the Jaxartes, the Persians knew it as Yakhsha Arta. The Massagetae saw no reason to give it a name. There were many smaller rivers, but this was the great barrier of the plains. It and rivers like it had divided kingdoms for thousands of years, until men learned to build boats and bridges, and discovered that one could rule beyond the natural markers of mountains and rivers, that there were no frontiers left, only temporary obstacles that could be washed aside with blood.
Approaching that river, on a warm, calm summer day, came a city of a different kind. The walking city of the Persian army.
Once it had been little larger than a town; a ragged band of archers and horsemen from many different tribes who had gathered together and overthrown the king of the Medes. Now, after twenty years on the march, swollen with tributes from a dozen kingdoms, it was more populous than the greatest cities of the world. Once, it had been filled only with warriors. Now, marching alongside the spearmen and the cavalry were the women held in common by the soldiers, and children dashed along the army's flanks, like scouts or outriders.
The army had been on the march for so long that there were young men who had been born, raised and now fought alongside their fathers, young women who had grown into their mothers' sad trade. Some said that this army might march on for generations, replacing soldiers and kings alike with those who were born within it. Perhaps it would still be marching long after Babylon and Sardis and Ecbatana had been conquered and forgotten.
It was a nomad city, marching from the south to tame a nomad people. Somewhere, deep within the plains, the Persians knew that an army was gathering to face them. They had merely to find it and destroy it, and these vast plains that had never seen a master would belong to them.
If you were to ride towards this army, amongst them, against them, like a fish that swims upstream, what would you see? To pass so freely, you would require some conferred immunity to this force that had broken cities and toppled empires. Let us say that you have a mark of the gods upon you, or you bear some diplomatic seal that even Cyrus of Persia, who has made the great kingdoms of Babylon and Lydia and Media bend to his will, must still recognize.
You would ride past the common spearmen bearing their tall wicker shields, the horsemen riding bareback with short bows across their shoulders. You would see a few bands of bronze-armoured Ionians, the mercenaries who sang as they fought and never broke formation. In the midst of the ten thousand Immortals, the elite spearmen whose weapons are marked with gold and silver, you might catch sight of a man riding a tall white horse. Cyrus the Great, the king of Persia.
But your business is not with the king.
Riding further, past the last of the slingers and archers who trail behind the rest of the fighting men, past the concubines and children, you would see a second army following in the wake of the first. Here the slaves and servants, cloths tied over their mouths to ward off the clouds of dust kicked up by the army in front, drive cattle and carts loaded with grain and water and weaponry. As you glance over these ragged thousands, your eye might be caught by one man in particular, somewhere near the centre of this second army. He is the only one riding rather than walking, a distorted mirror image of the man on the white horse, appearing as a king amongst the slaves. But he rides a mule, not a warhorse, and wears the simple robes of a slave, not the bronze and gold armour of a ruler of men.
His hair and beard are silver touched with black, close cropped against skin that is deeply tanned. This man has passed six and a half decades on this earth in a world where few men live to see forty, and half that life has been spent walking and riding in the wake of one army or another beneath the heavy sun of the East. To survive so long as a slave would be remarkable, but he has not always been the property of another man. Once, hard as it was to believe, he had been one of the great kings of the West: Croesus, ruler of Sardis and Lydia, whose empire had stretched from the Ionian coast to the banks of the great Halys river.
You might try to find some remnant of the king in his bearing, but time has erased almost every trace of rulership from him. There is no hint of arrogance in the way he sits on his mule – he looks rather like a farmer leading his herd to market, constantly leaning down to plead and threaten and coax the stubborn beast forward. He has the hesitant eyes of a slave who must be careful what he does and does not see, and moves with the wary, small motions of one who seeks to remain unnoticed. Yet, from time to time, some ghostly gesture from his past returns to him – a kingly tilt of the head as he listens to the men who walk at his side, an imperiously raised hand to greet a distant companion. And when he lets his gaze drift over the plains, for a moment he still looks upon the world as one who seeks to possess it, reshape it. Then he drops his head and is once again the slave. A man who can change nothing, and who will be forgotten.
