Meet me by the Gallows

I realise I haven’t updated this blog for a while, it’s been patchy at best and I apologise if you were holding your breath in anticipation for my next rant/story/random bit of musing.  I’ve been working on longer form literature for a while and it’s probably going to be a while longer so I feel it’s only fair to expose the internet to the introduction to Meet Me By The Gallows, my current and probably next-to-remain-unpublished-project:

Telfur and Andra heard them first. They had snuck in to the woods far from listening ears when they heard the heavy footfalls and the clatter of armour in the distance. The Eyeless Men and their Prophetess were returned. Flocks of birds spiraled in to the air and the smell of charcoal wafted in front of them as they marched through the relentless heat of the day.

Andra gently pushed Telfur off her as the marching sounds died away and they both lay very still and a little sore on the ground under the forest canopy. Neither of them dared to risk speaking so Telfur held up a fist and drew a semicircle around it with his other hand; ‘I shall go around the target’ in the silent language of the hunt. Andra nodded and indicated she would do the same.

Telfur turned away and began to run as quietly as he could manage. It was a risky task, moving at this speed through untended woodland, but there was nothing for it; the Eyeless Men were coming and their Prophetess had promised to take all the men and burn the women and children unless she received her demanded tribute.

What else could they have done? She asked too much, more than any one could expect to give. They had appealed to the Count for help but he had simply told them to pay, they had turned to the Rothign tribe at the edge of the wastes but they were busy fighting the Eyeless Men already and could spare nothing, they had even sent messengers to the Grand Duke of Nisalia and the Order of the Gilded Rose but they had heard nothing from anyone. They were, after all, a tiny village on the very edge of the civilised world.

Telfur burst out of the treeline a hundred yards from the village. He could see the smoke rising from the smithy and the filthy slaughter pen with its little shrine to the Harvest God. He skidded slightly on a cow pat as he hurtled on, making his way to the well and grabbing the warning bell dangling over it.

The ringing bell and the bellowing started a bustle of activity, they had long been expecting this. Most of the women and children flowed in to the temple, the rest took hold of bows and slings and took up positions by the stout wooden doors shouting prayers and blowing kisses to the mighty, horned statue of the Builder God inside. The men ran to gather other weapons, occasional swords but mostly hammers and farming tools of a dozen different ugly shapes and sizes. By Telfur’s count there were around forty of them, which could be enough if luck was on their side. His throat hurt and his bell arm ached from exertion but they almost had an organised force now and his heart dared to swell with hope.

The Eyeless Men could be seen clearly now, rounding a bend in the forest track and marching in perfect step. From this distance they looked almost normal, like big and well fed armoured warriors, but Telfur knew better. They all knew better.

‘Where’s the bitch?’

He realised he had been staring at them for some time and sighed with relief when he heard Andra’s voice behind him. He turned to look at her, there was a fresh scratch on her forehead from some errant branch and her clothes had taken a battering from her run through the forest but she looked well. She was the best archer in the village and very much in charge of their fighting women. Telfur allowed himself a smile at just how much their odds were improved by her presence.

‘Where’s the bitch? Telfur? She’s always with them, where is she?’

Telfur shrugged, he was scanning the men in the distance again, trying to get the measure of them. He wasn’t that worried about the Prophetess herself, one imperious bitch wasn’t going to make much difference here and the Eyeless Men were almost in range of their arrows. He heard Andra give the orders to knock and draw, heard the bow strings creak and tighten. Everyone was silent save for the occasional whimper of fear, most had never fought in real combat before and this was going to be a damned close run thing. A real damned close run thing.

They were close enough to see properly now, only twenty of them but he could see the scorched hollows where their eyes should be, their imposing size and the molten lips of pinched flesh visible through the joints of their bronze armour. He could hear them clattering and see them shimmer through the heat haze of the midday sun. He shrank back, they all did, as a sudden, unaccountable terror washed over them all.

‘Loose!’

