The Dark Lord

Oath of Empire, Book 4, Thomas Harlan 2001

Alexandria, Capital of Ptolemaic Egypt, Late Summer, 30 BC

            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. Under her slippers, the floor trembled with the crash of a ram on 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 faces of her servants.

            "Antyllus," she said, at last, as the floor shook and a fierce shout belled out from the courtyard below. "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 will I go?"

            "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. The blond maid knelt and raised a headdress of gold and twin scepters. The dark bore a jeweled sun-disk, ornamented with an eight-rayed star in bronze. "To your home, to Latium, 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 Roman 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, glorious dark eyes meeting those of a man in desert robes, lean dark face half shrouded by a thin drape of muslin. "Asan, you must take this Roman and Caesarion to safety " a ship is waiting, at the edge of the delta. Will you do this thing, for me?"

            The Arab nodded, making an elegant bow, and he 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 young man, all glad smiles and laughter, was gone.

            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. Dark eyes surveyed her servants, her councilors, the last of those that clung to the hem of her dying 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 two maids; one blond and fair, one dusky skinned. 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 the hooked scepters in her hands. The doors began to boom as spear butts slammed against the panels. She closed her eyes, crossing delicate hands 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?"

            The dark-skinned maid lifted a wicker basket from the floor, then removed the fluted top. Something hissed within, then thrashed, 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, dropping into her hand. A brief spasm of pain crossed the Nubian"s impassive face as poison burned in her palm, then the maid tilted her hand and the droplet spilled onto the Queen"s extended tongue.

            Cleopatra closed her mouth, gray 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 wash of pearl and gold and amethyst. At her side, Iras broke the snakes 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 chinstraps 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, leather boots strapped up to the knee. His sword was sheathed " indeed, he had never drawn the blade in anger " and he did not carry a helmet.

            Gaius Octaviaus, 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. Her 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 as he thought, he saw the woman"s cheek turning slowly blue and knew he had been denied a great prize.

            "Kham–n," Octavian said in a conversational voice, "come here."

            There was movement behind the young man, and without turning the Roman knew the frail, spidery shape of the Egyptian sorcerer knelt behind him, to his left, 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?"

            Kham–n 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 energy, wit and incandescent charm which marked her in life. The Roman bowed to the dead woman, acknowledging the end of their game. "Pharaoh is dead, Kham–n. 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 servants the legionaries had dragged out of 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 slaves, 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 of the maids had been taken 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 powerful man with broad shoulders and 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, 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 chanting of the crowds, the restless surge of the city. Alexandria was a live thing, filled with furious energy. Octavian swallowed a smile, acknowledging the Queen"s foresight. 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 Cleopatra and her 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 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 and stepped 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 polished silver helmets. The young man raised his hand in salute to the crowd, and to the city fathers of Alexandria, who were 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, for the sandstone and marble facings of the building reflected the full disk of the sun right down into the street. When Octavian disappeared into shadows of the building, the horns called again and then drum and bucina alike fell silent.

            Inside, in blessed cool gloom, a bevy of priests and Kham–n"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, with plaster scattered on the floor and bricks piled up. 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. The legionaries had dragged a sarcophagus out of the niche in the wall and now it lay on the floor, gleaming in the light of lanterns and the dim blue radiance of windows high on the roof. Octavian frowned, turning towards the Egyptian wizard. "I thought the Conqueror was entombed in solid gold."

            Kham–n 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 them 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 lid with practiced ease and " after a moment"s effort " popped up the glass lid. Grunting, they managed to get the lid 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 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, Kham–n, 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 glory of Alexander. Sometimes he complained of urgent dreams, and never accounted he had matched his old glory."

            Kham–n said nothing, though his face turned pensive with thought. 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."

            Octavian looked up at Kham–n, eyes narrowed in suspicion. "Are the souls of the great reborn, wizard? Could Alexander"s spirit have dwelt in my father"s body?"

            "I have heard this said, my lord." Kham–n took a moment to still his racing heart. A thought had occurred to the old wizard, chilling his blood. "Many men, and women, too, oft claim the blood of the great heroes and kings runs in their veins" mostly those that reach for descent from some heavenly power. Alexander, I have heard, claimed that his own house of Aegea descended from Hercules, and through him from Zeus Thundershield. I do not know if that is true."

            Octavian stood, his expression turning cold. "You are not answering my question, wizard."

            Kham–n swallowed, but managed to speak. "There are great spirits, my lord, that maintain after a man or woman dies. We call them the ka, and they do not die with the defeat of the physical body. Such a man as Alexander? His spirit might live on for a long time" but from what I have seen and read, it will be drawn like to like. In his own descendant, perhaps, he might live again. But the great Caesar is a trueborn Roman, yes? Born of Latin blood? Not a Macedonian " and everyone agrees Alexander"s children perished, strangled or murdered by his successors."

            Octavian continued to fix the old Egyptian with a cold stare, but at last relented, turning back to the coffin on the floor. "True," the young Roman mused, "his line ended in blood. So my father"s dream was just that " a dream " though he was carried far on those wings! Just the memory of the man was enough"" Octavian"s voice trailed off into silence.

            A long moment passed and Kham–n, seeing the young Roman deep in thought, did not venture to disturb him. Finally, Octavian roused himself, looked around and gestured to his aide. The youth unfolded a cloth in the box, and removed a golden diadem, surmounted by the eight-rayed star of the Aegean kings. Octavian, moving with great care, settled the crown upon the ancient leathery head, then saluted the corpse as one Roman general might another. He followed the diadem with the petals of many flowers, strewn artlessly in the coffin.

            "It is done," he said, and the two legionaries " under his careful eye " replaced the glass lid and drove thin wedges of lead into the spaces around the edge to hold it fast. Octavian turned away, grinning at Kham–n. At the same time, he put something in a pocket inside his cloak.

            "My lord?" Ventured one of the priests, "would you like to look upon the mausoleum of the Ptolemies?"

            Octavian laughed at the man, now seemingly in great good humor. "I came to see a King, not a row of corpses!"

            With that, and the priest sullen and red with anger, Octavian strode out of the tomb, with his legionaries and aides in a crowd around him.

            "Now, Kham–n, where have you hidden the boy, Caesarion? I would like to see him for myself." Octavian slouched in a field chair in his great tent outside the city. Full darkness had come, revealing a vast wash of stars girdling the heavens. All around the young Roman, his Legions were bedding down for the night, here on the plain just east of Alexandria. In the gloom, their lanterns and torches made a bright orchard along the banks of the canal. "Her children by Antony I have already looked upon " charming and well-featured, but useless " where is Caesar"s child?"

            The old Egyptian stood at the door of the tent, staring out into the darkness. Now he turned, long seamed face filling with despair. "Gone, my lord. None can say where, and I have cast about in my thought, seeking to gain this knowledge. The boy has vanished. Some" some say he has fled south, to Axum or the dark kingdoms at the source of the Nile""

            Octavian stood abruptly, his usually calm face twisted in surprise. "You purchased your child"s life and freedom, master Kham–n, with promises of power over Egypt and Rome alike! Now, what do we have? Nothing" you are a weak tool, a chisel that slips too many times from the cutting groove. Why should I keep you, when you fail so often? Do I mistake the passage of events? Each thing I desired, I have taken myself."

            The Egyptian paled, seeing raw anger in his master"s face for the first time. The young Senator was not a man of passion, and the change was startling. Kham–n knelt, swiftly. "My lord""

            "Be quiet." Octavian stared out at the dim lights of the city, a constellation of pale yellow and orange crashed upon the earth. "My agents, my men, will search for the boy. I will set Agrippa upon the task " he has never failed me! This child of conjoined Rome and Egypt will not be allowed to live. I am Caesar"s only heir and I will have Rome for myself."