When they had almost reached the river, the air suddenly cleared of dust. They had come to a sudden halt, and Croesus reined in his mule, which was as reluctant now to stop as it had been to move forward a moment before. He wiped the sweat from his beard and brow, threw back his head and closed his eyes against the heat of the sun, enjoying a rare moment of peace and stillness.
He waited, and let the rumours pass down from the front of the column and flow over and about him like water. An omen had been seen, one slave said, a horse eating a snake, and the priests had ordered a halt to determine what it meant. Another insisted, more prosaically, that there had been a sighting of the Massagetae army across the river.
Up ahead, a distant flash of red cloth; the king's tent was being erected; it seemed they would be stopping for some time. Croesus saw a band of riders begin to work its way back along the flank of the army. He assumed that soon they would peel away, that they were scouts dispatched on reconnaissance, but they rode straight on, until they were amongst the carts and cattle of the supply train. As the horsemen drew closer, Croesus heard those around him begin to mutter to each other. He squinted and leaned forward, for his eyes were not as strong as they once had been. At last, he recognized the man who approached, flanked by bodyguards. It was the general of the army, Harpagus, and Croesus at once understood the fear of those around him.
'Do not worry,' Croesus said, as he nudged his mule forward once again. 'He is coming for me.'
They rode in silence for a time. Harpagus sat with the easy grace of a warrior who has spent more of his life on horseback than on his own feet, Croesus moving awkwardly on his bad-tempered steed. Harpagus gave no word or sign of what the summons might mean; his sharp-boned face was without expression, his eyes as blank as those of a dead man.
'So,' Croesus said, at last. 'What is it that the king wants from me?'
'The Massagetae have sent us a messenger.'
'Yes. That queen of a leaderless people,' said Harpagus. 'Their army is on the other side of the river.'
'It is time, then?'
'Yes,' Harpagus said. 'It is time.'
'You should not come back amongst the slaves and servants, you know.'
'What? Why not?'
'You make them nervous.'
'I do not make you nervous?'
'Not any more,' said Croesus. 'But they do not know you as I do.'
'Perhaps I shall send a messenger in future, to spare their delicate feelings. And yours.'
'Do not even send the messenger next time,' Croesus replied. 'I do not know if this is my hundredth, or thousandth, or ten thousandth counsel of war. I wish he would not command me to be at these meetings.'
Harpagus did not answer. Croesus looked at the general, and was surprised to find a crack in the blankness – a certain hesitance there.
'Harpagus?' Croesus said.
'The king did not ask for you,' the general said slowly.
'He did not think he would need your advice. But I want you to be there.'
'The king is not himself.' Harpagus paused. 'Perhaps he will speak to you. You are the only one he talks to in that way.'
'In what way?'
'As though you are his wife.'
'He should have brought Cassandane with him,' said Croesus. 'He misses her.'
'That may be. You will have to do instead.'
They drew close to the king's tent, passing through the ranks of the Immortals, Cyrus's personal bodyguards. Croesus looked at them, trying to pick out men he recognized, to see the new faces there. Any who fell in battle were replaced before the next setting of the sun, and the Immortals had never gone into night with less than ten thousand standing in their ranks.
'That is an ugly beast,' the general said, looking at Croesus's mule.
'Stubborn too. Still, it makes me a prince amongst the servants and the slaves. You should hear them complain.' Croesus leaned forward and gave the mule a rare, affectionate scratch between the ears. It spat on the ground. 'It was kind of Cyrus to let me have him. A kindness to an old man.'
'He just wants to keep his property intact. His talking curiosity, a slave who was once a king.' He nodded at the mule. 'What do you call it anyway, your ugly little steed?'
'I call it Harpagus, of course.'
The general threw back his head, and gave a dry-throated chuckle. 'Very good. I like that.'
They drew up before the king's tent. It was a vast, many chambered structure, a palace on the plains. Even in all the years that he had served the king of Persia, Croesus had seen perhaps a quarter of its contents. Only the king knew all the secrets that it contained.
