CONSTANTINOPLE, 12 APRIL 1204
At first he didn’t hear them.
Alexios V, Emperor of Byzantium, heard only hoofbeats from his balcony overlooking the Hippodrome. The ghosts of charioteers past.
The cough came again and the Emperor turned.
Standing between the pillars were four men of his Varangian Guard. All were over six feet tall and had fair hair that fell in plaits either side of faces cracked with fatigue. They carried axes and their armour was spattered with blood.
The Varangopouli. Thank God for the Varangopouli. Give me an army such as these.
‘Where are the Franks?’ he asked.
A Varangian stepped forward. His voice was hollow with exhaustion. ‘Within the city, Majesty. They managed to enter through one of the sea gates. They got behind us.’
There was a pause. Metal scraped on metal as one of them shifted pressure from a wound.
‘The Guard stood firm, lord.’
The moon emerged from behind a cloud and its light fell upon eyes that hadn’t closed in days. Alexios had known the commander of his guard for thirty years. He put his hand on his shoulder.
‘I don’t doubt it, Siward. When has it not?’
A woman’s scream came from below, then the crash of a falling building. The Emperor looked down.
‘A hundred and forty years, Siward. You, your father, his father . . . all those years.’ He looked up and smiled. ‘Now your Emperor needs one more service.’
Alexios stepped forward and looked at each man in turn. ‘Follow me,’ he said.
The five men’s footsteps echoed through the corridors of the empty palace until they arrived at a courtyard silhouetted by flame. They walked across it to a small door. The Emperor pushed it open and led them down a steep flight of steps, worn with age.
At the bottom, Siward took a torch from its sconce and lit their way across a hall to a door in the far wall. The Emperor reached up to the heavy lintel and moved a stone engraved with a double-headed eagle.
Slowly, slowly, the door creaked open and they entered a large, circular room fetid with dust. Lifting the torch, Siward looked around him and saw dismembered heads stare out from the shadows. Constantine, Gratian, Justinian and Basil the Bulgar-slayer. Eight centuries of emperors looked out from their plinths with disdain.
In the centre of the room was a plain altar.
The Emperor turned. ‘Move the altar. There’s a passage beneath.’
In a square next to the great church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople stood the much smaller church of St Olaf, the church of the Varangopouli. Beside it was a narrow street that led to the Harbour of Hormisdas.
The Franks had yet to reach this part of the city, but they were near. Sounds of fighting were coming from the direction of the Iron Gate, where they’d made a second breach in the walls.
The church door opened and, one by one, the Varangians stepped into the street, silently fanning out to form a wall of shields. Then a single casket appeared, supported on poles carried by four palace servants.
Siward brushed the dust from his cloak and raked the street with his axe-head. He looked behind. The casket had reached a small square and its carriers were hurrying towards a sea gate that opened on to the harbour jetty beyond.
But someone was there before them.
A merchant and his wife were on their knees, pleading with the soldiers guarding the gate to let them through. The woman held part of her dress to her mouth against smoke that billowed from a street behind.
Siward backed towards them, then stopped to listen. There were men on the other side of the smoke.
‘Saint Denis et Montjoie!’
A score of wraiths rose up, monstrous, metal figures emerging beneath a banner of lilies. They held shields and maces and fierce animals reared high on their helmets. The four Varangians were outnumbered five to one but there were no better soldiers in the world. Their axes swung and sliced their way through the finest Milanese armour and the Franks fell at their feet, their skulls crushed and their limbs pumping blood on to the stone. And as they fought, the men backed inch by inch towards the open gate. The casket was through but they were running out of time.
The merchant and his wife were pressed against the wall between the Varangians and the gate, transfixed by the slaughter.
‘Get away!’ yelled Siward.
The woman fell to her knees, clutching his leg in her terror. Siward glanced down at her.
I cannot save her but I can save the casket.
