Historical Fiction set in the 7th Century AD.
Antioch 624 AD.
Can love survive the fall of empires?
Anna and Theo have been promised to each other since they were children. They thought that they would always be together, but the tides of war have swept them apart. Whilst Theo finds himself at the centre of events in the epic struggle between the Empires of Byzantium and Persia, treachery results in Anna being condemned to the life of a concubine in a far-off land. Can they ever be reunited?
It was a good day to die. The sea was iron grey beneath a leaden sky and the waves slapped angrily against the quayside. Dark clouds scudded overhead and the sun was hidden from view. Across the water the Queen of Cities lay subdued. The domes of Constantinople’s palaces and churches which shone out like beacons for God on a fair day were a dull bronze. Even the raucous gulls of the harbour seemed somehow mournful. On such a day it was easier to take leave of the world. It was a good day to die.
The emperor allowed his gaze to settle on the troubled waters of the Golden Horn where the headless bodies of his six sons floated; their life’s blood flowing away in a scarlet nimbus upon the waves. He had begged his captors and beseeched God to spare him the cruel sight of the extinction of his line but no mercy had been forthcoming from either. The judgement of the Almighty was clear. This was his punishment. This was just.
He took one last look at the jeering faces of the men who surrounded him. He saw no shame in the usurper’s face; only a savage, wanton glee. He wanted to be free of this world. He did not care for what would come after his death for he no longer had any stake in the future. He did not doubt that his death would plunge the Empire into crisis; as dark and chaotic as the waters which waited to receive him.
His executioner approached. The man’s arm was slick to the elbow with the blood of the princes of the Empire. The emperor bowed his head. He could not look at it.
‘Thou are just Lord!’ He cried out. The sword whistled in the air. He knew no more.
Theo shielded his eyes from the glare of the sun and struggled to focus on the far horizon. Beyond the swaying tops of the palm groves and the scrubby plain where dust devils danced in the warm afternoon air, the land met the sky in a shimmering haze at the limit of his vision. Try as he might; screwing up his eyes and concentrating on a single point until bright spots appeared before them, he could not see any further down the road which led southwards, following the course of the lazy Orontes River. At the vanishing point where road and river merged into an indistinct, sparkling blur he thought that he could just make out a tell-tale cloud of dust.
‘It’s just the wind.’ Said Isaac, who was bored by Theo’s vigil up on the walls. ‘Why don’t we head down into the market and see if we can find some girls to talk to instead of ruining our eyesight?’ Isaac never took anything seriously.
‘The young ladies of Antioch do not wish to be bothered by you.’ Theo chided him. With his unruly mop of black hair, beetling brows and aquiline nose, Isaac was not an attractive prospect. His irrepressible nature and his father’s wealth ensured however that he did not lack for female admirers.
Theo gestured towards the horizon where the dust cloud was becoming more apparent.
‘It’s not just the wind. Look! This must be him.’
‘Maybe it’s the Persians.’ Isaac whispered with mock dread. Theo shoved him in irritation.
‘Don’t joke about it.’ He snapped, frustrated by his friend’s ability to make light of the rumours of a vast marauding army which could very soon be threatening the city, although there was no certain news of the invaders’ whereabouts. ‘If it was the Persians the dust cloud would be much larger, wouldn’t it?’
‘And their arrows would blot out the sun!’ Isaac snorted, prodding Theo in the ribs.
‘Enough of your nonsense.’ Said Theo, trying to look serious but grinning despite himself. ‘I might be impressed by your quoting Herodotus at me if you knew more than one line of it. The Persians are nowhere near here.’
Theo turned once more to stare at the horizon and grinned in triumph.
‘See! It is him. My father is home!’
Theo and Isaac made their way down from the great wall of lion-coloured stone that surrounded the city and joined the bustling crowd around the Daphne Gate, awaiting the arrival of the trading caravan; the last which was expected before the city braced itself for siege. No merchant would chance heading out into open country now. The risks of running into one of the invading Persian armies and seeing their wares and beasts commandeered without compensation as a prize of war were too great. Such a calamity could spell ruin. Nevertheless,Theo’s father; ever the bold man of business, had chosen to run the gauntlet of the invaders and had made it home safely.