            Octavian gestured for the Egyptian to rise. "There is a task I have in mind for you, something I hope is within your power! My reach is long" wherever you have hidden your beloved will not be far enough away, if you fail me again." The young Roman smiled suddenly, teeth white and feral in the half-darkness. "I will make a new Rome, a glorious, eternal Rome. You will help me. I have not ignored the little you have taught me of power, and this hidden world you claim to master."

            Kham–n watched his master warily, though the Egyptian breathed a thankful prayer that he still had some use. He did not want to die under the burning tongs " his ancestors would have laughed at such threats, but the blood of Khem was thin in these later days. "Of course, my lord, I am your servant."

A Street, North of the Forum Bovarium, Constantinople, Late Spring AD 625

            A groan issued from beneath a heap of corpses. Pale sunlight fell on dead staring eyes, picking out faint gleams from buckles and rusted links of chain armor. The entire street was filled with scattered bodies " most of them burned beyond recognition " though many still held the semblance of life. There were no flies, no rooting, bloody-nosed dogs, no crows or ravens or seagulls feasting on the flotsam of war. Empty windows stared down onto the sloping street, shutters scorched by some awesome blast of flame, which had raged up and down the avenue.

            Bodies shifted, heavy gray arms falling away, thighs encased in armor clanging to the ground. A man clawed his way out of the corpse-midden, face streaked with dried blood, armor dented and scratched. He stood, trying to muster the spit to clear his mouth. Dark eyes, almost black, took in the wreckage all around and the soldier grimaced. There was nothing moving, certainly nothing alive as far as his eye reached in either direction.

            A great stillness pervaded the houses and crouched in the doors of the little shops. The soldier realized that nothing lived, even in the dark, close rooms behind the facades. Grunting, he tried to climb up over the heap of half-naked bodies " part of his conscious mind registered Slavic spearmen, long hair stiff with white clay and their bodies intricately diagrammed with whorls and signs in black and dark blue dye " and found his right arm weak. Frowning, he looked down on his forearm and realized that a huge gash ripped from his wrist to the elbow, tearing through a sleeve of linked iron rings.

            "Merciful gods!" The man hissed. Something had shattered his arm, cleaving right to the bone. An axe? He remembered something bright flashing towards him.

            The soldier reached to undo the buckle at his shoulder and his left arm caught on something. Cursing, the man realized that a long black-shafted arrow pierced his left arm, wedging itself through the center of one of the iron links, then jutting from his forearm. The stubs of two more arrows were buried in his chest. Snarling, without even words to express his rage, the man broke the shaft of the arrow off at the base, rewarding himself with a popping sound and the slow welling of thick, dark blood around the wound. He ignored the arrows in his chest for the moment.

            With swift, experienced motions, Rufio unbuckled the straps holding the armored sleeves to his shoulder plates, then pulled the heavy iron hauberk off over his head. The arrows in his chest snapped with a wet sound. A pale, welted body crisscrossed with terrible scars was revealed. The street remained silent and desolate. Even the sky was empty of birds. The uncanny stillness weighed on the soldier"s mind. He assumed the city had fallen " but where was the occupying army? Where were the oppressed citizens?

            Blunt fingers gripped the head of the arrow in his left arm, then dragged the shaft out through the muscle. The point emerged, slick with reddish-yellow fluid, and Rufio tossed the arrow away. He bent over, feeling abused muscle and bone creak. Two arrows were buried deep in his chest. Squatting, bracing his shoulders against the nearest building wall, Rufio lifted a spent shaft from the ground. Another dead Slav, lying head down, face distended and purple, provided him with a moderately clean knife. Ignoring the throbbing pain in his left arm, Rufio cut the head from the arrow, then trimmed the resulting shaft, notching the blunt head into four quarters.

            Clenching his jaw, Rufio wedged his trimmed arrow against the broken butt of the one in his shoulder, wiggling it until the notched head settled properly against its new friend. Then, holding his body as still as he could manage, the soldier bore down, pushing the arrow lodged in his body through, feeling it grind against bone and muscle, until it punched through the skin of his back. Tears streamed down his cheeks, cutting tracks in dried, crusty blood. Despite being half blind, his entire body shimmering with pain, he carefully withdrew his dowel. With the iron head of the shaft sticking out of his back, Rufio managed to reach around and snag it with his thumb. Some wiggling around managed to slide the bolt free.

            One more to go. Rufio lay back, panting, staring at the pale sky. A haze seemed to lie over the city, making even a clear bright sun, high in the bowl of heaven, seem faded and washed out. Oh, you cursed gods, the soldier thought bitterly, I never asked for this" to see nothing but ruin and destruction! You should have left me safely dead, cursed physician!

            But he remained alive, and though his entire body was trembling with pain, he fitted the dowel, again, to the broken stub jutting from his chest and began to push.

North of the Reed Sea, Lower Egypt, Early Summer, AD 625

            The stand of cane waved softly, moved by some zephyr of the upper air, creaking and rustling with quiet voices. A thin little man, wiry body given desperately needed bulk by his layered leather armor, crouched at the edge of the thick green stalks, his lower body in the grip of a sluggish current. The Roman peered through the foliage, ignoring the flies buzzing and crawling on every surface and the gelid sensation of leeches squirming against his legs. One of the mans" hands was raised, bidding other men " hidden still further back, among tall reeds and rubber trees growing thickly along the banks of the canal " to wait, to be patient.

            Beyond the screen of rustling stalks was a ford where the ancient brick sidings of the canal slumped away with age and use, leaving a high sandy bank cut by a rutted wagon path. Here in the lower delta of the Nile, silt filled old passages and the river " in times of flood " cut new channels on its way to the sea. From where Frontius was crouched, skin itching and nostrils filled with an overpowering stench, he could barely make out the paving stones that had once joined a proper road " a Roman road " to a bridge across the canal.

            Frontius clenched his fist, feeling the water stir, and then little dimples began to appear in the thick brown water. A sound rose over the constant buzz and hiss, a thundering roll of hooves on sand and broken paving. A man appeared, jogging along the old road, leading a small tan horse. The new arrival was swathed in white and ochre, with mail glinting through his robes, and a conical helm wrapped with a green flash. The scout, careful, probed the muddy water with a spear, then " even at this distance, in this heavy, nearly opaque air " Frontius could see the man smile. The old bridge had collapsed into the muck, making a firm, sandy bottom. The Arabian high-stepped through the water, but there was little need " the slow current barely covered the horses" fetlocks.

            After a moment, the Arab disappeared back the way he had come. Frontius opened his hand, making a signal to the others, then settled himself lower in the muck, letting the tepid water lap up around his torso until only his head and shoulders were revealed, pressed against the heavy black loam anchoring the reeds. The thundering in the earth was growing stronger, making the surface of the canal ripple and bounce. Then the scout appeared again, riding, and the Arabian splashed lightly across the stream and scooted up the far bank. Within an instant, the road and ford were filled with men " hundreds, then thousands of mounted men picked their way across the canal, surging up the western bank. Under the tread of so many hooves, the sand spilled down, widening, making the way even easier.

            In the cane break, Frontius bit at his knuckle, counting and watching, praying the footing of the ford would hold " they had not expected so many of the enemy to come this way! A troop of men with green banners splashed past, then they too were gone. For a moment, there was silence, then the croaking of frogs and the honking cries of marsh-egrets and cranes returned. Frontius rubbed furiously at his ears, crushing a feathery carpet of mosquitoes. His hands came away bloody and gray.

            Instead, he bent his head, listening. A grain passed, and then another, then most of a glass, before he heard the rattling din of battle suddenly brew up to the west. Horns called, echoing mournfully over the swamplands, and the screaming of horses grated across his nerves. Now he stood, arm raised again, mud oozing from his armor, and watched the high bank where the troop of Arabic cavalry had passed. The sound of the fighting grew closer " shouts, the clash of metal on metal, cries of pain, the snap and hiss of arrows. High in the broadleaf trees, Frontius could see branches moving in some breeze, but here, down in the muck, there was only a close stillness. Sound carried far over this stagnant water.