He reached down and hauled the woman to her feet. She was pretty enough. He flung her towards the French. She fell at their feet, her dress rucked up to reveal a thigh. It was enough. One of the Franks leant down and tore open her bodice. Wrenching open his visor, he fell on her as his companions roared.
‘Now!’ yelled Siward, and the four Varangians turned and ran through the gate, barring it behind them.
On the jetty, the boat was ready to sail. It was a squat, round-bottomed merchant vessel that flew the flag of Venice. Siward looked up.
Will it fool them?
The casket was on board and the sailors stood ready to cast off. The Varangians boarded and the ship was pushed out into the Propontis, the wind snapping its sails taut as they were hauled up the mast. Gathering speed, they passed platforms with giant engines of war manned by half-naked men who cheered as their fireballs exploded against the city walls. Siward saw another part of the sea wall slide into the sea.
It won’t be long now.
He looked out to sea. His ancestors had sailed this way in their longboats from an island far to the west, an island shrouded in mist called England. They had passed the deep ruins of Troy and into the Sea of Marmara to arrive at the fabled city of Miklagard as the dawn had ignited the gold of its palaces and churches. They had sailed to escape the Normans who had killed their king, put an arrow through his eye. They had come to seek service with an emperor who needed men of courage and skill to fight his own Normans. They had come with hatred in their hearts and they had become the first English Varangians.
Now they were sailing away. Siward looked down at his sword, at the dragon’s head that was its pommel. It was all he was taking with him.
Except the casket.
A sudden gust billowed the sails and the ship lurched forward. Then it was through the blockade and heading for the open sea. He hauled himself to his feet and called out to the captain: ‘You know your course?’
The man shook his head. ‘South only,’ he shouted. ‘They said you’d tell me where.’
Siward took one last look at the city. It could have been the salt spray or tears that clouded his eyes. Then he turned his head to the south.
‘Mistra,’ he said. ‘We sail to Mistra.’
THE CITY OF MONEMVASIA, SPRING 1392
For birds migrating south that day, the journey down the coastline to Cape Maleas offered a view unchanged since their species began.
On one side, the deep, deep blue of the Mirtoon Sea spread its unabbreviated calm out to the horizon. On the other, the Despotate of Mistra offered mile after mile of rugged hinterland, wild with forest and mountain.
There, the Greek Peloponnese extended a crooked finger into the sea and on its knuckle perched a city where twenty thousand souls bustled within walls that seemed to grow out of the rocks beneath them.
Scattered across the sea were the white sails of merchantmen waiting in the roads to enter the city’s port to the north and, closer in, closer to the rocks on which the city stood, were the figures of four boys lying on their backs in the water.
One of these was Luke Magoris. He was looking up at the walls of Monemvasia and thinking.
Twenty thousand of us living in this labyrinth and that many cats. How do we sleep at night?
It was a thought that had occurred to him before.
Matthew, Nikolas and Arcadius had for once stopped talking and were too far away for attack. Luke turned his body so that the entirety of the city lay cradled between his feet.
Above its wall, rising from the rocks from which Luke had just dived, sat the jumble of small houses that made up the lower town, nudged by the splashes of oleander and bougainvilleia that sprouted between. Small rooms led on to small balconies, and the houses crowded the steep slopes like an audience taking its seats. A wash of early sunshine bathed the mosaic of a million terracotta tiles and lit, to a dazzling white, the bell tower of the Elkomenos Church. And above, immense and implacable, sat the pitted rock of the Goulas.
Was there anything so magnificent in the world? Its sheer sides rose from the skirts of the lower town, deep-scarred by the stairway that twisted its way up its face.
Luke’s gaze travelled up the stairs until it reached the walls above. In this light it was difficult to see what was made by man and what by God until armour flashed from the ramparts. Above, on a gently rising plateau, lay the mansions, churches and gardens of the upper town, where the richest of the city’s inhabitants had their homes.