With a clatter of hooves Theophanes Diogenes swept through the gate of his home city of Antioch. He beamed as he glimpsed his son in the crowd and dismounted with an ease that belied his fifty five years and many long days in the saddle. Theo noticed however that the lines around his father’s eyes looked a little deeper and the remaining hair around his shining bald head looked a little greyer than the last time he had seen him.
‘Theo!’ He exclaimed as he wrapped his son in a bear hug and ruffled his curly black hair. ‘Good to see you my boy.’ He took in his son’s broad-shouldered, stocky frame and deep-tanned swarthy features with approval. The boy had his mother’s honey-coloured eyes but otherwise there was no doubting that he was his father’s son. He turned and embraced Isaac with almost equal affection. The son of his business partner he regarded almost as a second son and Theo and Isaac were as close as brothers.
‘You’re here.’ Theo blurted, trying to disguise his relief.
‘Of course I am.’ His father replied, still beaming. ‘You didn’t think I’d miss your nineteenth birthday did you?’
‘You remembered then!’
Theophanes Senior cuffed his son playfully around the head.
‘Of course I remembered. Wait until you see what I have brought you.’ Theo felt a pang of excitement and his eyes strayed to the column of snorting dromedaries which was making its way slowly through the gate towards his father’s compound. Their coats were thick with the dust of the journey and their backs were piled high with bundles of precious cargo. Then he spotted the second most beautiful thing he had ever laid his eyes upon and hardly dared to dream that it could be his.
‘That’s a fine looking horse Father.’ He declared nonchalantly, but was unable to prevent the slight tremor in his voice.
‘Oh him?’ his father replied, gesturing with a wave of his hand towards the black stallion who stood tossing his head and pawing at the ground, whilst one of his father’s men held his bridle and struggled to keep him under control. ‘Do you like him?’
‘He’s not bad!’ said Theo, whose grin was becoming almost as wide as his father’s.
‘Well he’s all yours!’ chuckled his father, slapping Theo heartily on the back and making him stumble. ‘And you’d better take good take care of him because I paid the rascal in Hatra who sold him to me almost as much as he is worth.’
His father gestured for the horse to be brought over and Theo stretched out his hand and allowed the stallion to catch his scent. Seeming to approve, the horse gave a gentle whicker and nuzzled against his chest.
‘See boy!’ He murmured to the horse. ‘We’re going to be friends you and me. I shall call you Bucephalus. It is the only name noble enough for a horse as fine as you.’
‘That is just the sort of pretentious name I would expect you to give your horse.’ Declared Isaac, who had been uncharacteristically silent for a while. Turning towards his friend, who constantly mocked his fascination with Alexander and other great heroes of the past, Theo was gratified to see that Isaac was boiling with envy, which he was only just managing to keep under control beneath a veneer of sarcasm.
‘So what would you call him?’ Theo demanded imperiously.
‘How about Blackie?’ Suggested Isaac.
‘That is just the sort of dull, unimaginative name I would expect you to come up with.’ Retorted Theo, hoisting up his tunic and tucking the folds of cloth under his belt. ‘Come on! Help me up.’
Isaac rolled his eyes and cupped his hands. Theo grasped the pommel of Bucephalus’ saddle, placed his foot in Isaac’s hands and hauled himself up onto the horse’s back. Bucephalus snorted and tossed his head, seemingly eager to be off.
‘Come-on boy!’ he whispered into the stallion’s ear. ‘Let’s show you to Anna.’ He dug his heels into the horse’s flanks and set off a canter through the market, scattering the traders in his path.
The great red ball of the sun had already sunk low and turned the waters of the Orontes to blood by the time that Theophanes Diogenes had attended to the securing of his wares and had made his way home. Now he was holding court amongst the tinkling fountains in the seclusion of his lantern-lit garden, revelling in the attention which his homecoming had brought.
‘No competition to be had in Hatra!’ he related to his one time patron and investor and now great friend and business partner Eusebius who reclined nearby; nibbling dates and liberally swilling back wine as he mulled over the likely profits of the expedition.