He never found out who shouted the order but he was glad they did, a half dozen arrows and twice that many sling stones hurtled overhead and towards the approaching men. He heard the distant thuds of the missiles hitting home but he never saw them reach their targets, a pitch black cloud of smoke had come from nowhere and was now billowing ahead and around them and obscuring his view. Everything it touched blackened and smouldered and small fires were breaking out on the thatched roofs. Dismay spread through the ranks; Hammerhand the Blacksmith grabbed the full pail next to the well and ran forwads to try to save his home, hesitating for a moment before diving in to the thickest part of the smoke. A cheer began for him but cut short as his muffled screams drifted out. Then they saw him, for a moment, trying to run back towards them before collapsing and once more being swallowed by the advancing cloud. The air stank of sulphur and charcoal.

The smoke ceased its advance a few feet from the forward ranks and some of the archers loosed again with no way to tell if they were hitting home. A silence, total quiet, settled over the assembled village as they all strove desperately to hear anything at all.

‘Surrender now and none will suffer.’

It was a confident voice, a voice used to authority and obedience, and it was strangely terrifying. There was a lilting menace to it which was made all the worse by the sound of several men dropping their weapons. Telfur turned and tried to see where it was coming from and discovered with dismay that it was somehow coming from the temple doors, in amongst the archers. She wore a pristine white robe with a shawl the colour of fire and a delicate white tiara in her pure white hair. Her skin was perfect, unblemished and unearthly pale save for the old, healed burn marks around her lips. When her mouth opened, and that voice came out, gentle coils of black smoke drifted out of it.

‘We are among you. There is no hope. No rescue is coming. You should have given what I asked and now I have to take it.’

It had been too much, no village can do without a quarter of its men. The rest would have starved, harvests failed, thought Telfur, but he had not the bravery to open his mouth and say it.

He heard a noise behind him.

The screaming and the panic started instantly as the Eyeless Men burst from the cloud and fell upon them. They fought with great wooden clubs and left their swords in their scabbards and their shields on their backs. Blood arced over the crowd and the meaty sounds of violence added to the cacophony of panic. Telfur drew in a breath to shout for order but it died in his throat as he realised how hopeless it all was. The village of Helmara was well and truly burning and his neighbours were dying around him. He saw Old Haas try to fight back, shoving a pike straight in to the gut of his enemy but a second simply stepped in and smashed him over the head. Haas dropped to the ground and a lump of his skull followed a moment later.

Telfur pushed his way through the panic, all thought flushed from his mind save the desperate urge to reach Andra and get away from the eyeless men. It was hard to push towards her, the Prophetess, but he forced himself to shove his way through the struggling mass. It had only started seconds ago and all sense had fled and broken down, there was only flight now, but to where?

Telfur saw her through the thinning smoke, shoving her way away from the temple and off to the east and the nearest edge of the treeline. The temple was on fire and the screaming began inside it but Telfur knew he could do nothing. Better to live. Better to live and avenge them.

There she was again! Telfur ducked under a wild blow and continued running while the noise of the screaming grew around him. He shoved, pushed, squeezed through the crush until he found himself dangerously close to one of the bronze giants bellowing their hatred in to the boiling day. It was busy keeping the villagers penned in and beating them in to submission. Telfur ducked, started crawling through the blood and mud and desperately hoping that nobody fell on him. Ahead were a pair of bronze greaves, splattered with filth and planted firmly apart, but Telfur was slim.

It was a close thing but he managed to get out, and up, and began to run. All around him buildings burned and smoke billowed out but he knew where he was going and where the fences were built. He vaulted one, then another, then the tree line was in front of him and the shrieking was behind him and he could see Andra watching him from under the forest canopy. There was a clattering behind him, someone in armour was coming his way but if he made it to the forest he stood a chance, he and Andra together stood a chance.

Agony shot up his leg.

He looked down to see an arrow sticking through his thigh and stumbled on for a couple of steps before collapsing. He looked up at Andra, saw her lower her bow.

‘I’m sorry Telfur, I need you to slow them down.’

Confusion and a wash of exhaustion rushed through him. He said the only thing that he could think of to say.