At the very summit sat the squat, reassuring spectacle of the citadel, home to the city’s small garrison and supposedly impregnable. From its tower flew two standards, limp symbols of the split loyalties of this little city. In a fresher wind, one would show the double-headed eagle of the Byzantine Empire, the other the black castle of the Mamonas family.
Luke looked down at his body as it was swayed by the passing waves, enjoying the warm current that fingered his back like velvet. He was tall for his sixteen years and had a powerful physique to match. His father’s lessons in the art of fighting had given him broad shoulders and muscular arms. His legs, meanwhile, were long but bowed from time spent on horseback. His father was a Varangian Guardsman and had told him that the Varangians had always fought on foot, surrounding the Emperor with a shield of iron on the battlefield. But, from birth, Luke had shown an extraordinary ability with horses. So Pavlos Mamonas, Archon of Monemvasia and by far its richest citizen, had decreed that his Varangian training should be interspersed with time spent at the Mamonas stud.
Luke dipped his head back into the water, throwing it forward to look directly into the sun, spray hitting the sea around him like pebbles. He tilted his body, swinging it back round so that his feet faced south.
South to Cape Maleas and round it to Mistra. Where I should be now.
‘Can you see the beacon from there?’
It was Matthew, closest of the friends and nearest to Luke in age. He had swum up to him so that their heads were almost touching.
‘It’s been lit for days,’ he continued. ‘The Turks must be almost at Mistra’s walls.’ He paused to blow water from his nose. ‘Our fathers should’ve let us go.’
Our fathers. My father.
Luke had been so careful that morning. He’d taken an age to creep down the wooden staircase, avoiding the creaking step. He’d taken the sword silently from the chest, and then tiptoed through the door of the house on to the steps to the street below. One of his shoes had been loose and, so narrow was the alley, he’d been able to stretch a hand to the opposite wall to pull it on.
He’d picked his way through the shortening shadows, his cheek brushing jasmine tumbling from a neighbour’s wall, to arrive at a small square where a mulberry tree offered shade to a lizard darting from stone to warming stone.
Only then had something broken the still of the sleeping city. The voice of his father, Joseph.
‘You’ve taken your birthday present early, Luke,’ he’d said, pointing at the sword. His voice was low, always low. ‘Couldn’t you have waited for me to give it to you?’
‘Were you going to Mistra?’
Luke had nodded.
‘With the other three?’
He’d nodded again, and found his voice. ‘The beacon’s been lit for three days. The Despot needs us.’
‘You?’ One eyebrow had lifted in surprise. ‘Four Varangian boys barely sprouting beards? You think so?’
‘You’ve taught us to fight, Father. We can help. Our loyalty is to the empire.’
‘Your loyalty is to the Archon of Monemvasia.’
‘Which is part of the empire. Father, we’re not bound by any oath to the Mamonas family as you are.’
Joseph had nodded then, his hand stroking the enormous beard that lay on his chest like a blazon. ‘But you owe some loyalty to me, Luke. Enough at least not to sneak away like a thief. With my sword.’
‘Which was to be mine on my sixteenth birthday. Today.’
Then they’d stood and stared at each other, Luke seeing the broken nose, the long mane of straw hair that, unplaited, fell to his father’s waist, the blue eyes he’d been graced to inherit which came from some island far, far to the west.
‘We are Varangians, Luke,’ Joseph had said quietly, ‘whether sworn or not. I am here to guard the Archon as you will be one day. We’re not free to take sides.’
‘Not even when our Despot has an army of Turks marching to destroy our capital at Mistra?’
‘Not even then.’
Now, he lay upon his back and felt the sun on his eyelids and thought about his father and the complicated business of duty. His head bumped against Matthew’s.
‘I must return to the house,’ he said, turning on to his front. ‘If we’re not going to Mistra then I’d better get up to the Mamonas twins. They want to ride out to the stud.’
Inside the house, his mother had laid out Luke’s riding clothes on the table: leather breeches with an extra layer on the insides to protect his thighs and new boots of untreated hide that still stank of the tanner’s yard. His father had put the sword back in the chest and locked it.