‘A big caravan was just in from Mecca loaded with the best olibanum and I was the only Roman merchant worth talking to. They haggled hard but they had to accept that either I was taking the stuff off of their hands at my price, or it was going to sit there and rot until this damn war is over and I would be taking my good Roman wine elsewhere. They didn’t want to leave without that!’
‘Truly Theophanes you are a prince of merchants!’ Eusebius declared with a dramatic flourish of his hand; spilling his wine. His heavy jowled face was flushed from drinking and it was yet early in the evening. But who knew how many more nights like this they would be able to enjoy? It was best to be merry while they could.
‘I’ll see the Patriarch’s agent in the morning and get rid of the lot for the best price I can.’ Said Theophanes, suddenly serious. ‘We don’t want to be left holding it if the market dries up.’
‘Good thinking,’ agreed Eusebius. ‘We’ve done well, let’s not get greedy. After all, we can’t have the churches running out of incense at a time like this!’ They both chuckled. For Eusebius all this talk of trade was a game. His wealth in land and property greatly outstripped his commercial interests and his investment in the activities of Theophanes had begun as something of a hobby. For Theophanes the world of commerce was in his blood and he remained addicted to the thrill of the deal despite having amassed sufficient wealth to settle down as a well-to-do landowner should he choose to do so.
Isaac and Theo lounged nearby. Theo was bursting with impatience to introduce Anna to Bucephalus but Eusebius had insisted that his daughter be present to tend to their guests and Theo was forced to wait and watch as she moved amongst them; exchanging words and smiles with their fathers’ influential friends. Whenever he watched Anna, Theo felt himself spellbound. She had a grace and a confidence that made him feel woefully inadequate and it seemed incomprehensible that she would soon be his. Although she was two years younger than he was, she sometimes made him feel like a silly child who understood nothing of the world. How could he ever be worthy of such a woman?
It had not always been this way. From the time that Theo and Anna were children it had been an understanding between their fathers that the two of them would one day be married; uniting their houses, but when they were growing up together Anna had seemed more like a sister than a future bride. He had never imagined that he would feel the way about her that he did now.
‘Stop looking at my sister like that!’ Isaac slurred into his ear. ‘You’ll get your paws on her soon enough.’
‘Shut up you idiot!’ Theo flushed a deep red, hoping that Anna had not overheard the comment. She looked over at him and gave him one of her heart-stopping smiles, guessing at the nature of the remark. Her large brown eyes sparkled with mischief and she raised an eyebrow quizzically. Then with a toss of her long, raven black hair she turned back to her father’s guests and resumed charming them.
Conversation meanwhile had turned to the war and suddenly all attention was focussed on Theophanes the Elder as he related the latest news.
‘Khusrow has taken Dara.’ There were gasps at the news that one of the Empire’s most formidable frontier fortresses had fallen into the Persian King’s hands after a long siege. ‘The Persians have divided their armies.’ Theo’s father continued, ‘They say the general Shahrbaraz is coming west, whilst Shahin has taken the road north to Cappadocia and another army is headed south, making for Damascus.
‘I heard that the garrison in Edessa have rebelled against Phocas and joined the Persians.’ Piped up one of the guests; a well-known wine merchant from Tarsus. ‘Khusrow has a man with him who claims to be the son of Emperor Maurice and he has pledged to place him on the throne.’
‘What are we worried about then?’ asked Isaac. ‘If Khusrow simply wants to overthrow Phocas and restore the imperial family, surely we have nothing to fear?’
‘Don’t be so naďve my son.’ Sighed Eusebius. ‘Do you really believe that once the King of Persia has over-run our lands he will simply give them back and go home?’
Now it was Isaac’s turn to flush. This did nothing to improve his general appearance. Theo had to grin in spite of the seriousness of the conversation. Sometimes he wondered how Isaac and Anna could be related.
‘I thought all of Maurice’s son’s had been murdered with him.’ Anna asked; her expression hopeful.
‘They were.’ Said Eusebius sadly. ‘Phocas’ thugs made Maurice watch as they beheaded his sons and then they killed him last. Whatever his mistakes no man deserves such an ending. This young man whom Khusrow is parading, whoever he is, must be an imposter.’
Anna shuddered at her father’s words and then frowned as a harsh voice broke in behind her.