            A horse burst from the top of the bank, slewing down the slope, throwing up a spray of sand and brown water as it hit the canal. The Arabian staggered, then came up, leeches clinging to its flanks, saddle askew. There was no rider. A moment later, a man " his face covered with blood " limped down the sandy bank, then managed to cross the ford with the help of a spear. Off to the west, there was a sharp boom and leaves fluttered out of the cottonwoods. Frontius smiled. The Legion thaumaturges weighed in.

            The Roman engineer turned, opening and closing his hand twice. Off through the thick brush, reeds and white-barked trees there was an answering flash of light. Frontius closed his nose, trying to keep mites from crawling in, then began wading back up the canal. The mud was deep and thick under the thin sheet of water, and he made slow progress. His heart started to beat faster, hearing a low rumbling sound upstream, and he veered towards the bank. Here, under the tree roots, there was a course of fitted stone. He reached the bank as the first wavelet passed, pushing gently at his legs. Frontius swallowed a curse, then grabbed hold of one of the clinging roots and started to climb out of the canal.

            Another wave rushed down, this one higher, more of a rolling hump in the brown water, but when this one passed, the level of the canal did not drop. Instead, the water began to sluice past, running faster and faster, swirling around Frontius" boots. The wiry little engineer struggled, trying to scramble up the stone, cursing the enormous weight of mud and water trapped in his armor.

            Someone shouted in anger behind him and Frontius risked a look over his shoulder. The ford was filled with Arabs afoot and a-horse, crowding across the crossing. The hump of water crashed into them unexpectedly, throwing some down, fouling others. The sky above lit with a searing bolt of flame, followed by a resounding crack! Some of the Arabs on the far bank turned and loosed arrows in quick succession over the heads of their comrades. Horns shrilled on both banks.

            Gritting his teeth, Frontius lunged for the top of the stone wall, catching the lip with his fingers. Desperate, for the water was rising very swiftly now, he clawed at the roots and loose soil. A clod of dirt came free and broke apart on his face, blinding him. "Gods!"

            The Arabs shouted, voices filled with fear. The canal was surging up around them, boiling white around the horses. More men fell down and were pushed away, into the deeper channel where the canal cut behind the blockage of the fallen bridge. Another shout joined them, the basso roar of the Legion advancing. The clash and clatter of men in combat was very close.

            Frontius felt the swift water drag at his legs, and his left hand slipped from its purchase. He cried out, feeling his right elbow twist in the joint, then managed to clutch at an overhanging branch. The Arabs, driven back into the rising canal, fell into the water, where a huge crush of horses and men jammed the sunken bridge.

            An arrow shattered on the ancient stone by Frontius" waist and he yelped. On the opposite bank, one of the Arab archers crawling through the underbrush had seen him. Without sound, neck bulging and arms twisted with agony, he heaved himself up, out of the canal, now running close to the top of the bank, and clawed his way into the sumac and thorn-bush lining the old canal. Arrows whipped past, hissing through leaves and clattering off the trees.

            Frontius crawled away, shaking with effort. That Sextus will pay for this! His dice are loaded, I"m sure of it!

            Roman legionaries in grimy, mud-spattered armor appeared on the western bank of the canal, heavy rectangular shields forming a solid wall. Golden eagles shimmered in the heavy afternoon air, rising above the iron helms. Shining blades licked down, stabbing at Arabs still clinging to the sandy bank. Javelins flicked down out of the sky, plunging into the mass of men and horses trapped in the canal. Wounded and dying, the bodies were shoved off into the rushing stream. On the eastern bank, the Arabs fell back, their arrows suddenly intermittent, darting only occasionally out of the murky white sky. Their horns blew, sounding a general retreat.

            "Caesar, a courier from Pelusium!"

            Aurelian looked up from his field desk, covered with rolls of papyrus bound in black twine and stacks of fresh parchment. The walls of the tent had been raised as the day progressed, extending the shade thrown by the fabric. Dozens of scribes, couriers and soldiers waited nearby, squatting or sitting on the hard-packed earth. The big Roman ran a scarred hand through his beard, smoothing brassy red curls, and motioned for the man to approach. Shaking a cramp out of his fingers, Aurelian set down his quill and handed the parchment " covered with an intricate drawing in fine black lines " to one of the scribes. The man, an Egyptian like most of the Imperial staff, whisked the drawing away to be dried and then copied.

            "Ave, Caesar!" The messenger was young and drenched in sweat, lank yellow hair plastered to an angular skull. He shrugged a leather courier bag from his shoulder and removed a packet wrapped in waxed kidskin. Aurelian nodded in thanks, then unwrapped the message and quickly read the letter. As he did, his bluff, open face grew long and when he finished intense irritation sparked in his eyes. "Lad, how old is this news?"

            "Two days only, Caesar," panted the soldier. "I left as soon as the Greek attack broke."

            Aurelian made a sharp motion with his finger, and one of the scribes was immediately at his side with a waxed tablet and stylus. The powerfully built Western prince, the second brother of the Emperor of the West, bent his head a little towards the brown, shaven-headed scribe. "Here are my words," he growled, "for the attention of the Legate Cestius Florus, who commands at Pelusium. Sir, you will hold your line and prevent incursions of the barbarians into the delta by any means at your disposal save that of flooding, or the use of dams or prepared canals. These directions have already been given to you, you will follow them, or you will be replaced."

            The scratching sound of the stylus in the wax continued for a moment, then ended. The scribe, knowing his master"s desire, held up the tablet for Aurelian to read. The red-beard was not a scholar, but he owned a handy grasp of Latin, Greek and some Persian. Aurelian nodded, then motioned the scribe away. "Lad, go with Phranes here " he is my aide " and get something to eat and drink. I will send you back to Cestius, with my reply, and I hope you will take great haste in reaching him."

            The soldier nodded, then saluted. Phranes took the boy by the arm and led him away, already calling for food, for wine, for someplace in the shade the rider could take his ease. Aurelian did not return to his working table, instead he moved to the eastern side of the tent and stared out, glowering at distant Pelusium, across leagues of field and farm and canals and the distant bright ribbon of the Nile itself. The air was very thick here in the humid lowlands and vast flocks of birds rose and fell like living smoke above the slaughter yards and granaries surrounding Alexandria. The prince"s tent, and his camp, were built on an ancient tor rising from the depressingly flat plain of the delta. Old columns, bricks and shattered slabs of paving stone crunched under his feet.

            At the base of the ancient mound, thousands of men labored in the sun, digging with spades and mattocks in the dark earth. They made a line arcing around to the north and west, running along a low ridge marking the eastern border of the sprawling, profligate metropolis of Alexandria. In the time of the Ptolemies " the Greek dynasty which ruled Egypt before the coming of Rome " the city itself had boasted a wall of sandstone and marble. The intervening centuries, under an enduring Roman peace, saw the ancient wall engulfed by the city, then demolished block by block for building material. Now there was no rampart, no bastion, no powerful towers to hedge the city in. Only miles of villas and shops and warehouses and little gardens. There was only one gate of any size, which was completely surrounded by a dyer-s district.

            Useless for defense.

            Aurelian had used sixty thousand laborers " drafted from myriad small towns and cities of the eastern delta " to build his fortifications from Pelusium south to the edge of the Reed Sea. Nearly a hundred thousand men sweated in the blistering sun before Alexandria, with two full Legions of Western troops to guide them. A wide ditch was being gouged from the earth, from Lake Mareotis a mile south south, to the shore of the Mare Internum a mile  north. The earth from the excavation was being hauled in cloth bags " one to a man " up to a wide, heavy berm behind the ditch, along the crest of the ridge. A rampart thirty feet high would loom over the ditch, and it would be faced by a thicket of stakes and fitted stone. A fighting wall twelve feet high would run along the length of the rampart, with square towers jutting up every half mile.