A lunch of bread, cream cheese and salted pork lay in a napkin next to a bowl of dried figs stuffed with chestnuts: Luke’s favourite. He stretched out to take a handful while his mother’s back was turned and wrapped them quickly in a napkin.
‘The figs will make you bilious,’ Rachel said, ‘and I was saving them for tonight.’
She swung round, laughing. ‘Oh, take them. I can make more.’
How he loved that laugh. It had cast its spell over the two men of the family since Luke’s first day on earth. In her midthirties, Rachel’s unlined face still radiated the beauty that
comes from inner calm. Everything about her was gentle.
Luke hugged her.
‘Silly boy!’ She smiled, her chin against his chest as she looked up at her son. ‘Joseph, tell this thieving Varangian to get up to the palace or we’ll have no food at all to put on the table!’
Joseph walked over to his son and put hand on his shoulder before he could leave the house.
‘I know that you’re eager to fight for the Empire, Luke,’ he said gently. ‘It’s what you’ve spent all your life training to do. When the time is right you can go to Mistra, but not today.’
‘So why not Constantinople? They say there are still Varangians there.’
Joseph sighed. ‘You know why. We Varangians are here for a reason.’
For centuries the Varangians had guarded the Emperor in Constantinople with unquestioning loyalty. In the Great Palace, they’d stood either side of the monumental bronze doors that led into its interior. When the Emperor gave audience, seated on the elevating throne that held ambassadors in such awe, they’d assembled around his sacred person, always bearing those great axes, their distralia, on their right shoulders. The Guard Commander was called Akolouthos, which meant ‘follower’, since he was the person allowed nearest to the Emperor on official occasions. Indeed, so trusted was he that the great keys of the city were given to him whenever the Emperor went away.
The Varangians had grown rich in the service of their emperor. When a city was taken, it was the Varangians who’d had first pick of the spoils. When a new emperor came to the throne, it was the Varangians who’d been permitted to fill their helmets with gold.
Luke knew that, on a night of fire and ruin, a treasure had been brought to Mistra by four Varangians, led by his ancestor, and buried somewhere on its hill. It was a treasure they said might save the empire one day, a treasure the Varangians and their descendents had vowed to guard until it was needed. It was the reason why they were still there. When the Norman Villehouardin had conquered the Peleponnese and built his citadel at Mistra, their sons had been forced to go to Monemvasia. But the secret of where the treasure lay buried in Mistra stayed with them, passed from father to son through the generations.
Until when? When had the chain been broken? Luke wasn’t sure. Somehow the secret of where it was had been lost so that now no one quite knew what was history and what myth.
Tonight, the four Varangians and their sons would meet as they did once a year to talk about myth and history and an island on the edge of the world called England. And they would renew their oath of loyalty to an empire that had given them a home.
On reaching the alleyway outside his house, Luke broke into an easy run, taking two at a time the steps that led up to the mesi odos, the cobbled central street of the town. The shops and taverns were still boarded up and sleepy traders mumbled greetings as he passed.
He reached the square that formed the crossroads with the street that led from the sea gate to the upper town. At the church of Christ Elkomenos, he turned left, nearly colliding with a water seller who was filling cups suspended on a rope around her neck.
Luke rounded a corner and saw before him the steps to the upper town. Soon he was catching his breath at the top, leaning against the balcony that overlooked the maze of streets below and the sea beyond. Here there were fewer people, fewer cats and much less noise. Here you weren’t brushed by pack-mules as you walked, or stopped by street hawkers trying to sell their wares. Here you could rest on a stone bench beneath the shade of a mulberry tree or sit for a moment on the cool edge of a fountain to collect your thoughts. And here you could gain an uninterrupted view of the vast canvas of sea on which were painted the motionless sails of vessels, large and small, which passed Monemvasia in the endless barter of continents, a barter in which his city played its important part.
