Chapter One, Ghosts of Athens by Richard Blake

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Chapter One: Canterbury, Friday, 3rd April 688

The Ghosts of Athens (Aelric 4)The present chapter in my story begins five days ago. Oh, Jarrow to Canterbury is a three hundred mile journey, and you don’t cover much of that in five days. But I’m not starting from the day we set out from the monastery, with everyone waving us off and holding up his hands in prayer for our safety. Nor am I counting our interminable, though generally smooth, progress along the old military road, nor the changes of guard as we passed from one kingdom to another. I mention five days because it was then that I came, with young Brother Jeremy, to the silent ruins of what had, in the old days, been London, and prepared to step onto the bridge across the Thames.

“Here, what do you think you’re doing?” someone cried, popping out as if from nowhere. “I own this bridge, and I collect the tolls.” He was one of those dirty, pot-bellied creatures you see lounging on street corners in any city where barbarians have planted themselves. Without experience of his kind, you might have dismissed him as a flabby loud mouth, sliding fast into the decline of life. But I had enough experience to know trouble when I saw it.

I forced a smile and sat upright in the handcart. “Greetings, my son,” I quavered. “May God be with you on this glorious day. But this bridge is surely owned by His Majesty of Kent. And, as I am, you will have noticed, a monk of Holy MotherChurch, As such, I travel under King Swaefheard’s protection.” I got a thoroughly nasty look for that. Ignoring Brother Jeremy, who’d let go of the handles, and who now stood looking down at the uneven stones of the road, the creature shambled over and stood between me and the risen sun. It was a nice day – correction, it had been a nice day.

“Don’t you come the hoity-toity with me,” he snarled. “I’ll have you know that His Majesty himself has given me the right to collect tolls. No one – not even a fucking old bag of bones like you – goes across for free.” He stepped back and looked at the cart. An unpleasant grin now came over his face. What I’d thought at first was a sword tied to his waist turned out, on closer inspection, to be a wooden club. It made no difference to the trouble he represented. In the proper hands – especially against the unarmed – a club was as horrid as any sword.

“I assess this cart at five silver pennies,” he said with a faint sound of the official. “Payment before you go across.”

I raised my arms in supplication. “Five pennies, my son?” I whined – “five silver pennies? Can there be so much money in the whole of England? Assuredly, we have none. Now, in the name of God, be merciful. I am an old man of ninety seven. I am travelling to see the Lord High Bishop of Canterbury. Let us pass freely to the other side.”

That got me another of his unpleasant grins. He set off on a walk about the cart. He made a sudden feint at Jeremy, who shrank back in terror and nearly tripped over one of the stones. Before he could right himself, his hat came off, to show his pink scalp above the ginger tonsure. The main laughed at the slightly absurd sight, and went back to his general inspection. It was a nice cart. It had been fitted out in Jarrow with leather cushions and an awning to keep the rain and sun from spoiling my ride. By the time he got back to me, he barely needed to open his mouth.

“If you can’t pay the toll, I’ll take the cart,” he said. As if had by surprise, I let out a flood of sobbing imprecation. I reminded him of my age, how far it still was to Canterbury, how I’d never walk a half mile, let alone another seventy, without falling down dead. It was worth trying – and it did amuse him. He leaned into the cart and pressed his face close to mine.

“I’ll tell you what,” he sneered. “You give me the cart, your food, and whatever money you’ve got. You can then have a nice little stroll to Canterbury. There, can I be fairer than that?”

I tried another reference to my great age. It only ended his show of good humour. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” he snarled, quoting an old Kentish ballad that brought back fond memories of my youth.

“My heart, my heart!” I suddenly cried, clutching at my chest. That got me another smile. “Oh my son,” I cried again, “I have no money. But I do possess about me something else of great value. If you will but take that, leave the cart with me and the boy.”