            All the land for a half-mile before and behind the wall was being cleared; the villas knocked down, the houses broken into brick and timber, the shops emptied then ripped to the ground. Brick, mortar, stone, cut timber " Aurelian"s enterprise swallowed everything and hungered for more.

            The eastern horizon was a flat green line, shrouded with haze curving up into a simmering blue-gray sky. Somewhere out there, four Roman Legions were squared off against the Greek rebels and their Arab auxiliaries. Aurelian did not expect there to be a battle " the enemy army was far too small to force its way past the fortifications spidering out from Pelusium. He did not want his hand to be tipped, though, and this fool Curtius may have done just that.

            "Lord Caesar?" Aurelian turned, and sighed, seeing another messenger arrive, this one in the armor, cloak and signs of the Eastern Empire"s fleet.

            "What news?" The Western prince had little hope it was good. Then he saw the messengers face, and fell a chill steal over him. The man was haggard, worn to the bone, with badly healed wounds on his face and arm. In his eyes, Aurelian saw a reflection of horror.

            "Doctor! Bring a doctor!" The prince took the sailor"s arm and led him to a chair. The Easterner moved like a puppet, jerkily, without life or animation. Aurelian prised the message packet from his fingers. The man did not notice. When one of the priests of Asclepius arrived, the sailor was led away without complaint. Aurelian paid no mind, squatting on the ground, ignoring the surprised expressions on the faces of his staff. He took his time reading each page, cribbed in a scrawl, tightly spaced, obviously written in great haste.

            When he was done, Aurelian rose, shaking out the cramps in his legs. The sun was beginning to set, wallowing down through the haze and murk as a vast bloated red sphere. Already the east was falling into the gloaming, drenched in deep purple and blue. The prince gestured for his Centurion of Engineers, then waited until old Scortius had come close enough to hear a low voice.

            "How many feet of water are behind the dam?" Aurelian turned away from the crowd of people waiting in the tent. Scortius raised a white eyebrow, but answered in a low voice. "Thirty feet, lord Caesar. As you planned and, frankly, all we could manage in this flat country!"

            "Good." Aurelian"s face was unusually tight and controlled, odd for a man who was usually open and expressive in all his dealings. "You must be at the dam tomorrow. Take four centuries of the best men you can find " no one is to trouble our project there, no one! Let nothing " not a bird, not a dog, nothing " within sight. I will signal you, when I am ready."

            Scortius nodded, chilled by the venom in the prince"s voice. Where was the affable commander? The big cheerful red bear, so beloved of his troops? "Aye, my lord. We will leave immediately."

            Aurelian turned away, striding back to his field desk. As he did, the eyes of every man in the tent turned to follow him, poised and waiting for his command. The Western prince stared down at the diagrams and notes scattered across the wooden table. Then he began putting them away " the bottles of ink, the rulers, the stacks of designs and diagrams, the small wooden models. Scribes crept up around him and took each thing away. Busy in his own mind, and concentrating on the simple task, Aurelian barely noticed them. When the field table was clear, the prince looked up.

            "Bring the priests of every temple and school within a day"s ride of Alexandria. I will speak with them at noon tomorrow. If a man refuses my command, which is given with the voice of the Emperor, then that man is to be slain. His second, or heir, will come instead. Do this now!"

            Thin clouds and an oppressive pressure in the air marked the following day. Aurelian rose with the dawn, and spent the morning standing at the edge of the tor, watching the fortifications rising below him with relentless speed. Slabs of basalt in twelve foot by eight foot sections " looted from an abandoned temple on the outskirts of the city " were being placed along the fighting wall and driven home with padded mallets. The sight gave him no ease, for he could feel the wind turning to come out of the east. Phranes forced him to choke down some food, but now the flatbread and boiled grain lay in his stomach like a ballast weight.

            "Lord Caesar?" It was Phranes again, venturing out from the great tent. "The priests have come, as you commanded. The Legion commanders are here, too."

            "Has the commander of the Fleet arrived?" Aurelian did not turn around.

            "Yes, my lord, as well as the senior captain of the Eastern ships in the harbor."

            The prince nodded, then turned and climbed back up to the tent. The space under the awnings was full, priests and soldiers and clerks packed shoulder to shoulder. Though the day was cloudy, the sun seemed much hotter than usual, making the air simmer. Slaves moved through the tight mass of men, filling cups and passing trays of pastry and cured meat. Only the space directly behind the field desk was open, and Aurelian passed through the press of men slowly, meeting the eyes of many, speaking softly to others.

            By his command, a map of the delta, carefully inked on sheets of parchment, lay open on the table.

            "I have news," he began, without preamble, looking out over the sea of faces. Everyone was sweating, even the Egyptians. "It is poor news. Constantinople has fallen to Persia."

            The murmur of men speaking in low voices stilled. There was only a faint creaking of ropes and canvas. Aurelian nodded, looking around, his chin jutting out.

            "This news came last night, by sea. My own thaumaturges agree. The Eastern capital has been destroyed. The Persians, with their Arabic and Avar allies, have overthrown its walls and slaughtered " yes, I say slaughtered " its citizens. The army of the East has been broken, and can no longer be accounted upon the field of battle." Aurelian paused and bowed his head, placing his palms flat upon the table.

            "The Emperor Heraclius" the Emperor is dead, and his brother, the great prince Theodore, has also fallen. The Eastern fleet has been scattered, and only the remains of the Western Legions, supported by Khazar and Gothic auxillia, stand between the Persian army and Greater Greece."

            Aurelian looked up, and saw a cold stunned silence had fallen over the gathering. Even the priests of the temples " usually a stoic and sullen lot " seemed surprised, even fearful. They were, however, listening very closely. The prince did not smile, though he was pleased to see that his harsh words had woken them to attentiveness. "There is more. The Persians have employed the foulest sorcery to ""

            "Rubbish!" One of the priests made a loud snorting noise, sticking out his chin pugnaciously. "Roman lies! The mobehedan serve the light, they would""

            Aurelian made a slight notion and one of the legionaries in the crowd slammed the butt of his spear into the priests back, knocking him to the ground, gasping for breath.

            "There is no time for discussion," the prince barked at the crowd. "By the eyewitness account of soldiers and priests within the city, it is all too clear at the Persians have brought a monstrous power against us. The great gates of Constantinople were toppled by something that cannot be described " a storm of darkness, writhing with obscene movement " and within the city the soldiers were overwhelmed by hosts of the risen dead. Yes, the Persians own a necromancer among their number."

            Aurelian paused, letting his words hang in the air for a moment. The priests stirred, incredulous, and began to speak, their voices rising up like a flock of gulls.

            "Be quiet." The prince did not repeat himself. The priests fell silent, cowering under the stern visage of the legionaries among them. "You may read the accounts yourself, when I have finished, but I have not misled you. Know this " the Eastern Empire has fallen, its emperor dead, its army scattered, its fleet broken. Emperor Galen, Lord of the West, has placed all Eastern lands under his direct authority. You may dispute my conclusion, but I know the enemy will turn upon Egypt, and we will be sorely pressed to withstand him."

            Aurelian turned to the east, gesturing out into the murky haze and the endless green fields. "Within the month, the Nile will begin to rise. By Augustus it will be in full flood, making a barrier between us and the east. That leaves the enemy only two months in which to break through our lines at Pelusium. I believe that he will make that effort with every power at his disposal."

            The prince turned back, a grim smile on his face. "Every power." He stabbed a thick finger at the priests. "The day has come for you to come out of your temples and schools. A black tide rushes toward us, and you will have to bar its passage."