Luke breathed in deeply. The plateau and surrounding mountains and valleys were covered in a spring blanket of narcissi, hyacinths and violets and the heady smell was all around him. What a difference from the lower town, where a waft of wind could pick up the stench of the tanneries, lime kilns and slaughterhouses that stood outside the walls. No wonder the Goulas was known as Manexie Kalessie, ‘castle of flowers’, and no wonder the rich chose to live here.
Luke crossed the square and started up the paved street towards the Panagia Hodegetria, the church that had provided a landmark for sailors for centuries. On either side of the street were the walls of great villas, the tops of cypress trees promising cool gardens within.
No one was up at this time except the old praetor, whose job it was to keep the streets of the upper town clean and lit at night. He was busy extinguishing the wicks of oil lamps along the walls. He knew Luke of old.
‘Wrong way for the palace,’ he said.
‘I’m to meet them at the citadel today,’ said Luke, stopping to catch his breath, ‘and they say the fleet is returned to Palea.’
‘It’s there all right. But the Archon won’t send it to help Mistra.’
The old man turned, wiping oil from his hands with a rag. ‘You might tell them there’s a beacon alight. As if they haven’t seen it.’ The man spat and turned back to his lamp.
That the Archon was unpopular in the city, Luke knew. What he hadn’t realised was just how much the citizens supported their new Despot, Theodore, sent to rule over them by his brother, the Emperor Manuel in Constantinople. Now the beacons had been lit and the people wanted to march to help defend their capital.
As I tried to do this morning.
By now Luke had arrived at the church and he climbed the rocks behind it, carefully avoiding a gossamer-thin spider’s web that stretched between two mulberry bushes. He bent to look at the beads of sparkling dew that hung from every taut thread and marvelled that anything so tenuous could resist the elements.
Perhaps the Empire can survive after all.
Looking away, he saw the blue expanse of the Mirtoon Sea before him, the coast to his left rising sharply as it swept round the edge of Monemvasia Bay. A mist still clung to the water and Luke strained his eyes to see the masts of the twelve galleys that were all that remained of the once-glorious Imperial Navy.
He shifted his gaze to the north, where the deep-water port of Kiparissi lay. Once it had contained shipyards that used the oak and pine from Mount Parnon, and the iron from the furnaces at Voutamas, to create ships of strength and beauty. The men of Monemvasia had provided much of the manpower for the navy but since the Emperor Andronikos had disbanded the fleet a hundred years ago, there were barely sufficient ships to protect the merchantmen that plied the shipping lanes to Constantinople, let alone fight the Turks.
Now most of the ships that Luke saw crossing the bay flew the winged lion of Venice, huge galleys with three banks of oars on either side whose sweeps dipped to the beat of a drum.
Wiping the sweat from his neck, Luke ran along the path that edged the north face of the rock. To his left the plateau fell away to fields containing neat rows of wheat and vegetables and the public cisterns. Luke hoped they were full.
Soon he was climbing the final slope to the rock on which the citadel stood. His path led round to the north edge of the plateau from where he could see the bridge that linked the island of Monemvasia to the mainland. The drawbridge at its centre was being lifted to allow a boat through to the jetties and quays beyond. Ships laden with wine, oil, silk, cochineal and the fruit of the Laconian soil would be waiting to leave.
He looked up to see a familiar face leaning over the battlement.
‘Late as usual, damn you!’ shouted Damian Mamonas. The Archon’s heir was a year older than Luke and stood to inherit the vast Mamonas empire. The knowledge made him arrogant. ‘My father is on the verge of not letting us ride to Sikia with the Turks on the march. Wait there. I’ll get Zoe.’
Zoe Mamonas: Damian’s twin in everything but temperament. While Damian was lazy, arrogant and shallow, Zoe had depths beyond the reach of man, or at least any man who’d tried to bind her in marriage these recent years. Zoe had rejected any suitor that might have eased the pain of knowing that she would inherit nothing.