‘I thou… but I love you…’

‘Really? Gods above, I don’t love you. I am sorry though.’

Telfur saw her hesitate for a moment, biting her lip, then she turned and ran in to the darkness under the trees. She didn’t even look back.

The All Conquering Void.

Picture credited to http://heartwanderings.blogspot.co.uk/2013/10/stepping-into-void.htmlThey cheered when the cathedral finally collapsed. It had been teetering on the edge of the void for a while, towers wobbling in the billowing gales until it fell with a distant roar and a gout of dust.
They ran from the city when the fires had started to spread. A void, a black hole in to absolute nothingness a hundred feet wide and paper thin, had opened somewhere and sliced through a gas line. Even as the shadows climbed out of it the fireball reached to the sky. The shadows, those indistinct things of pure darkness, had torn apart the fire crews as they screeched to a halt nearby. The world was ending. Everything was ending.
They stopped on a hillside a few miles south of where they started, stopping only to loot a few dozen crates of beer on their way. They knew it was the end now, the absolute end, they had known since they saw a vast chunk of the moon slice off and slowly tumble away.
It had been brewing for months, slowly growing worse. First a huge, pitch black hole opened into nothing and floated above a farmer’s field for days on end. Scientists and religious leaders scrambled to explain it, governments hinted that they knew more and said nothing. Then, one night with no warning, the shadows had crawled out. Each of them was exactly the same, the silhouette of a short, slim woman, and each of them was equally lethal. Nothing worked, nothing stopped them or even slowed them down and they swiftly butchered anything that got in their way. Then a second gap to the void opened half a world away. Then a third. Before long nowhere was safe.
While broadcasting continued the world learned that Delhi had vanished. That the Rio Grande flowed into the emptiness. That the Mars rover had sent back images of a void hovering over Olympus Mons. Shadows were rampaging across the red planet, there was nowhere left to run.
So Graham and Dave had fled, knowing it would only buy them a little time, and they had resolved to get drunk on a hillside and watch the city burn. Where their house had been was a massive black spot, an unnatural gap it hurt to look upon. Graham hurled another empty beer can on to the steadily growing pile.
‘Well… fuck’ Graham said, with a wan smile, ‘I suppose that’s Michelle and Brian gone as well.’
Dave nodded, thoughtfully, ‘yeah. Seems likely. I think Brian owed me a tenner.’
They were long past the point of terror. There didn’t seem to be any point in being afraid when death was certain. They didn’t even have the energy to be angry about it any more. They weren’t alone either, the riots had long since burned themselves out. Humanity had accepted its fate, at least they were going out with a bang.
Graham had been toying with something for a good while, trying to say it but having difficulty finding the words. Dave no longer cared whether he spat it out or not. ‘You know, man, I, er…. I slept with your brother. Feel like I should tell you.’
‘Huh,’ Dave stared out at the city, taking long, leisurely sips of his beer, ‘didn’t even know he was gay.’
‘Oh, he’s not. At least, I don’t think he is. It was just a, you know, a thing.’
‘Fair enough. Holy shit, is that the shopping mall going now?’
‘Ha! Yeah, yeah I think it is. Bollocks. Guess I’ll never get my free coffee.’
Graham stood up, stretching his legs and reaching in to his pocket. He pulled out a mass of loyalty cards and cash, house keys and receipts, and let the wind carry it away. ‘Another beer?’ he asked, reaching for one himself. ‘Sure, why not?’
They sat and watched the city for a while, letting the sounds of sirens and screams wash over them. Graham drained the dregs of his beer and reached for another, he realised then that there was someone else with them.
She looked strange. Unwell. She was short and slim, her hair was greasy and unkempt and she was wearing nothing but an old sheet she had clearly stolen from somewhere. Across her pale skin shimmered chaotic patterns of darkness, looking for all the world like the void was a part of her. She looked wistful and distracted but she was paying attention enough to motion for a beer. Graham handed her one without a word.
‘It’s my fault, you know.’
Dave jumped at the sound of her voice, he turned and looked at her. Graham hadn’t stopped. She was staring past them, gazing at the city and at the past.
‘I died. I was run over or something, I’m not sure what happened exactly I was just crossing the road and… nothing. I didn’t want to die.
I was there in the darkness and I could see a light shining in the distance. It was beautiful, it just lit up my soul. I was pulled towards it and I could hear the beating of wings and as I reached out I could feel something like… something like perfection. Like bliss.
But I… I didn’t want to die. I don’t want bliss, I wanted something better. Maybe that’s greedy. I turned my back and scrambled back the way I came. I dug and gnawed and crawled my way back and tore a… I tore a hole…I…’
She paused, took a huge gulp of beer, shaking her head.
‘I was the first one to do that. I must have been. That’s why it’s so desperate to find me. The nothingness, I mean. That’s why those things come out in my shape, it’s the only shape it remembers. The one that got away.’
Silence reigned. Interrupted only by the rushing rumble of distant fires. It was Graham who spoke first, laughing.
‘Well, shit. I wouldn’t want to die either.’
Dave nodded his head. He laid back, made himself comfortable, and closed his eyes with a smile.