‘Maurice only had himself to blame for his fate. What kind of emperor abandons his army in hostile territory to be slaughtered by barbarians and refuses to pay the ransom for those taken prisoner?’
‘You prefer the upstart centurion who is ruling over us now Romanus?’ asked Eusebius, his tone suddenly harsh. No-one else was speaking now. All eyes were on the Praefect of the City, who had somehow invited himself to this gathering and whose florid complexion had now attained a deep purple hue through a combination of wine and indignation. Romanus now puffed out his chest and assumed his most pompous expression.
‘I remind you Eusebius that it was your people who admitted Phocas to Constantinople. Do you now speak against the Emperor?’ The threat was implicit, but Eusebius was not easily cowed, certainly not after the amount of wine he had consumed.
‘Not my people Romanus. Do not associate me with the rabid mob of the capital who let a mutinous rabble into the city to murder their emperor. It is your city, not mine. I did not choose to be ruled over by a madman.’
Theophanes let out a low hiss. This was not a good situation. Eusebius in his cups had gone too far and Romanus; that brute of a one-time petty official who owed his elevation to the current regime, would not forget the insult.
‘You damn people.’ Spat Romanus. ‘Here you sit with your pots of money and you think that you can laugh at the emperor and nothing will happen to you. You think you can ignore the church and believe in your heresies and nothing will happen to you. You think you can consort with Jews and nothing will happen to you. You will see what will happen soon enough…’
Theophanes was on his feet. ‘Romanus you will leave this moment. You are no longer welcome here.’
Romanus spun on his heal and marched from the garden, barging an unfortunate slave out of his way as he went. Eusebius had hauled himself to his feet, swaying and supporting himself on the arm of the couch. He shouted after the departing Praefect.
‘How much longer do you think your man is going to last Romanus? I give him another month. Heraclius will put his head on a spike. What will you do then?’
Romanus’ only response was a slammed gate.
‘That was unwise old friend.’ Theophanes spoke softly. ‘I hope Romanus has drunk enough to forget this conversation by the morning.’
Following the angry exchange between Eusebius and Romanus the rest of the guests had quickly made their excuses and departed. The night was silent now, punctuated only by the gentle whispering of the wind and the occasional barking of dogs.
At last Theo had Anna to himself and they had made their way out to the stables where Bucephalus appeared to be settling in happily. His coat gleamed now that the dust of the journey had been brushed from it and he revealed a single white sock which previously had been concealed under the grime of the road. Bucephalus gently nuzzled Anna as she scratched behind his ears and whispered nonsense to him. Theo felt a warm glow as he contemplated the first and second most beautiful things in his life getting to know each other.
Anna looked at him and smiled. She reached out and touched his face.
‘You look happy.’ She said softly. ‘Do you think the world will let us stay happy?’
For a moment Theo could not speak. The idea that anything could come between him and the life with Anna that he dreamed of was too horrid to articulate. Instead he put his arms around Anna and squeezed her tightly. She returned his embrace with equal conviction; a sensation which suddenly filled him with a reassuring sense of calm. He buried his face in the soft curls of her hair and breathed in the sweet scent of her until it filled his head and banished all dark thoughts away.
‘I will never let anything happen to you.’ He whispered into her ear. ‘I love you, my beautiful Anna.’ He kissed her neck gently, just below her ear, and felt the goose bumps spring up on her bare arms. He loved the way he could make that happen.
‘I love you too Theo.’ She murmured in reply. ‘I always have, you know?’ Those words brought tears pricking at the corners of Theo’s eyes. He would still need to be told them many more times before he truly believed that he could be so lucky.
Anna pulled away slightly and looked at him with those deep, brown eyes in a way she had not before.
‘Theo I don’t think we should wait any longer. We will be married soon. I’m ready now. I want you to take me now Theo!’
Theo’s mind struggled to grasp the words he had just heard. The sudden swelling in his breeches suggested that no further explanation was required. He reached for Anna again with fresh urgency and she let out a squeak as he bundled her into the empty stall next to Bucephalus’ and they tumbled together onto the straw. He slid his hand under her pale green stola and white linen tunic to find her bare leg and moved it slowly up between her thighs. At least his fingers knew the way, he thought to himself. Anna gasped at his touch but at that moment they heard footsteps outside the stables and they both froze. Theo’s hand retreated back the way it had come.
