687 AD. Expansive and triumphant, the Caliphate has stripped Egypt and Syria from the Byzantine Empire. Farther and farther back, the formerly hegemonic Empire has been pushed – once to the very walls of its capital, Constantinople. What next?
Chapter One: Jarrow, Thursday 27th December 686
“Is that wank on your sleeve?” I croaked accusingly. The boy opened his mouth and stepped backwards through the doorway. I gave him a bleary look and carried on with pulling myself together. If I’d supposed I could hide that I’d been dozing, this was – all else aside – the wrong boy. Out of habit, I’d spoken Greek. Edward was barely competent in Latin. I leaned forward in the chair. My neck was hurting where my head had fallen sideways. The beer jug I’d brought with me into my cell was empty, and I was feeling cold again.
“My Lord Abbot presents his compliments,” Edward opened in obviously rehearsed Latin, “and begs your presence in the bell tower.” His face took on a faint look of relief before lapsing into its usual blankness.
“The bell tower, indeed!” I grunted. “And Benedict imagines I can skip up and down his twelve foot ladder as if I were one of Jacob’s angels. One day, if he’s lucky, he might have eight years of his own to every foot of that ladder.” But I stopped. It was plain I’d lost the boy. I groaned and reached for my stick. As I finally got to my feet, he tied the threadbare shawl about me. I ignored the offer of his arm for support, and made my own way into the corridor.
As I came back to what passes with me for life, I noticed that the banging had stopped yet again. I looked round. My cell was only a few yards along from the side gate of the Monastery. It was still barred. Still, the buckets of water I’d suggested were filled and ready for use.
“Do be a love, Edward,” I said, now in English, “and have some more charcoal put in that brazier. It’s perishing in here again. If I’m to live long enough to have my throat cut, you’ll need to keep me warmer than you do.” I looked again at him. Wanking would have been pardonable in the circumstances. But it was most likely snot.
I gripped at the rail and looked down at the rain-sodden waste that is Northumbria. On better days, you can see from here all the way down to the Tyne. This wasn’t one of the better days. In the mist that had come up again, a few hundred yards was about the limit. There was a fire burning now close by the limit of visibility, and some of the northern beasts were dancing about it. I supposed they’d looted more beer from somewhere. Lucky beasts! I thought.
“So, what is it that’s got all these old women in another panic?” I wheezed. I spoke again in Greek. This time, I got an answer.
“It’s over here,” said Brother Joseph in his flat Syrian accent. He guided me across the floor of the little tower and pointed down to a spot about fifty feet from the main gate. “The Lord Alaric will see that we do indeed have a new development.”
“The Lord Alaric died when he left Constantinople,” I said, now softly. “I must tell you again I’m plain Brother Aelric – born in Richborough, to die in Jarrow.”
“It is as Your Magnificence wishes,” he said with one of his maddening bows. No point arguing here and now, I thought. I looked out again into the mist. My heart skipped a beat and my hands tightened on the rail. Focussing isn’t what it used to be. But I could see from his hair that they’d got hold of young Tatfrid. He was one of the boys who hadn’t been able to make it through the gates before they swung shut. Now, he’d been dragged from whatever hiding place he’d found. They’d nailed him to a door and slit his belly open. His guts they’d arranged about him in the shape of an eagle’s wings and nailed them in place. How they’d kept him alive was beyond me. But if he was no longer up to screaming, he was still twisting. The door was propped up at the angle of a pitched roof, and more of the beasts were dancing in front of it. One of them was pulling at the boy’s trousers, and another was waving a knife up at us. It wasn’t hard to see what they had in mind. It was all noiseless, and, with the progress of the afternoon, white mist swirled thicker on the ground like insubstantial snow, hiding the lower halves of the cavorting bodies.
I swallowed and looked steadily down. Oh, I’ve seen suffering and death enough to fill many more years than I’ve been in the world. One way or another, I’ve caused enough of it myself. But it isn’t every day you see one of your best students butchered. Only five days before – no, it must have been just three – and he’d been construing Vergil downstairs. Now, the poor boy was – I forced myself to look away and turned back to Joseph.
“Can you get an arrow into the right spot?” I asked. He looked and pursed his lips. He nodded and reached for his bow.
“In the name of God – no!” It was Benedict. He hadn’t followed the words, but the meaning was plain enough. He snatched at the bow and threw it down. “Has there not been enough killing?” he cried indignantly in Latin. “If these benighted children have brought perdition on their heads, must we now do likewise?” I bent slowly down and took up the bow. I gave it back to Joseph.
“Take careful aim,” I said. “We can settle things with the Bishop as and when.” I stared at the Abbot until he looked away. As Joseph fitted an arrow, there was a sudden commotion over on our right. It was the Chieftain and his retainers. They stood in a tight group, their cloaks pasted heavily about them by the fine rain. As I strained to see then properly, the herald stood forward and began another shouted message. The work of gelding laid aside for the moment, everyone nearby gathered round him to wave spears and shout fiercely at every pause.
“What’s he saying now?” I asked. Benedict had assured me their language was close to English. I’ve known many Germanic tongues, and most of them have been pretty close to English if you can hear past the different inflections. This one was beyond me. It might have been a dog down there barking away.
“He says, Master,” someone whispered from behind, “that they will all go away tomorrow morning if we but open the gate and let them take what had brought them across the wide northern seas to obtain. They also ask for food.” I looked round as far as my neck would turn. It was Edward. His words had come out in a strangled gasp, and I’d not recognised the voice. His face carried a look of alarm – of alarm, which was natural enough, but also of confusion, and just a little of fascinated curiosity.
“They want food, eh?” I snarled. “Well, they can go fuck themselves!” I looked back to Joseph. “Any chance of getting an arrow in the Big Man?” I asked. He shook his head. I’d guessed already the wet leather was as good at this distance as plate armour. But it had been worth asking. “Then see to poor Tatfrid,” I said. Before he could protest again, I took Benedict by the arm and moved with him until we were looking again at the distant fire.
“Where is King Aldfrith?” he wailed again, pulling on the few strands of hair his tonsure had left. “Why has he not sent men to protect us?” It was a stupid question. Even if word had reached the royal court, they were all probably still too hung over from Christmas to set out to the rescue. And according to the villagers who’d made it through the gate, the attack party had come ashore at Yellow Tooth Creek. It was one of those darting attacks from across the northern sea that are over before anyone outside the immediate area even notices. We were on our own. If I’d believed a word of what I now daily recited, it was for us to huddle within the thick walls of the Monastery and pray for a miracle.
“If we’d just done as they asked,” Benedict stuck up again – “if we’d but listened to their plea for food, they might even now be back on their ship.”
“Might?” I sneered. “Might?” I paused at the twang of Joseph’s bow and the soft thud a moment later. I listened to the low, terrified murmur of the other monks and boys behind us. I didn’t bother turning. I’d already seen Joseph in action. He didn’t miss. “My dear Benedict,” I said with a change of tone, “you never open a gate to these animals. You’ve seen what they did to the other villagers they caught. My age and your vows may have made them a superfluous treasure. But I rather fancy dying with my testicles still attached.”
I looked again at the fire. The mist was blotting out most of the sound. But if I listened hard, I could those dancers barking like a whole pack of rabid dogs.