            "Us?" One of the priests, a spindly little acolyte of Sebek the Crocodile, squeaked in alarm. "We are not battle magi""

            "You will have to be. We need thaumaturges desperately " too many have been slain in Thrace or Syria. You will have to fill the gap, and stand against the foulness that Persia brings. Have you heard me? The Persians have cast aside every covenant and restriction " they will wake the dead of Egypt to destroy us. They have summoned the forbidden onto the earth to throw down their enemies! This has become a war of great powers, not just of men!"

            Aurelian"s voice rose, trying to force his point across by volume. Some of the priests were nodding, ashen-faced; others spoke agitatedly among themselves. But too many of the shaven-headed men stared at him in confusion or outright disbelief.

            "Your gods," he barked, temper fraying, "demand that you stand and fight! This is the oldest enemy " you may call it Set or Ahriman or Typhon " but it is the foe of all that lives! Wake up! Rouse yourselves " if we fail, if Rome fails, if you fail, then Egypt will be destroyed, as Constantinople was destroyed. The temples will be cast down in fire and ruin, the people enslaved, your own heads will be upon a stake, and death itself would be a welcome release from the torments you will suffer.

            "Know this, priests and captains; Rome will fight to the last man to hold the enemy out of Egypt. Without Egyptian grain, Rome will starve. If Rome fails, then Egypt will die too. You must come forth with all your strength " you are learned men, many of you can wield the power of the hidden world, you own ancient secrets passed down from the Pharaohs " you must bend all your will and power to this enemy"s defeat.

            "Know this, too; there is no escape from this war. If Egypt falls, there will be no place to flee, for the enemy will grow ever stronger, and Rome ever weaker. In the end, if you hide, the enemy will find and consume you. You must fight, and we must win."

            The prince ceased speaking, a little surprised at his own vehemence. In the night, he had spoken with the Legion thaumaturges, and their words filled him with raw fear. The power unleashed upon Constantinople still echoed in the hidden world, jolting furiously outward, and where that foulness passed, men with the sight quailed. A truly horrific power " something out of ancient legend " was loose in the world, and allied with Persia " if not its master!

            Aurelian did not think he could hold Egypt against such strength. In truth, if the enemy fleet controlled the sea, he was not sure he could hold Egypt against the Persian army, much less this power. More than half of his men were new recruits, and the rest had never faced such a terrible enemy. But I will not yield. I will buy time, at least, for Galen and the Empire.

            Aurelian did not dwell on his brother"s situation. The Emperor had his own concerns.

            "Lord Caesar." One of the priests rose " a very old man, bald, with smooth dark brown skin and a neat yellow-white beard. He leaned upon a hawk-headed cane and the sign of Horus the Defender was worked into a clasp holding his tunic at the shoulder. "I will speak frankly; Egypt has never loved Rome, even under the "good" Emperors. You are foreigners and conquerors. Your taxes are heavy and your demands in labor worse. There are some among us who might hope Persian rule would sit lighter upon our necks"" The old priests looked around, grinning, showing gappy white teeth. "But they are fools. Even without this " dark power " the Persians would ignore our traditions, trample our gods and squeeze the farmers for every last coin. This is the way of Empires."

            The grin faded, and the old priest leaned even more wearily upon his cane. "I have felt the power " the destroyer " moving in the hidden world. It is a black sun, swallowing all light. Many here, I am sure, have had troubled dreams of late " strange visions, seductive promises, disturbing vistas of dead drowned cities and lost realms. This " if you have not the wit to ken it yourselves! " is the work of the enemy. He seeks to frighten or seduce us."

            The old priest met Aurelian"s eye with his own bright gaze. "Nephet of the house of Horus the Strong will stand by you, Pharaoh. We are few and weak, perhaps, but we will not flinch aside from the battle, or flee. Long ago, at the beginning of days, our god strove against such an abomination as this " he won through. I pray that we can do the same, though our strength is much diminished." The priest paused, laughter in his eyes. "So many centuries of Roman peace have made us weak!"

            The prince nodded, some small hope welling in his chest. Then he looked upon the faces of the others, and saw naked fear, or avarice, or anger" anything but honorable assistance. Aurelian kept his face still and unrolled a scroll his aides had prepared. Very well"

            "Each temple," he began in a carrying voice, "will be assigned to a Legion""

The Ruins of Baiae, Below Vesuvius

            A patch of grass remained, on a hillside facing away from the mountain. Vesuvius still loomed in the eastern sky, a vast smooth cone, but her tapering green crown was gone. Now a jagged summit smoked and fumed, sending up a thin, constant spiral of ashy smoke into the blue Campanian sky. The slopes, once lush with orchards, farms and vineyards, were now black and gray, scored by massive mudslides. Snaky black trails of hardened lava spilled from the flanks of the volcano, puddling down onto the plain below.

            On the grass, a young woman was digging in the rich, dark earth.

            Beside her, wrapped in woolen sheets, were four small, twisted figures. The homespun was caked with ash and soot. Tiny charred, blackened feet poked from beneath the cloth. This slope " turned away from Vesuvius " had escaped the billowing clouds of burning air, the waves of poisonous vapor and fiery meteors, which rained such destruction upon the land below the mountain. Just over the crown of the hill, lined with skeletal, leafless trees, was a sprawling villa. The children were in the great house, sleeping, when the volcano woke in darkness, and exploded with such terrific violence ships at sea were swamped by the shock in the earth, and nearly everything within a hundred miles of the mountain had been smashed down, burned and then suffocated by choking, invisible vapors. The roof of the villa had been stripped away by howling wind, and then the interior had burst into flame.

            All four children died almost instantly.

            The young woman was digging in the black soil with a spade taken from the gardener"s cottage behind the villa. The grass " puzzlingly green and living amid the ruin surrounding the hill on all sides " parted under the metal edge. The woman"s arms were smooth and brown, lithe with muscle. A mane of black hair, shining like ink, was tied behind her head in a ponytail. A traditional Roman stola and gown was neatly piled on the grass. For the moment, she was digging in her under-tunic, ignoring the sweat matting the thin cloth to her back.

            Shirin had entrusted her children " these tiny bodies " to a dear friend, who had promised them safe haven in a dangerous world. Her shoulder muscles bunched as the spade cut into the earth, turning up grass roots and fat earthworms and tiny black beetles. Shirin trusted her friend, and sent away her children to be hidden from the agents of the Emperor of the East, Heraclius, who had designs upon the mother, but no regard for her two little boys and two little girls.

            The first grave was finished; deep enough to keep dogs away, long enough and wide enough for the curled up, charred, body of a nine-year-old boy. Shirin stood up, wiping her brow, and stepped over. The edge of the spade bit into the earth again. Heraclius had promised Shirin in marriage to his brother, Theodore, as part of a greater prize " the whole of the Persian Empire. Not two days ago, in the half-burned, but still bustling port of Misenum, Shirin had learned that both Heraclius and Theodore were dead, Persia restored and the Eastern Empire in ruins.

            So the lord of heaven gave, and the lord of heaven took away.

            Mechanically, she lifted blocks of turf away with the spade, then began to dig out the soil below. This grave did not need to be so big, only enough to hold the corpse of a six-year-old boy who loved bears and horses and a drink called cold-water-with-ice. Shirin"s arms and shoulder burned with effort, but she continued to dig. In the end, there had been no need for mother and children to be separated. The attentions of the Eastern Emperor were diverted by the revolt of the Decapolis cities, even before Shirin"s children reached Rome.

            They did not have to be dead. She did not have to be alone. Her dear friend did not have to be a monster.

            Shirin continued to dig, finishing the second grave. Sweat stung in half-healed wounds across her back and side. A thin golden chain slithered on her neck, and the heavy ruby hanging between her breasts bounced each time she drove the spade into the ground.