He heard his father’s voice, speaking in the Aramaic which was the common tongue of Roman Syria rather than his native Greek and another voice which he took a moment to recognise.
‘You are certain we will not be overheard here Theophanes?’
‘Quite sure Shimon.’
Shimon was one of the most wealthy and influential men in Antioch’s burgeoning Jewish community and had been a good friend of his father for many years. Under the present reign of the usurper Phocas, whose hatred of Jews had developed into a policy of open persecution, this had become a dangerous friendship. It was not one however that Theophanes as an honourable man was prepared to abandon.
Theo and Anna lay still and listened in silence.
‘So what more news of Dara?’ asked Shimon, his voice low and filled with foreboding.
‘It was a massacre.’ Theo’s father replied. ‘Khusrow showed no mercy. Thousands were killed, thousands more taken prisoner. Our armies have been shattered. There is nothing in Shahrbaraz’s way. If it is true about Edessa then he could be here within weeks.’
‘Then we must decide what to do old friend. In honesty I do not think my people will wait until Shahrbaraz gets here to decide things. Romanus and his bullies have driven them to the edge: Good men arrested and beaten. Families turned out of their houses.’ Shimon sighed and muttered something in Hebrew that Theo did not catch. He then continued. ‘ The young men are angry. They have weapons and they are ready. I cannot hold them back much longer. They will rise up and there will be slaughter in the city and then they will welcome Shahrbaraz’s army with cheers and call him liberator.’
‘There are few men in this city who would die for Phocas.’ Theophanes replied with a weary tone. ‘There are many I am sure who would join in cheering Shahrbaraz through the streets. After all, what do the Persians care for our disputes, so long as the taxes are paid?’
Shimon grunted in agreement. Theo’s father continued.
‘There is no army to defend us. The garrison troops are lazy and useless. Romanus’ militia are only interested in beating up defenceless Jews and the factions hate each other too much to mount a successful defence. Any resistance will be futile and the city will be sacked, the people will be killed or enslaved.’
Theo felt Anna shudder and wrapped his arms tightly around her once more. There was silence for a few heartbeats and then Shimon spoke again.
‘We must make sure my friend that it does not come to either of these things, for the sake of the people we hold dear. When Shahrbaraz arrives before the city we must let him know that he has friends here and arrange for the city to fall without a drop of blood being spilt. I think we know all the right people between us to make that happen.’
‘If we can do that my friend then my life will have been worth something.’ Replied Theophanes gravely.
‘We must do it Theophanes. Go with God. We will speak again soon.’
Footsteps faded away into silence. Theo and Anna were alone once more but their mood was now sombre. They lay for a moment without speaking; their arms around each other.
‘My God.’ Theo whispered at last. ‘They are going to betray the city.’
‘No Theo. They are going to save it.’
The waters of the Golden Horn glittered in the mid-day sun which shone down brightly from a cloudless sky. There was no breeze and the smoke from the fires which had been blazing across the city since early that morning rose vertically into the shimmering air. The great harbour of Constantinople was crammed with shipping. The high-prowed ships of war, pot-bellied merchantmen and the countless smaller craft which plied their way between them like pond-skaters, left barely a patch of clear water.
The largest of the dromons which served as the flagship rolled in the gentle swell created by the constant passing of the little boats; whose occupants gazed up as they passed in the hope of catching a glimpse of the man who was soon to be master of the Roman Empire. At its masthead a great gold painted icon of the Virgin had been secured and it blazed in the sunlight in a thousand golden spangles, lending the presence of the divine to proceedings.
Directly beneath the icon, Flavius Heraclius stood shielding his steel grey eyes from the sheeting glare of the sun and glowered as he observed a barge putting out from the jetty which served the Blachernae Palace. The moment of his destiny was fast approaching. He ran his fingers through his tangled bronze-coloured hair and beard, feeling the salt between his fingers. His breeches and short tunic were similarly streaked with white cobwebs of salt from many long days at sea. His feet were bare. Around his shoulders however was draped a chlamys of the finest Tyrean Purple; the symbol of Imperial authority utterly at odds with the rest of his attire which was little different from that of a common seaman.