Children of the Fallen.

PylonHis name is Daniel. He is our saviour, our father and our friend. He is very old and, now, very sick, but he still leads us while he draws breath.

A lifetime ago he told me about the time before the fall, when there were millions of people in every city and electronic lights made night indistinguishable from day. He told me about police and money, about cars and aeroplanes. He told me about decay, and decadence, and debauchery.

It must have been horrible, when the fall came. I try to imagine it sometimes, gutters running red with bloody vomit and mounds of corpses dragged outside the cities. Always death floated through the air, sneaking in through the nostrils and the mouth, smeared invisibly on door handles and bursting blood vessels under the eyes. It still lingers in some places, the Sleepless Death, but Daniel has kept us safe in his wisdom and might.

When I was very young my mother had been his consort, he said. She was one of many, accepted in to his service and kept on his farm. He had children too, dozens and more, brought up to know the light of his divinity.

I only remember her in fractions of memory. Instants, really, and I cannot know how close to reality they are. I remember her laughing, one day, and Daniel laughing with her. He has not laughed in a very long time. I remember her angry with me because I was hungry before bed and she could not stomach my whining any longer, I remember Daniel calming her. When I look at him now I see a different man, I see the loss of his consorts etched in the lines of his face, the weight of grief and the scars of revelation.

She was only the first of Daniel’s wives. After her passing came Angela and Sarah, then Ellie and Christine, each one gifted herself in return for the safety of her children. I can remember when the fields rang out with the sound of children at play, dozens of us, then near a hundred as the orphans flooded in, even as Daniel grew more solemn. I know now, I know that he was growing closer to God.

His first revelation was the hardest. It was born in blood and fire. He had agreed to take in some stragglers, fallen men before he really knew how far the world had fallen. They were kind enough for a little while. The ramparts around the farm still bear the tool marks of our betrayers as they were nursed back to health. It wasn’t for months that they acted, trying to steal his wives. Beautiful Angela, stoic Ellie and Sarah all killed for spite and jealousy. They are saints now.

We fought back, a horde of fresh faced children against the ragged fallen ones. Four of them died quickly, two of them were left. Daniel slept and nursed his wounds and his grief and screamed fevered visions into the night. When he emerged on the ninth day he had… changed. His skin had grown waxy and pale, his sweat glistened in the morning air and his left arm and leg moved with a pained stiffness. The socket of his left eye seeped a grey fluid while his right blazed with understanding. He gathered us together and began to speak and we were breathless with fascination. His hair was white now, streaked with the lustrous red it had been. He told us about the voice that talked in his long sleep, about the joyful news that he had spoken with glorious angels. Michael had come to him with his murdered wives, he said, and told him of his mission; a gospel of hope and protection against the ravages of the fallen world. He was here to build the kingdom of heaven on earth, and we were to be his army. All the while his eye socket twitched, his crippled half strained to move. He was half man, half martyr.