            When Vesuvius erupted, she had been on the deck of a merchantman in the great half-circle of the bay. A wave rolled up out of the deep and smashed the Pride of Cos onto the shore. Shirin leapt from the ship, taking her chances in the midnight sea. Something struck her, leaving long cuts on her back, but she was a strong swimmer and managed to reach the pebbly beach alive.

            By great good luck, an offshore wind followed the great wave, driving the choking air away from the beach. By the time that Shirin had managed to crawl out of the surf, the sea was filled with corpses. The strand was packed with stunned people, the citizens from the beachfront villas and little towns dotting the rim of the bay. Flames filled the night, and the people watched in silence as their homes burned furiously. The sky billowed with huge burning clouds, streaked by plunging comets trailing sparks and fire. Shirin, bleeding, staggered south along the beach, wading at the edge of the surf, pushing her way through drifting bodies. The water thrashed with violence " great gray bodied sharks tore at the dead, white teeth sparkling in the red air.  It seemed wise to flee the glowing, thundering ogre of fire looming over the bay.

            The third and fourth graves were still smaller. Both of her girls had been little sprites with curly dark brown hair, like their father. Shirin, arms caked with ash and loam, laughed bitterly at the thought of dead Chrosoes, king of kings of Persia. He had been an Emperor, too, and he was cold in the ground for more than two years. She felt nothing, thinking of him now, though she had loved him dearly in life. His passage into madness had suffocated their love. Shirin grimaced. The spade clanged against a root. Relentlessly, she hacked away, metal biting into the soft yellow wood. The blows echoed up her arm, but she was young and strong and her back had healed well.

            Royal Ctesiphon seemed like a dream; a faint memory of luxury and glorious splendor. Today, under this bright sky, sweating, digging the graves of her own children, her marriage and husband were distant phantoms. Memories of her youth were brighter, as clear as a swift river or a pool among mossy rocks. The faces of her uncles were sharp in her mind; and racing horses, or hunting ermine and fox in the deep snow, or the sight of storm-heavy clouds winging up over the black peaks of the Kaukasoi.

            Shirin leaned on the spade, weary and gasping for breath. Her arms and legs were numb. A breeze drifted over the hill, carrying the acrid smell of wet ash. Months had passed since the mountain vomited fire. The stinging yellow rain had stopped, the sky washed clean of the bitter haze that once hung over the land. Now the green shoots of grass and flower buds poked up from the gray earth. In another year, a carpet of green and yellow and orange would cover the hills. She frowned, supple lips twisting into a grimace.

            Chrosoes had tried to keep her " a beautiful, singing bird in a gilded cage. He had died, hacked to death by Roman soldiers in the burning ruin of the Palace of the Swan.

            Heraclius and Theodore had desired her, to seal the conquest of Persia and bind her royal blood to theirs, cutting the root of Chrosoes" dynasty. Both had perished in the wreck of their own grasp for power.

            Thyatis had tried to set her away, a perfect crystalline beauty, in the prison of Thira. For safety. So that she would be unchanged, unblemished when Thyatis returned. Shirin spit to clear her mouth, bile rising in her throat.

            There were four graves in the ground, and four little corpses to fit them.

            Thyatis was gone, wrenched away by fate and transformed beyond recognition. Shirin"s hands trembled and she clasped them firmly around the haft of the spade. The same madness, which filled Chrosoes, distilled into the shape of her lover, like wormwood settling into wine.

            The day had been blindingly hot. Now night came, bringing close stifling air. Within the oval domain of the Flavian, Shirin was crushed into a narrow marble seat, pressed all around by sweating, anxious Romans. The entire city was in a fever, enthralled by the newest, most ferocious fighter to ever enter the arena. Every tavern and bath was filled with men and women praising the killing speed and ferocity " the art " of the Amazon Diana. Down on the white sand, lit by thousands of gleaming white spheres, it was butchery.

            An axeman leapt in, hewing wildly, axe cleaving the air. Thyatis skipped back, parrying and parrying again. Sparks leapt from her blade as it caught the edge of the axe. The man screamed, a high wailing sound that flew up into the air and vanished into the constant roar of the crowd. Blocking, Thyatis caught the haft of his axe on her hilts, and they grappled, faces inches from each other. The man was still screaming, tendons bulging, eyes bugged out. Thyatis let him charge, taking his full weight upon her. She twisted gracefully and he flew, slamming into the ground. She kicked the axe away, knelt, reversing her own blade and driving a convulsive blow into his chest. Ribs cracked and splintered, blood bubbled up through his armor, and then the body stiffened and lay still.

            Thyatis stood, unsteady, limbs trembling with desire. She turned towards the crowd, oiled muscles streaked with scarlet. Thyatis" expression was wild, ecstatic, transported by blood lust. Shirin shrank back in her seat, the entire world focused down on the face of her friend. The expression there was all too familiar.

            "Are there more?" Thyatis" scream echoed back from the marble walls. "Are there more?"

            Shirin stabbed the spade into the soil, letting it stand, then bent and dragged the first corpse to the grave. Carefully, she rewrapped each body, tucking in the wool all around. For a moment, she considered placing her knife beside her son.

            You will need a hunting knife, in the green fields and forests, to skin your game and cut the fat from sizzling meat above the fire. Then Shirin remembered the blameless dead, the children taken before their time by accident or sickness, were watched over by the elohim and all the servants of the lord of the world. Rejoice my son, she thought, drawing great consolation from the thought of her children among the bright ones. You will not wander in torment, among the uneasy dead.

            Beside her neat pile of clothing sat an urn of lime, and she sprinkled each corpse before turning the soil back over to fill the little pit.

            "The lord of heaven gave you to me and the lord of heaven has taken you away," she said, softly, bending her head to her knee. "Blessed be the name of the lord of heaven."

            When the graves were filled, she worked, kneeling, and fitted the cut turves back into place. There was quite a mound of soil left, so she scattered it across the grassy sward. In some future spring, flowers would bloom and saplings would rise out of the ash.

            The plants would grow swiftly and well in such rich soil.

            I do not think I am accursed, Shirin thought, but my choices have been poor.

            She felt very old, standing on the hillside, looking down at the sparkling blue arc of the bay. The sky was filled with racing clouds, puffy and white, and she watched their shadows pass over the land. After a time, the sensation of emptiness grew too great and she drew on the stola and gown. The Roman garments were hot and binding, but she desired no undue attention, not in this place and time.

            The rocky beach ended in cliffs, but Shirin found a narrow path and followed it up onto a headland at the end of the bay. The sky was still black with ashy cloud, and a constant gray rain of soot drifted out of the heavens. The promontory held a small temple, and she took shelter there, suddenly realizing she was bleeding from a dozen unnoticed cuts. Many women were already huddled under the arched dome, for the hill was sacred to Minerva. When the sun returned, after days of gloomy darkness, the priestesses came and took them all away, out of the devastation. A larger temple sheltered them, and in time, Shirin"s back healed and she could move without pain.

            Then she set out for Rome, in search of her children, who were supposed to be staying with Thyatis" guardian, the Duchess Anastasia d"Orelio. She located the residence of the Duchess, and made inquiries, but found the servants close-mouthed and suspicious. A placard in the Forum had caught her eye next " a towering Amazon, red-haired, stood over crudely drawn opponents " Diana read the legend. The Emperor promised a greater spectacle than ever beheld by Rome. Shirin stared and stared, finally succumbing to curiosity, spending her last coins.

            Shirin climbed the crest of the hill behind the grassy sward, the spade over one shoulder, the urn of lime under one arm. Her cloak and gown seemed very heavy. It seemed doubtful a gardener would ever tend the ruins, but Shirin was no thief and she returned what she borrowed. The dead pines made a strange palisade of blackened trunks, but the path was clear. When she came down to the low fieldstone wall marking the top of the kitchen garden, she paused.