Heraclius counted six men in the barge in addition to the rowers straining at the oars as the craft set out towards his ship. As the barge drew closer he could make out the figures on board more clearly. Four wore the distinctive green and gold cloaks of the imperial bodyguard and were poised by the gunwales, ready to beat back anyone who might attempt to bring their boat up alongside out of curiosity or spite. In the bows stood Priscus, resplendent in the full ceremonial garb of the Count of the Excubitors; the commander of Constantinople’s most elite and distinguished regiment of guards. Kneeling in front of Priscus with his arms bound tightly behind his back and his head held forcibly upright by the firm grip that the Count of the Excubitors had upon his matted red hair, was the man who until recently had thought to command the loyalty of those who now held him captive. Priscus kept his prisoner’s head jerked back as the barge came in close, forcing him to look up at the man who was about to take his place. There was a dull thud as the barge came alongside and two lines whistled through the air and were expertly made fast by the dromon’s crew.
‘I wish you had put on something more befitting a Roman consul Brother.’ Spoke Theodore who had come up behind Heraclius to witness the moment which would be the culmination of all that they had been striving towards for many months. Ever since their father the Exarch of Carthage had declared himself to be in revolt against the usurper Phocas and had ceased all grain shipments to Constantinople, their thoughts had been focussed upon achieving this end.
From Carthage the message had gone out to all of the territories of the Empire; calling them to join in ridding the capital of this murderous tyrant. Support had come swiftly from the Italian and Sicilian territories, where the governors had owed their elevation to Maurice and had been shocked and saddened by his horrific murder. As the rebel fleet had wound its way across the Aegean, men and ships had flocked to their banners. Heraclius’ and Theodore’s cousin Nicetas had led an army overland from Carthage and had already seized the city of Alexandria and all of Egypt was now in their hands. Constantinople could be starved into submission eventually. Their expectation however was that upon their fleet’s arrival in the home waters of the Imperial capital, the factions would rise, the army would abandon Phocas and the surrender of the city would be swift. It had been clear from the first rising smoke which greeted the appearance of the fleet, as the factions seized the opportunity to run riot through the city, that Phocas had indeed lost his grip. Priscus; whose loyalty to their cause the rebels had been reasonably certain of, had acted quickly to secure the person of Phocas, who was now being bundled and prodded over the side of flagship to tumble in a heap at the feet of Heraclius.
Victor and vanquished contemplated each other for a moment. The contrast between them could hardly have been greater. Phocas presented a wretched specimen. He had been stripped of most of his clothes and a torn and blood-stained tunic was all that remained to cover his dignity. He had clearly been viciously beaten up. His lip was split and several of his teeth were missing. A dark purple bruise extended from above his left eye, which was completely closed, down to his cheek. His red hair stuck up in tufts and was matted with blood.
‘Centurion!’ Heraclius addressed Phocas by his former rank. ‘You will answer now for your crimes.’ Phocas glared at Heraclius with his one good eye and spat a gobbet of bright blood onto the immaculately scrubbed deck between them. A fat, metallic-green fly settled upon it immediately. Heraclius grimaced at the display of defiance and continued. ‘You abandoned your post. You led the emperor’s soldiers in mutiny whilst our frontier was left unguarded against our enemies. You marched in rebellion upon this city. You conspired with the plebeian mob to overthrow and murder your rightful emperor…’
‘You have done nothing different yourself.’ Phocas wheezed through shattered teeth. Several of his ribs were broken and he struggled to breath.
‘Mutineer, traitor, murderer, usurper!’ Heraclius thundered, losing his temper and bringing his face to within an inch or two of Phocas’ mangled features. ‘How dare you compare yourself to me? I have been elected consul to restore this city to the Empire and to save it from drowning in your filth.’
Phocas raised his head for the last time and took a deep shuddering breath, trying to get enough air into his aching lungs to make his last defiant words heard. The man standing over him was incandescent with barely suppressed rage. In those grey eyes Phocas saw his death coming. He saw judgement. For a moment his spirit failed him and he fought back the urge to beg for his life but then hatred welled up in him once more and he resolved not to give his enemy the satisfaction of seeing him grovel. Instead he managed to rearrange his face into a grin and gave a barking laugh which ended in a rattle.