They didn’t meet any Turks on the ride to Sikia and, if they had, the Turks would have been hard pressed to catch them. Like Luke, Damian and Zoe rode well, and all three were mounted on the best horses that the Mamonas stable had to offer.
They had met the horses at the town gate and had trotted through the outer town where lay the Jewish quarter and homes of the poorest inhabitants. Here were the glass factories, metal workshops and pottery kilns and Zoe held a handkerchief to her nose until they’d reached the custom houses and warehouses which clustered around the bridge. Crossing it, they’d come to the open field reserved for feast-day fairs, where you could watch bear baiting or buy a plate of suckling lamb, fresh from the spit. There you could find exotic goods from the outside world, the latest books and weapons from Florence or marten fur from the lands of the Golden Horde. And it was there that Luke felt, most strongly, the pull of somewhere else.
Once clear of the field, all three spurred their horses into a canter as the road began its gentle rise into the mountains of the hinterland. The going was easy since rain had not fallen for weeks and a fine red dust rose beneath them.
Luke rode behind Zoe, watching her lash the flanks of her horse, her jet-black hair flung out behind like a pennant. Neither she nor Damian had spoken more than a sentence to him since they’d mounted.
By now the riders had reached a deep gorge that split the mountain in two and they could hear the rush of a river far beneath them to their left. The path narrowed and vanished around a series of blind bends ahead. Something told Luke that
there was traffic around the next corner. He was sure of it.
The twins were riding fast and, if they’d even heard, paid no heed. It was a miracle that they didn’t hit the wagon. Both riders swerved to the left, their horses’ hooves close to the edge of the gorge, then yelled at the wagoner as he cowered against the mountainside.
It took five miles for Luke to catch up with them and only then because Damian and his sister had stopped to look over a long valley stretching out before them.
Vineyards of startling green against rich vermilion earth marched in perfect rows as far as the eye could see. Occasional watermills, wine presses beside them, followed the course of a thin string of river that wound its way through the valley. Flocks of starlings circled above, lifted by gusts of wind. In the distance, the village of Sikia sat on the only hill in the landscape. And beyond the village lay the Mamonas stud.
‘Malvasia,’ murmured Damian. ‘Our wealth laid out like a banquet before us.’
‘Which will disappear if the Turks overrun the despotate,’ said Luke. ‘Why won’t your father fight?’
Damian looked at him. ‘And what makes you think the Turks will bother Monemvasia?’
‘Because, Damian,’ replied Luke, ‘they’ve bothered every other part of the Byzantine Empire these past years. Hadn’t you noticed there isn’t very much of it left? Just our little Despotate of Mistra and Constantinople itself?’
Zoe smiled. ‘I hear you tried to get to Mistra yourself this morning.’
There was no doubt that Zoe was beautiful. Her long hair framed an olive-skinned face with heavy-lidded eyes and a full, sensuous mouth. She had the dark grace of the panther.
She continued: ‘When we were young you told us that you became a Varangian on your sixteenth birthday. Which is today. Were you going to Mistra to defend it or to find your treasure?’
‘It’s myth, Zoe.’
Luke kicked his horse down the winding path that led to the valley’s bottom and on to a wider road that ran past its vineyards.
It was a question he’d asked himself. Why had he wanted to go to Mistra that morning? He supposed it was what his father had spoken of: some ancient bond between Varangian and empire that he’d always seemed to feel so much more keenly than his friends. He looked around him at a different empire.
Malvasia wine: famed throughout the world for its taste and exorbitant price, the secret of how it was made known to only a few and was jealously guarded. It was the most valuable export of the city of Monemvasia, and the Mamonas family owned most of the vineyards that produced it. It was to be found on the tables of kings and cardinals throughout Europe. The English called it ‘Malmsey’, the French ‘vinum Malvasie’. Even the Ottoman Sultan, forbidden by his religion to enjoy the fruit of the grape, was said to have a craving for it. And every Venetian merchantman that left the ports of Monemvasia, its holds creaking with the weight of oak barrels, added to the enormous wealth of the Mamonas family.