            There were voices, people speaking in the ruins of the big house. Shirin laid down the tool and the urn, then turned up her hood. The thought of seeing another person, much less a survivor of this devastation, was repugnant. This was a private day, her grief not for public display. She would have welcomed a priest to sit by the evening fire, and hear her lament. Bile rose in her throat, almost choking her. Shirin hurried away, following the line of the wall, and disappeared over the crest of the hill. There was a road not far away, an easy walk on this brisk afternoon, and it led down to the shore and the ruined port.

            "You are sure they were here?" Thyatis pushed aside a fallen timber, letting it crash to the smoke-blackened tiles. Her long limbs were filled with nervous energy and she walked heavily, sending up puffs of ashy dust from the ruined floor. "Not away at the seaside " not returning to Rome? Not lost, among the crowds of refugees, nameless, without a guardian?"

            The tall Roman woman looked around, rolling slightly from foot to foot. In better days, the villa sprawled around a big central courtyard ornamented with fountains and a running stream. Red tile roofs and whitewashed walls, climbing trellis of flowers and fragrant herbs " only a shell remained, gutted, the walls crushed in by falling stones, the tile blackened and broken. She paced through the remains of the great entrance hall, clouds of black ash rising and settling as she moved.

            "They were here." Her companion answered in a lifeless voice. The older woman did not enter the ruins, she remained on the bricked entranceway, one slim hand raised to hold a veil of gauzy silk between her eyes and the sun. "They sent me a letter " all scrawled and covered with paints and fingerprints " the day of the eruption. The messenger was found on the Via Appia, asphyxiated, by one of my men."

            Thyatis turned, red-gold hair falling short around her lean head. Freshly healed scars shone white against tanned skin on her shoulders, arms and neck. Her face was blank, thin lips compressed into a tight line. Her fingers settled on the hilts of the sword slung on a leather strap over her shoulder. They were uneasy there, but the touch seemed to calm the tall woman. "I will look, for myself. I must be sure."

            "Of course," the older woman answered, still refusing to enter the burned house. "I will wait here."

            Thyatis nodded, her thoughts far away, and then moved quickly off into the ruins.

            Anastasia watched, her own mind troubled. The dreadful weight afflicting her for so many months after the events of the eruption had recently eased. Her efforts had turned askew on the mountaintop that dreadful night " many men and women she treasured had been killed. For a time, she had feared Thyatis " whom she had come to care for as a true daughter " lost as well. The prince Maxian, whom she had hoped to kill, survived. A disaster. At least " at least " it seemed the prince, whose sorcerous talents had seemed so implacable a threat, such a monstrous, unforgivable abomination, had righted his path.

            The Duchess considered biting her lip, but forestalled the impulse. Her maid would take great exception if the carefully applied powders and pigments were disturbed. Instead, the Duchess contented herself with making a sharp corner out of the silk of her stola and rubbing the crisp edge against her thumb. Her eyes, shadowed by the veil, followed Thyatis" movements among the fallen, burned timbers and the soot-stained walls. In happier times, they would have gleamed violet, sparkling in wit or delight.

            Now she had seen too much, lost too much. Despite Betia"s best efforts, her eyes were smudged and dark, revealing exhaustion and despair. The Duchess looked away from the ruins, driving away fond memories "idle summer parties, long twilit dinners, the intoxicating aroma of jasmine and orange and hyacinth in the spring " and looked out across the rumpled, tormented plain towards Vesuvius.

            The mountain loomed, dark and shrouded with smoke. Jagged and broken, smooth flanks rent by the vomitus of the earth and terrible mudslides. All the land around its feet " once some of the richest in Campania " was abandoned, haunted, dangerous in poor weather. Anastasia sighed, thinking of the wealth destroyed and the Imperial resources now consumed, trying to set right the wound. Gold and men and time desperately needed in the East, where disaster tumbled after disaster like a summer flood.

            Anastasia felt very old, and tired. With an effort, she walked back to the horses they had ridden down from Rome, and sat " ignoring the damage to the dark gray silk and linen of her stola and cloak " by the roadside. The gentle cream-colored mare bumped her with its big nose, and Anastasia responded by rubbing its neck. The horse was disappointed " no apples, no biscuit were forthcoming.

            "Someone was here." Thyatis appeared out of the twilight, long bare legs streaked with charcoal, strapped sandals black with ash. "There are many bodies among the ruins, all burned or rotted. A young man in boots came into the little house by the garden and rooted around. They may have taken something away " but the light is failing and the signs were unclear." Thyatis squatted down, peering at the Duchess, who had her head buried in her arms.

            "Are you sleeping?" Thyatis brushed the Duchess" hair with the back of her hand. "Shall I carry you back to the city?"

            "No." Anastasia"s voice was muffled, hidden behind her round white arms and the huge pile of curls Betia had pinned up in the morning. "I will be fine."

            "Surely," Thyatis said gently, her voice soft. "Come on, stand up."

            Anastasia allowed herself to rise, thin white fingers standing out in the gloom against Thyatis" darker skin. "Have you seen enough?"

            Thyatis looked back at the ruin, now all but hidden in shadow. Beyond the hill rising above the villa, the sky was still bright, filled with glowing orange thunderheads set against an overarching field of sable and purple. High up, out over the sea, long thin clouds gleamed like bars of molten gold. Here, in the hill"s shadow, the villa walls gleamed like phantoms in the dim light. She felt drained of the nervous energy which had driven her down from Rome in such haste. "Yes, I have seen enough."

            "What will you tell her?" Anastasia removed her veil. In the twilight, she did not need to protect her pale skin. "What can you say?"

            "Nothing." Thyatis" jaw clenched and she began to make a chewing motion. Then she stopped, aware of the nervous tic. Instead she captured the big stallion"s traces and pressed her hand against his muscular shoulder. "I dreamed" I dreamed that she was drowning, her face was in the sea, and there were flames and lights upon the water. I think that she is dead, and I hope " no, I pray to the grey-eyed " that they are together, with Nikos, and the others, and every man who followed me into death, in the golden fields."

            Anastasia nodded, though her face was almost invisible, only a pale white shape in the gloom. "You believe in the gods, then. You think there is a life after this one. A place without care and suffering, in Elysium and the gardens of the gods."

            Thyatis snorted, swinging up onto the horse. She leaned over and helped Anastasia onto the mare. "I hope, Duchess. I hope. Do you?"

            "No." Anastasia arranged her stola and cloak to cover her legs, then twitched the reins. The mare, amiable and hopeful, turned away from the ruins and the blackened trees and began to clop down the hard-packed road leading down the hill. "I think there is only a black void, a nothingness. But that, too, is free from the weight of the world."

            Thyatis said nothing, and the stallion followed the mare down the road and towards the distant dim lights flickering in the ruins of Baiae.

            The night deepened, yet Thyatis did not feel weary. Her exhaustion lifted as the heat of the day faded. The horses were happy to set an easy pace, and the two women turned north, on the road towards Rome. The wasteland stretched away into darkness on either side, and without the lights of farmhouses, or inns, it seemed they rode on the mantle of night itself. A small paper lantern, carrying a candle inside a screen, hung from the end of a long pole in front of Thyatis" horse. In that pale, flickering light, they kept to the via. The land was quiet and still, lacking even the whisper of night owls, or the chirping of crickets.

            The clop-clop-clop of the horse"s hooves seemed to carry a great distance.

            A mile marker passed, a granite tooth momentarily visible on the roadside. Then another.

            Thyatis stirred, uneasy. Her thoughts turned to the face of her enemy, and she felt anxious. Time was slipping past, invisible grains spilling from a phantom glass. She looked over at the Duchess, who rode with her head bowed, cowl drawn over glossy curls. Thyatis wondered, suddenly, if all these deaths lay as heavy on the Duchess as in her own mind.