‘You want to save the Empire Heraclius?’ He gasped. ‘It is a little too late for that. You have arrived just in time to preside over its fall.’
Heraclius straightened, took a step back and turned his face away in disgust; taking a moment to compose himself. He felt many eyes upon him, watching his reaction. Phocas’ words had the ring of bitter prophesy. He prayed that they would be proven false. He looked out towards the shore where a vast, unruly crowd had gathered. Some had broken into the Blachernae and part of the palace was on fire. The sounds of rioting drifted across the water. Heraclius gave a long sigh and swept his hand through the air to gesture at the chaos on waterfront.
‘Is it thus,’ he demanded, his eyes boring into Phocas’ once again, ‘That you have governed the Empire?’
Phocas held his gaze with his one good eye. ‘And will you govern it any better?’ he spat back.
‘I shall make a better start right here!’ Heraclius roared, turning around and wrenching Theodore’s sword from his scabbard before his startled brother had realised his intent. The blade rang as it lodged in Phocas’ vertebrae. The usurper gave a strangled gurgle as Heraclius bellowed and sawed through the remainder of his neck. His battered, mangled head fell with a thump onto the deck and rolled a short way before coming to rest in the scuppers. Priscus picked it up and held it aloft for the crowd on the shore to see and the cheering rebounded from the forest of masts around them.
Heraclius stood panting. The sword hung limply by his side. He could feel his rage melting away and a great weight of expectation and responsibility settling like a lead cloak upon his shoulders. The deed was done. The Empire was his. He would give his last breath to preserve it from destruction.
Theodore was bent over Phocas’ headless corpse and was pulling off the purple buskins which aside from the blood spattered tunic had been the late usurper’s only attire. Having dusted them off, he solemnly knelt at his brother’s feet and Heraclius raised first one foot and then the other and allowed Theodore to put the boots on him. These were a symbol of Imperial authority and no man save the emperor himself had the right to wear such distinctive footwear. Now Heraclius had won that right. His city, his people and his crown awaited.
‘Now the day’s grim work is done I shall change into something more suitable for an Emperor of the Romans.’ He declared as he handed the still dripping sword back to his brother. ‘Throw the usurper’s body into the harbour. He can share Maurice’s resting place. It is better than he deserves.’
‘As you command Basileus.’ Theodore replied.
The cathedral of St Sophia was hushed. Not a murmur was heard from the crowd packed in beneath its great soaring dome. Every eye was fixed on Heraclius as the liberator of the city stood upright before the Patriarch in front of the high altar, robed in imperial majesty.
‘Do you swear to defend the Empire of the Romans against all enemies, to preserve the city of Constantine and to wage war until the Holy City of Jerusalem and the True Cross have been restored to God’s church?’ Patriarch Sergius intoned, his sonorous voice resonating amongst the columns of marble and porphyry.
‘I do so swear.’
The words of this vow had been agreed upon by Heraclius and Sergius only that morning, as final preparations for Heraclius’ wedding and coronation were being made. News had arrived just days before which had shaken the city to the core. The factions, who normally seized upon any bad news to begin breaking each other’s heads, had been notably quiescent. There had been great outpourings of public grief and two young monks had beaten themselves bloody in the Forum of Constantine in a display of self-flagellation; hoping through their piety to expunge the terrible sins for which the Romans were now being punished.
Jerusalem had fallen!
Having offered brief and futile resistance to the Persian army which had swept down upon it like a biblical horde and undermined the ancient walls, the Holy City had been put to the sack. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre had been burned to the ground and the precious relic of the True Cross was at this very moment being borne away to the Persian royal capital Ctesiphon as a prize of war.
Heraclius felt the full weight of the vow that he had just sworn before God and his people to recover both the Holy City and the True Cross. His chest tightened at the enormity of it and he resisted the urge to sag under the heavily gold-embroidered and pearl-encrusted loros and imperial collar that he wore. At that moment the idea of somehow being able to turn the desperate plight of the Empire around to the point of being in a position to march on the Persian capital and regain the precious relic seemed laughable. He recalled Phocas’ last words and his bitter, mocking laughter and was forced to dig his fingernails into the palms of his hands to remain calm and keep his voice level as he gave his responses to the Patriarch.