Within an hour they had reached the outskirts of Sikia and Damian led them on to a path that wound its way up through explosions of yellow broom to the walled enclosure of the Mamonas stud.
As they approached, the gates swung open to reveal a series of paddocks surrounded by outbuildings. Inside, they dismounted, handed their reins to waiting grooms and walked towards a stout man who was hurrying over to greet them, beckoning to servants in his wake bearing trays of cool drinks.
The man bowed deeply. ‘Welcome, welcome, my lord Damian and my lady Zoe. You do us honour with your visit. Would that your great father could find time to come here more often.’
Damian exchanged a glance with his sister. They took the drinks.
‘Arsenius, thank you. My father, alas, has the welfare of our city to look to,’ said Damian imperiously. ‘So you have us instead. I hear you have a new stallion. Is it fine?’
Arsenius bowed again. ‘It is indeed fine, lord. Fine but fiery. We have not been able to place a saddle on its back nor a bit in its mouth. It is very strong and not biddable.’ He paused and glanced at Luke. ‘We have waited for Luke to speak to it, to see if his way will calm it.’
Irritation darkened Damian’s face. ‘It sounds as if it might make a good destrier to sell to some Norman knight,’ he said. ‘Luke knows little of such animals. Let me see him.’
Arsenius looked at Luke, who gave the slightest of shrugs.
The party walked between the paddocks until they reached one in which a single horse stood cropping the grass. At their approach, it raised its head and stared at them, every fibre in its powerful body taut, expectant. It began to back away, its eyes darting from side to side, searching for escape.
Arsenius shook his head. ‘I will go and get help. Just in case.’
The three of them were alone with the horse.
Luke moved next to Damian. ‘Let me go first, Damian,’ he whispered. ‘This one looks truly wild. Let me talk to it.’
Damian was transfixed by the animal. He didn’t reply.
‘Let me talk to it,’ Luke tried again. ‘Then you can come. But let me go first.’
Damian looked at Luke but he didn’t see him.
Zoe was standing next to her brother. She frowned.
‘You forget yourself, Luke,’ she said quietly. ‘If my brother wishes to approach the horse, he will do so.’
Luke shook his head and, with infinite care, climbed into the paddock. But Damian had heard his sister and, a moment later, vaulted the fence to land heavily beside him.
Luke spun round.
One of us will now die.
The horse screamed as it reared, pawing the air with its hooves. Luke backed away, not taking his eyes off it. One step. Two steps. Slowly.
Damian stood where he was, his body rigid with horror.
The stallion swung its neck violently to the left, to the right. Its eyes shone with madness and foam ringed its nostrils. Then it lowered its great head. Its hooves raked the ground, dust rising around it.
It’s going to charge. Sweet Jesus, it’s going to charge.
Luke turned to Damian. His voice was low, urgent. ‘Damian, get out of the ring. Get out of the ring now!’
Still Damian stood his ground, hypnotised.
But it was too late. The stallion, centuries of destrier blood pumping through its veins, did what its instinct dictated. It charged.
For Luke, what happened next stretched out to eternity. In slow motion he dived towards Damian, landing heavily behind him. He rolled on to his side, trying to drag the boy with him but it was too late. The stallion’s hooves were on top of Damian, trampling him into the ground.
Damian screamed as the hooves hit his legs, his arms, his body.
He must die. He must surely die.
Four grooms had come running to the ring and launched themselves at the horse. One of them threw a rope around its neck while the others managed to hobble its forelegs. Eventually the stallion was wrestled to the ground.
Luke peered through the settling dust. Damian lay face up in the paddock, the red earth around him pooling into a deeper red. He lay absolutely still.
Oh my God.
Excerpted from The Walls of Byzantium by James Heneage. Copyright © 2013 by James Heneage.
First published in Great Britain in 2013 by Heron Books, an imprint of Quercus Editions Ltd, 55 Baker Street, 7th Floor, South Block, London, W1U 8EW.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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