“Well, let’s be looking at it,” he replied, leaning closer. I could smell his stomach-turning breath. I looked about – as if the escort I’d been promised that King sodding Swaefheard would provide might suddenly ride into sight. But no such luck. They hadn’t been there at the border to replace the men who turned back. They’d not be here now. Put not your trust in princes, I thought grimly. It might have been the story of my life. I fixed another senile grin on my face and took a deep breath.

Dear me! Ninety seven is ninety seven – that much of what I’d told him was true – and I’ll not describe it as an easy, fluid motion. Still, I’ll swear he didn’t have time to change the expression on his face between the moment I slipped the fastening pin out of my cloak and the moment I buried four of its bronze inches into the fucker’s left eye socket.

He let out the contents of both lungs in one scream as he staggered back, blood and the dark fluid of his ruined eye dribbling onto his scruffy beard. I gripped the side of the cart with my left hand and gave him the best shove I could manage with my walking stick. With another wail of horror – and oh, what a stroke of luck that was! – he was straight over the low wall of the bridge. Yes, lucky day, indeed! The first blow was an admirable thing for someone of my age. The second might have been envied by a man of any age. And it saved me the trouble of clambering out to do something inelegant and possibly ineffectual with my walking stick. Given more good luck, the tide might be in, and the river would carry him away.

But I’d had my share of luck for that day. “Master, he is still alive,” young Jeremy babbled as he looked back from his inspection over the wall. “Alive, Master – he’s still alive!” The boy’s talent for redundancy had outdone itself. Even I could hear the feeble cries from perhaps a dozen feet down. I swung stiff legs over the edge of the cart and tottered across the six feet that separated me from the wall. I leaned on the mossy stones and looked over. Sure enough, the creature had landed at a funny angle that suggested a broken back. He was feebly dabbing at the pin still buried in his eye socket and letting out a piteous wail for help.

I straightened up and looked about me. Many years before, in Constantinople, I’d had the old tax records for London dug out of the archive. The last time an undivided and still more or less complete Empire was ruled from the New Rome, London had been the third largest city in the West, behind only Rome itself and Carthage. Its population had been close to a third of a million, and it had been a considerable trading and financial centre. Even now, it was an impressive sight. The smaller buildings were heaps of overgrown rubble. The sun sparkled on a completely silent Thames, and rabbits were scurrying about its grassy banks. But the great basilica from which all the provinces of Britain had been governed still seemed to have its roof, and most of the churches looked solid enough. There was no reason to suppose the place completely abandoned. There might even be a few inhabitants who spoke Latin and tried to think of themselves as Roman. I’d passed through here just a few months before, on my return from the East. Then, the weather had been too unpleasant for thoughts of exploration. I’d now been looking forward to a spot of tourism.

“Master, I think he will live a while,” Jeremy said, breaking in on my thoughts. “Should we not go down and give divine comfort?”

“Divine comfort?” I asked, incredulous. “Divine sodding comfort? You take up these handles and get moving again if you don’t want a bloody good hiding.” I looked about again. London would normally have been well worth some exploration – though, sad to confess, not now. So far as I could tell, the creature had been alone. Then again, he’d come as if from nowhere. Who could tell what accomplices he might have lurking in these ruins? “Come on, boy,” I added. “Put your back into it.”

Divine comfort, indeed! When I was eighteen – accomplices lurking about or none – I’d have been straight down onto that river bank to slit the creature’s throat and dance in the blood. But that’s young people today, I suppose. Some of them just don’t know they’re alive. I let the boy help me back into the cart and arrange a rug over my legs. As he bent forward to take up the handles again, I managed a nice blow from my stick across his shoulders. Divine comfort – I ask you!

Stopping in London was definitely off my list of things to do. At the same time, if there was nothing ahead for another twenty miles, we’d not be turning back for the monastery where we’d spent the night. We were on a stretch that might allow Jeremy to break into a slow trot. Certainly, it was worth trying for one. The sooner the Thames was vanishing on our left as we pushed along Watling Street, the happier I’d be. Somewhere or other on the road, we’d surely meet those bloody guards. Till then, it was just me and a useless boy. I lashed out again at Jeremy and swore at him to put his back into the work of pulling me to Canterbury.