Croesus swung himself down from his mule, wincing at the cracking of his knees. He lifted the heavy cloth of the tent, and stepped through.
It took his eyes a moment to adjust from the glare of the sun to the dim reddish light inside. Within, gathered in a semi circle, he could see the men whose decisions controlled the fate of millions – the captain of the Immortals, a high priest of the Magi, the king's eldest son, Cambyses. On the far side of the tented chamber, a cushion serving as his throne, Cyrus, king of Persia and many other kingdoms, sat cross-legged on the ground, resting his chin on the palm of one hand, the other toying with the tassels of the carpet.
There were none who could say for certain how old this man was, who had broken the greatest kingdoms of the world to his will as a nomad will break a horse to ride. His face was ageless, the body still that of a young warrior, though Croesus believed him to have lived nearly half a century. It did not seem enough time to have done all the things that Cyrus had done. The world had never seen a king like him.
'Well,' Cyrus said. 'I suppose we can begin now.'
Croesus knelt and touched his forehead to the ground. 'My apologies, master.'
'Harpagus is the one who should apologize. But no matter.' The king gave an elegant wave of his hand. 'Sit down.'
Croesus found a place next to the king's son, Cambyses, the young man reluctantly shuffling aside to give him space to sit. Cyrus nodded to one of his bodyguards. 'Bring him in.'
The entrance parted again, and the messenger entered the tent, his hair pooling around his waist, a wolf-fur coat slung over his shoulders. An emissary from a different world.
The nomad gave a small nod to the king, then closed his eyes and began to repeat his message. 'I bring my words from Queen Tomyris of the Massagetae. King of Persia —'
'Just Persia; you note that?' Cyrus said, and the messenger fell into silence at the interruption. 'No mention of Babylon, the Medes, the Ionians. Or Lydia for that matter, Croesus.' He looked back to the Massagetae. 'Go on.'
'Rule your people, and try to bear the sight of me ruling mine. But of course, you will ignore my advice ...'
'That much is true.'
'... for the last thing you want is to live in peace.'
Cyrus opened his mouth again, as if to deliver another retort. But he had no answer to this.
'Listen then,' the messenger continued. 'If you want to face the Massagetae, we will withdraw three days' march from the river and send you boats for the crossing, and we can settle things in the way you have become accustomed. Or, if you prefer, withdraw three days yourself, and let us meet on your side of the river. The choice is yours.'
There was silence for a moment.
'Very well,' Cyrus said. 'Leave us. My men will give you food and wine —'
'No wine,' the messenger said. 'Just water.'
'As you wish. You will have your response soon enough. Now go.'
Croesus watched the messenger walk away, his gait the strangely awkward one of a man whose legs and hips had shaped themselves to a horse's barrel chest from a lifetime in the saddle.
'What do you think?' the king said to his council, and it was Cambyses who spoke first.
'We can defeat them wherever we fight under your leadership,' the king's son said. 'Why worry about which side of the river the battle is held?' Cambyses smiled. 'You and I could fight them alone, Father, do you not think?'
Croesus could not help but wince at this. This council, which had fought and won a hundred battles without loss, approached war with respect to the gods and careful planning, not the empty promise of heroics. And Cambyses, feeling the quality of the silence and knowing that he had blundered, dropped his head and looked to the ground.
'Thank you, my son,' the king said slowly. 'Your bravery, it is commendable. Now, Harpagus? What were you going to say?'
'Let them come over to this side. When we defeat them, we shall drive them into the river.'
There were nods from the other men in the room. Cyrus looked to his slave. 'Croesus? What do you think?'
'I am not much of a strategist.'
'Surprise me. Give me some of that original thinking.'
'Very well. No one has mentioned the possibility that we might lose.'
Excerpted from "The King and the Slave"
Copyright © 2014 Tim Leach.
Excerpted by permission of Atlantic Books Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
An Endless Plain,
A Garden of Paradise,
A Silent Desert,
The City of the Dead,
The Second Death,