All of us listened in awe, but all of us were sceptical. How could we not be? He had been placed in shock and unfathomable pain. The two prisoners were the objects of our vengeance, castrated and nailed to the palisade as a warning to the rest of the fallen.

The years went by and every week we would gather for fresh sermons in the barn. At first we went along because it was enjoyable, a break from the labour of reinforcement and farming, but as time went by we went to hear the words. He gave us hope, meaning and purpose, he gave us a path to walk in to the future.

He would retreat sometimes, into the house with the women and girls he took for his wives. Sometimes he would see things in his sleep and preach to us from his dreams. Sometimes he would declare new laws and codes. Once or twice he emerged from his den and declare that a pair of his children should marry. All the while new people came, they would suffer the fate of all fallen, save for any children young enough to remain uncorrupted by the outside world.

I remember the day, years ago, that he decreed we were to expand our land. Some of the fallen live under a crumbling pylon on good earth with good cattle far too close for comfort. We went out during the day, all of us armed to the teeth. I carried my pitchfork and led ten eager lads against the abominations but Daniel? Daniel led us all.

Even then he was frail, walking on good days but stumbling and slow so we had built him a platform on which to sit. He slumped in the winged throne above us, lolling and wobbling with every step, gazing across the corn fields with eye and socket and raising emaciated arms to direct us. I can still hear the drums beating when I sleep, still see the sun blazing behind his perfect white hair. The sores on his pallid skin weeping for our sins.

He sits in his throne now, very still. Around him petitioners and guards are gathering. He is very still, very quiet. He has been thinking for some hours now, gazing into the realm of God with his seeping socket, caressing the faces of the saints with his withered hand, walking the sunlit fields of the Lord with his crippled leg. Someday he will join them and we will carry on his work, we will make the world his kingdom. Not today though, today we will bask in the glory of our God.

Marathon.

It still exists.  Because sometimes the world is a far more awesome place than it deserves to be.
The helmet of Miltiades.

I close my eyes and I can still see the empty plain I used to play on as a boy. It used to go on forever, surrounded on all sides by the intemperate sea. I used to race across it with my friends, playing all sorts of games in the eternal summer. I did little of value, my life was simple then.

When I was four years old the revolution broke out. I remember the noise of the mob shouting at the temple gates and throwing stones at the last of the tyrants. I remember Gaius, my father’s Latin slave, taking me home. I think my last name was different then, we tend not to talk about the time before the Demos Kratia.

I raced Cleisthenes along the whole length of the plain once, shouting and whooping in wild abandon as Gaius tried to keep up. It was a hot day and the sea was calm, the statues on the Acropolis gleamed in the light. I reached the shore with miles of space between me and the others, looked into the waves and saw the face of Poseidon looking back. Just for a moment. I like to think he smiled. There was a little shrine of his there in those days, long since reclaimed by the sea.

I hear constant clattering and shouting, someone pushes me back in to line. I do not want to open my eyes. Not yet.

Cleisthenes caught up with me after a while. We stood in peace, looking at the infinite ocean in front of us, drinking in the sight. We spent the afternoon playing and lying on the beach, eating the olives Gaius brought with him. A ship sailed past, a huge gold figurehead on its prow. We had no words to describe our joy at witnessing such a marvel. To this day I still wonder who was on board, who was given such extravagance, it must have been the king of some barbarian land.

We reached home a few hours after that, running back all the way. I could not wait to tell my father of the ship and its beauty, to describe for him the painted sails and the massive size of it. He listened with a smile and told me he could understand my joy but that I should not revel in such things. He told me honour lay in simplicity, that easy living weakens a man. He told me about the food Heracles ate, the vile stew the Spartiates still wolf down to this day. I can hear orders shouted. I miss my father.

I cannot put it off any longer, I must open my eyes.

There are ten thousand of us in tight formation facing across the plain I played on when I was young. My armour is hot, the helmet has never fit me properly, and my spear is heavy in my hand. Not as heavy as my shield, of course, hefted in front of me to form an unbroken wall with my comrades. I am in the front line. The helmet presses awkwardly against my nose, I concentrate on it to drown out my terror.