As we passed out from the last of the southern ruins of London, he slowed to a walk and looked back at me. “You are sad, Master,” he said in a mournful gasp. “Are you repenting the blood we have shed this day?”

We?” I felt like asking. What had Jeremy done but stand there, trying not to shit himself with fright? I scowled at the sweating, spotty face and thought of telling him what sort of report I’d make to Benedict once we were back home. The Abbot might well give him the sound whipping I wasn’t up to providing. But the sun had risen higher, and the day was turning out as fine as I’d expected. I laughed and found a softer spot on my travelling cushions. “If that two-legged beast lies bleating there till the wolves come and devour him, don’t suppose I’ll lose any sleep over it. But that was a nice pin. I picked it up in Beirut. I doubt I’ll get anything so fine to replace it in Canterbury.” I hugged myself and let out a long giggle that trailed off into a coughing fit.

Yes, the day had turned out nice again. Indeed, it hadn’t rained once since we’d set out from Jarrow.

Chapter Two

Theodore, born in Tarsus, now Lord High Bishop of Canterbury, shifted weakly on the pillows that allowed him to sit upright in bed, and peered uncertainly at me. “Greetings, My Lord Alaric,” he finally said in Greek. “I trust the journey was not too troublesome for one of your years.” I shuffled across the floor and took his hand in mine. As I lifted it to kiss the Episcopal ring, I noticed the deadness that flesh often takes after a seizure. He grunted and let the monk who was attending him fuss with the pillows. I sat myself on the hard chair that had been placed beside the bed and stretched my legs. It was probably best not to excite the poor dear with any narration of our troubles on the road.

“My Lord Bishop will surely recall that I am no longer His Magnificence the Senator Alaric,” I replied, joining him in Greek. “I am no more than humble Brother Aelric, returned to die in the land of his birth.” I’d tried for the appropriate tone of humility – difficult, though, when, even three days after disposing of that human offal, you’re still feeling pleased with yourself. Theodore tried for a cough and made do with a groan. The monk looked anxiously at the pair of us. He was a native, and probably knew only Latin – and that only enough for praying. I turned my smile on him, and gave him a glimpse of the stained ivory that served me nowadays for teeth.

“You may leave us, Brother Wulfric,” Theodore croaked in bad English when he was sufficiently recovered to say anything at all. A look on his face of immense tenderness, the monk rose and bowed. Once the door was shut, Theodore shifted again on his pillows and pointed a weak and trembling finger at a table beside the window. There was a jug on it and one cup. It would mean getting up and walking ten feet there and ten back. But the size of the cup suggested that the jug was filled with neither beer nor water. After three hundred miles, another twenty feet was worth the risk of disappointment.

No disappointment! “Is this from the East?” I asked with an appreciative sniff.

“It’s French,” came the whispered reply. Leaving the cup behind, I carried the jug back to my chair. I took out my teeth and had a long and careful swig. I’d had better, but this would do. I wiped the dribble from my chin and looked about the room. As a boy, Theodore had delighted in flowers. It was a love that had stayed with him through life. I didn’t suppose he was up to turning his head very much since the last seizure. But he’d had himself propped so he could look straight at a mass of spring blossoms arranged on another table near the door. My wine jug aside, it was the only cheer in an otherwise bleak room that smelled of the decay that attends the very old when they have foresworn the use of soap and water. If holiness is not a force that has ever guided my own actions, I can usually take account of it. But what on earth could have possessed Theodore – already an old man – to give up his nice little monastery in Rome and spend twenty-odd years on this grotty island? In the end, I’d had bugger all choice about coming home. He’d had a first class excuse to stay put.