            "My lady?" Thyatis" voice was faint, and she coughed, clearing her throat.

            Anastasia raised her head and turned. In the faint candle-light, only the pale oval of her face was visible, the cloak, the horse, the road all swallowed in darkness. Her dark eyes did not catch the light and Thyatis felt a chill fall over her. Had a ghost ridden up beside her, some spirit of the dead? Had Shirin come up, a distraught soul lost in the darkness? The sound of the horse"s hooves was real! Thyatis blinked, and saw a tired smile on the Duchess" face.

            "I am still here," Anastasia said, softly. "My own thoughts are weary and far too familiar. What troubles you?"

            "The prince." The redheaded woman"s face tightened unconsciously. Her shoulders stiffened and she sat up straighter in the saddle. "I have sent my dead to the blessing fields with great sacrifice " twenty men, or more, I offered up to the hungry spirits on the arena floor. Red blood was spilt, bellies filled and their way lighted in the darkness. That sacred duty is discharged " but he still lives, in all his monstrous power, still young and hale. I must kill him, I think. But I cannot see how""

            Anastasia brushed a curl from her face. She seemed relieved, her mood lightened. "Do not trouble yourself with the prince. There are more urgent matters that press us " he has sworn himself anew to the Empire, to serve his brother. We will need his strength against Persia."

            Thyatis" eyebrows rose in surprise and she turned in her saddle, staring at the Duchess. "Do not trouble? He is monstrous, foul, a necromancer " the murderer of tens of thousands of citizens! We ride in devastation of his making! These things you declared yourself " when you set me upon him, a hound upon his fox, with strict orders to murder him by any means at hand." Thyatis stopped, unable to continue. The enormity of the prince"s crimes rendered her speechless.

            "I know what I did." Anastasia looked away, out into the night. "It was very foolish. I acted rashly, without consideration. Fear drove me, and you see this"" She lifted a hand. ""is the result."

            Thyatis reached over and took the reins of the mare. Obediently, the horse stopped, shaking its head in question. The redheaded woman leaned close, her face stricken. "Are you mad? This is the prince"s doing " he was on that mountaintop for a reason " he is a monster." Thyatis stopped, a suddenly clear, terrible thought forcing its way into her consciousness. "No""

            Anastasia"s eyes were still in shadow, but Thyatis felt the pressure of their gaze. "Yes, daughter. You have read the reports from the East; you have listened to the tales of those who escaped. A thing has risen up " something inhuman, insatiable, so far beyond the prince"s blundering crimes as a man is above the worm. By the gods, child, the entire Eastern Empire has been shattered like a clay cup! The West is still weak, our numbers depleted by plague. Already, we have lost two Legions at Constantinople""

            "Oh, this is truly foul!" Thyatis ripped the cloak away from her shoulders, suddenly flushed with sweat. Her stallion started to buck, then danced sideways, disturbed by the violent motion. "Now the fair, pretty prince is an ally, a tool, a weapon against the Persians? What of all the Roman dead? Does all this"" Her finger stabbed out into the dark. ""mean nothing to you? Prince Maxian is a murderer " where is Roman justice now? Are you the judge of the twelve tablets?"

            "You will be silent!" Anastasia"s voice was sharp in the darkness. Thyatis recoiled, and the Duchess rose up in her saddle, face fully visible now, eyes flashing. "I am not a judge, but I do have a duty to the Empire, as do you. Emperor Galen accepted his brother"s return " in full knowledge of what occurred on Vesuvius " and he, and I, find no pleasure in that act. Maxian is terribly dangerous, but he is still a human being. He loves his brother, he loves Rome, and -- look at me! " we need him desperately. He fought the dark spirit to a standstill, far from home, without any aid or support. Persia will press us " I know this " and we will need the prince, and all his power."

            Thyatis made to speak, but the grim look on the Duchess face stopped her cold. "Very well." Thyatis nudged the stallion into motion again. "Very well."

            Anastasia"s breath escaped in a hiss, and the mare began trotting to catch up. "Daughter, listen to me. You saw the wheel of fire, in the Emperor"s library? The portal opened upon Constantinople?"

            Thyatis nodded, though she did not look at Anastasia. The Duchess sighed, quietly. "There are things that I must tell you " here, far from Rome and all its spies " there is work for you, if you will take it up."

            "What kind of work?" Thyatis glanced over her shoulder, frowning. At the same time there was a tickling sensation in her stomach, a quickening pulse, the bright spark of interest. "I think I"ve had enough of the Emperor"s business."

            "This is not for the Emperor," Anastasia said quietly, her tone somber. "This is for the Archer."

            "The Archer?" Thyatis was nonplussed. Who is the Archer" oh! "For the goddess?"

            "This is Thiran business," Anastasia reined her horse in and motioned for the little light to be doused. Thyatis slid the pole back, then blew gently on the wick. The candle fluttered out, settled to a glowing stub and then died. There was no moon, and in the desolation it was utterly dark. Only the stars glimmered down between silent, rushing clouds.

            Anastasia waited, listening, until the night felt still and empty.

            "The Daughters of the Archer have a sacred purpose." Her voice was soft in the gloom, and Thyatis bent closer, straining to hear. "One part of our task is to ensure certain ancient secrets are not allowed to trouble the world of men. That thing that you saw, the wheel of fire, is part of one of those secrets. That device, a telecast, is very old. Until I looked upon it for myself, I would not have believed that the Emperors of Rome had come into possession of such a " weapon."

            "A"" Thyatis felt a finger press against her lips and fell silent.

            "I have learned that there is " there was " a second telecast in Constantinople. The mechanism allows an adept to look upon far-away places, to see and to hear what transpires there. If two of the telecasts are conjoined, as the prince effected, a man can move swiftly, instantly, from one device to another. Of itself, this is a powerful tool. But there are more than just two of these devices."

            The Duchess sighed again, and shook her head, cursing herself for letting such a critical matter escape her attention. I knew that Galen and Heraclius were carrying on a secret conversation! I should have marked its speed, and efficacy, and wormed out this secret" then there might have been time to do something. Before the Prince learned of the thing" before he used it!

            "I do not know how many telecasts existed before the Drowning, but there is at least one more, hidden within Thira itself. That telecast has never been used and I pray its somnolence will let it escape detection. But I fear" I fear the Prince and the Emperor will see the great use and advantage in war of these devices, and they will seek to find more. If they do, then they may stumble upon Thira itself."

            Thyatis laughed, an humorless acid sound. "You will wield one weapon " the Prince " but not another? Isn"t Rome worth it? What about your duty to the Empire?"

            "You are insolent." Anastasia"s voice turned cold. "I am a Daughter of the Archer, first, and a servant of Rome second. At the moment, that is a precarious burden. Listen to me and think upon my words " what is the first edict of the Order? That no man ever be allowed to set foot on holy Thira itself. There is a reason, and the telecast held safe there is great part of it.

            "Possession of the telecasts will neither win nor lose this war for Rome, but their use might destroy Thira and the Order. The Prince, if he were aware of the Thiran device, could call upon its power and step through, leaping across the leagues in a thought"s instant. He would stand inside the depths of the mountain, within a chamber where no man has ever set foot. My sworn duty " your sworn duty as a daughter of the Archer " is to prevent that from ever occurring."

            "Why? What will happen?"

            Anastasia felt a sinking feeling, hearing the simple curiosity in her adopted daughter"s voice. "I will not say," the Duchess said. "It is enough for you to know that we must contrive a way to destroy the telecast now in the Emperor"s possession, and prevent any other such device from ever falling into his hands."

            "Of course." The Duchess ground her teeth, hearing the smirk in Thyatis" voice. "Stealing from the Emperor isn"t a crime"

(end excerpt. THE DARK LORD will be published in July of 2002 by Tor Books)