‘Will you at all times preserve and hold true to the teachings of the Roman Church, uphold the true doctrines of the Faith and drive out all heresies, wheresoever they may be found?’
Sergius had insisted upon these words and Heraclius wished for all the world that at such a desperate time as this, the bitter dispute between the Patriarch in Constantinople and the great many subjects of the Empire who rejected the teaching that Christ was both God and Man, could be put aside in the interests of Christian unity. It was little wonder that the people of Damascus, feeling no loyalty whatsoever to a church and empire which had branded most of them as heretics, had surrendered their city to the Persians without a fight. God himself, Heraclius mused, must despair of the Christians’ petty wranglings. For what other reason could he have turned his face so utterly from the Roman people other than to force them to their senses.
‘I do so swear.’ He answered Sergius firmly.
Sergius lifted the Imperial diadem from the altar and held it aloft before Heraclius. As he gazed at the crown once worn by Constantine and Justinian, Heraclius noticed a single short red hair caught in the fine gold filigree and wondered who had wrenched the diadem from Phocas’ head.
‘I crown you Heraclius, Emperor of the Romans!’
A great cheer of acclamation rang out from the congregation behind him and he heard the sound rising like a storm as the assembled masses in the great square of the Augusteum outside the church took up the cry; the factions trying to outdo each other in making as much noise as possible. Even when they were united they were in competition, Heraclius thought to himself. He despised the Blues and Greens in equal measure. They belonged in the Hippodrome where they had originated, baying out their support for the charioteers who wore their colours. The great Justinian had crushed them when they had risen up against him but under the weak rulership of his successors they had grown strong once more until they again constituted a mob with the power to plunge the whole city into chaos. Phocas had thought to harness the power of this mindless rabble to overthrow Maurice. The Greens had cheered him through the streets as he had entered the city riding in a chariot like a triumphator in old Rome. They had just as swiftly turned against him however and those same voices that had cheered for Phocas had cheered the sight of his severed head. Now they cheered for Heraclius. He would not make the same mistake of placing any trust in their fickle loyalties, he told himself.
Heraclius felt the crown settle upon his brow and for a moment he closed his eyes, taking in the enormity of the moment. As he opened them once more, the sunlight streaming through the high windows and reflecting back from the thousands of gold tesserae which covered the walls almost dazzled him. The silken curtains which usually concealed the inner sanctum of the cathedral from the gaze of the ordinary citizens had been drawn back to reveal the gleaming silver iconostasis which rose behind the solid gold altar. The eyes of the saints whose images were arrayed before him seemed to bore into Heraclius’ soul. He sought out the image of the Archangel Michael; God’s warrior angel, and offered up a prayer for his guidance. The archangel’s stern expression offered little comfort. Only expectation.
In all of his forty nine years Heraclius had never felt more alone than he did in that moment.
The cheering had faded now and was replaced with a low murmur as his niece Martina approached the altar. This scene was a repeat of those earlier in the day, although this time Martina approached the altar alone, without her father Theodore by her side; for now Heraclius and Martina were man and wife. Heraclius glanced across at the overwhelmed young woman by his side; pale and rigid. He remembered bouncing her upon his knee as a little girl. She was barely older than his own son Constantine. The idea of taking Martina to his bed did not sit altogether easily with him but such had been his father’s insistence. Only by re-marrying within the family could their new ruling dynasty be safeguarded. It would not do to give one of the other powerful families in Constantinople the leverage of providing an Imperial bride, neither would it be wise to alienate the other noble houses through favouring one. It was the fifteen year old Martina therefore who was now crowned in turn by the Patriarch. How he wished it could have been Eudocia standing beside him; dead these ten long years.
This time there was no resounding acclamation. The approval of Sergios for the match between uncle and niece had been obtained only after hours of painstaking negotiations. Both Emperor and Patriarch had now played their part in the carefully orchestrated ceremony that committed Heraclius to wage a long and uncertain war. The crowds began to cheer once more as he took his new bride’s trembling hand and headed out into the sunlight to greet his people.