“Why do you tell people that I’m senile?” he asked in a suddenly querulous tone. That was a hard one to answer, and my response was to pretend I hadn’t heard him. “I am dying – there’s no doubt of that,” he went on. “But the reports of what you’ve been saying to your students in Jarrow do hurt me. I am forgetting my Latin. I sometimes find myself thinking in Syriac. But I am not senile.” I continued looking into the jug. In the months since coming back from the East, my renewed acquaintance with opium had been carried to a certain excess, and I had perhaps been rather garrulous in my class. Then again, dwelling on local matters had been a way of deflecting those endless questions about what I’d been up to after my abduction from the monastery in Jarrow. I could have taken another mouthful of wine and pretended that drunkenness was adding to my deafness. But there was something in Theodore’s voice that reminded me of the old days – the very, very old days before we’d fortified ourselves from each other behind those palisades of words. I could feel a slight pressure of tears. I sighed and bent carefully forward to put the jug on the floor.

“I am, of course, most grateful for all you’ve done for me,” I said. “When I first arrived here, you’d have been within your rights to send me off to Ravenna for handing over to the Emperor’s agents. Instead, you overlooked all the frequently unfortunate dealings of our middle years and found a place for me at Jarrow.” I fell silent and stared at the shrivelled creature who lay before me. If he’d been ten when I was twenty two, he had now to be eighty five or six. At his age, I’d still been directing the affairs of a vast, if diminished, empire. Even now, I was good for any amount of travelling. A younger man would have found Theodore enviably full of years, despite his infirmity. For me, he was a pitiable sight. I got up and pulled his blanket into place. It was the least I could do. I sat down and played with my teeth. There was a piece of bread compacted into one of the depressions in the upper gold plate. I picked it out with a dirty fingernail and put it into my mouth. I washed it down with more of Theodore’s French red.

“What you say about me is of no importance,” he said with a slight show of vigour. “In any event, I am no longer your host. The circumstances of your return have made me your keeper, and this has a bearing on the nature of our present dealings.” His voice suddenly trailed off and he closed his eyes. I wondered if he’d fallen asleep. If so, it would be a chance for me to slope off and find what manner of quarters his people had arranged for me. A bath was probably out of the question. But I’d come to him straight from my journey, and I could do with a rest. But, as I was thinking to get up and take my leave, his eyes opened again.

“I have summoned you to Canterbury,” he said, “to ask a favour of you. It is a matter of some delicacy, and we thought it best at this stage to avoid putting things in writing.” His good hand twitched under the blanket, and I thought for a moment he’d pull something out. But his eyes closed again, and he went limp on the bed. I waited for his strength to come back. This time, though, he had drifted away. His breathing settled into a faint but regular gasp. There was a gentle knock on the door and the monk Wulfric entered. He looked at the sleeping Bishop, and hurried across to rearrange the pillows. The wine jug was still half full. It was too much nowadays to finish in one go. On the other hand, taking it with me might not create the best impression. I groaned softly as I got up and made for the door.

“I’ll make my own way out,” I said in English without looking back. It was a pointless utterance. If Wulfric bothered watching me leave, it was only to see when he could shut the door…. [Buy your copy to read the next 550 pages]

3 responses to “Chapter One, Ghosts of Athens by Richard Blake

  1. I don’t think it’s quite in the class of Mr Blake’s “The Terror of Constantinople” and “The Blood of Alexandria”. But nevertheless, having read all his output to date, I would recommend it as another great rollicking read in the Blake/Aelric tradition. And incidentally it is illuminating a rather morethan-usually-dark corner of Dark Age history: that of the Early Modern Greek Empire under Byzantium, and of that rather forgotten place, Athens. I will be keen to learn what Aelric gets up to next.

  2. I am told that Mr Blake’s editor loves Horn of Babylon.

  3. Ahhhhh…..Aelric is going there then, next? This will be most interesting. He will have become a much-travelled and learned man, by the time he makes it back to Jarrow in the fullness of his arthritic years. (He does…..doesn’t he? I do really hope so.)

    Aelric will have truly become the fount of all strategic knowledge of the word of the (misnamed) dark ages. I wonder, suspiciously, why we do not have any evidence of his writings? Did the Norsemen burn them all later in one of their accidentally-mindless raids on the Northumbiran Coast? It would be a tragedy if so, but gives Mr Blake some leeway in interpretation.