Across the plain rise pillars of white smoke. It is dawn and the enemy have seen our manoeuvres, they have doused their watch fires and began to arm themselves. There is a flurry of activity in front of me.

I wonder; are they feeling this same terror? Did they hear their masters tell them, in their Persian tongue, to arm themselves and begin to quake? They are an army of the king of the east. They outnumber us, though by how much I cannot tell. I fancy I can see their ships pulled up in the shore. They are here to kill us or enslave us.

Last week I was on my farm, supervising my slaves feeding the goats and tending the olive groves. My land is poor but it is well worked, it is enough for me to afford to maintain my armour and my household. I want to be back there, I want to be lying in my bed with my wife and drinking my wine while the goats bleet about outside and the slaves gossip when they think I cannot hear them. I want to hear the familiar sounds, the sounds of home, not orders bellowed and repeated. Zeus, grant me courage.

Someone shouts and the army begins to move. I feel my battle cloak waving behind me and taste the dust thrown up by a thousand marching feet. It is a strange sensation, marching in a phalanx, you are part of a construct, a brick in a moving wall. It is noisy with clanking bronze as plates clatter off each other, the shriek of iron spear resting in the kink where shields overlap is constant. We are marching towards an unbeatable foe.

Some card begins to shout ‘always be the bravest, always be the best.’ It is the motto of the Myrmidons, the companions of mighty Achilles. We are Athenians, our patron goddess is wise and powerful but she is not the only one we have sacrificed for. We prayed to dreaded Aries to spare us from the horrors of war, but the enemy still came. We prayed to Poseidon to smash their ships to flinders, but the enemy still came. We sought the council of the oracle and payed tribute to hear the words of Apollo, but they were vague and complex and the enemy still came. Finally, in our desperation, we prayed to Zeus and Athena and Pan and Heracles and any god that might listen to spare us from the fate of so many other cities the barbarians have razed. The sounds of dying cattle mingled with the chants of the priestesses and the sizzling of burning incense, we had a hearty meal that night, but the enemy still came.

The line is wavering on the uneven ground. A phalanx must be rigid all the way along or the whole thing can collapse. This is bad, this is brewing catastrophe. They have wrecked cities already, cleared whole islands of innocent Greeks and looted our temples. They are an empire that stretches to the very end of the world and we are only a city. They are going to destroy us all.

The line is not a line any more. We are two thousand five hundred men across and four deep, thin for a phalanx, and the morning sun is heating up our armour. I can see three of the strategos, the generals from here; there marches Miltiades, stern and decisive, shouting at the men to get back in line. There marches Themistocles, cunning and resourceful, singing a hymn to Poseidon. There marches Callimachus, elected war archon, Polemarch, supreme commander, the very best of all of us. I wonder if the Persians see their generals too? If Datis and Artaphernes are busy shouting them into order while we advance?

I have seen a phalanx advance upon me once before, long ago. It was a squalid squabble over a scrap of land and I was full of thoughts of glory and adventure. War was pleasant to me then, I had not yet experienced it. When a phalanx comes you cannot see spears, levelled as they are to face you. You cannot see men, nor helmets nor marching sandals; all you see is a line of shields painted with the leering face of a hideous gorgon. Then the phalanxes crash together and the shoving begins, swearing and thrusting iron points, your hand begins to hurt from the repeated impact of spear tip on shield. Judder. Crash. Judder again. Scream oaths and curses. One side or another will run, whoever does not will pursue and cut them down. It is a terrible thing, to be slaughtered in panic.

The men who had fallen behind are now running to catch up, the line is reforming but it is slow. A sling stone rolls to a halt in front of me, we will be in range of them soon. To my left is a Plataean I do not know. I had forgotten that Plataea sent men to help us. They are a small city with little to their name but they have sent aid and are willing to shed their own blood to help us in this impossible fight. There are a few hundred of them here, far from their home. They have earned our eternal friendship.

I voted for Callimachus as war archon and I cannot remember why and there is not time to think now; we are nearing the enemy. stones are clattering off metal. It is a sound like no other. We are being shot at.

A fine spray of blood comes from the man to my right. He has been hit in the face by a sling stone. He is alive, and he will still fight, but he has lost most of his teeth. He is a fearsome sight now, sweat mingles with blood.

Another stone bounces off my shield and I realise something extraordinary; we are speeding up. A phalanx does not run, yet we are running. I hear Miltiades shouting the order to slow down but his voice is quickly lost in the din of clattering armour. Themistocles is running in grim silence, hefting his spear. Callimachus is shouting a battle cry, though I cannot make out the words.

I can see the Persians in the distance and my helmet hurts my nose because it does not fit and my shield is heavy and my cloak sits uncomfortably over my armour and my spear weighs too much and keeps me off balance and I cannot stop running. Their ships are pulled up on the shore and I miss my father and Themistocles is smiling and there was once a shrine to Poseidon near here and I can see the Persians getting closer. The air is full of dust and stones and the watch fires of the Persians are sending up white smoke and ten thousand men are running in full armour into the embrace of certain death.

In a moment of peace, before Aries is unleashed, I feel the sun on my face.

I can hear them now, babbling in their barbarian tongue and standing on our land. I hate them. I have to hate them. If I do not hate them then I will see that they are just men and I will not be able to kill them. I must hate them completely to survive this, so I do.

Callimachus began a battle chant and the nearest men took it up but now, distant from him, it is simply a bloodthirsty scream. We are issuing a war cry like savages from the west. It is full of terror and rage. The men who had fallen behind have caught up, the men at the front have formed up and the miracle happens.

I am a step away from the Persian line. I have run for a mile in my armour. Stretching away, as far as I can see in both directions, is a perfect wall of shields. Somehow, by some divine quirk, we have formed a perfect phalanx at the moment of decision. My mind pauses. My spear is comfortable in my hand. For now I am Achilles.

We hit them like an avalanche. A sea of bronze and fury. I do not recall even slowing down as I hit their lines. They fall before me, before all of us, like long grass before the sickle. This phalanx is a perfect machine, a corpse factory. Unstoppable.

The Persians wear tunics and trousers. Their soldiers carry long knives, slings and bows. They have no cavalry. They have nothing. Their bodies are small and malnourished. Our bodies are taut and well maintained. We fight for our vote. They fight for their king.

I stab. I stab. I stab. Men scream. Blood flows. My spear arm tires from constant murder. My cloak becomes tangled in the gear of a Persian corpse behind me so I cut it from my shoulders. A lucky knife swing dents my helmet. I am still bellowing, still advancing, still killing.

And suddenly the enemy is not ahead of me any more. They are brave to have held out for as long as they did. Ten thousand Greeks are whooping with joy and running forward to cut down the retreating Persians. They are fleeing to their boats and I am drenched in blood.

Then we are at the boats and capturing four of them. Callimachus is clambering up the side of a ship when one of the Persians hacks off his hand in one fell swoop and he falls down dead trailing his blood behind him in the morning air. Behind me the ground is made of men. It twitches and writhes. It is Hades, it is awful to look upon. Phillipedes is picking his way through the corpses to take word of the battle back to the city, his promise of help from Pan came true.

Miltiades is shouting again but nobody is listening. Already some have stripped off their armour and are wading in to the sea to mock the retreating ships. They do not see what Miltiades sees. They do not see what I see.

The Persian ships are sailing to the city and all of its defenders are leagues away.

The message gets through. It takes too much precious time but everyone is gathered together and readied for the return to the city. Athens is twenty six miles away and we have our war gear on and we have fought a battle and won against impossible odds and the day is hot and the enemy have ships. We are going to race them to our homes.

We begin. There are ten thousand of us. We are running over the corpses of our victims. We are running over the few of our comrades who fell today. We are running against hope, against the fast ships of the Persian fleet. My feet hurt and there is blood crusting on my eyelid. My helmet is dented but it is easier to wear it than to carry it while I run. I am near Themistocles and he is still chanting his prayer to Poseidon. He is as touched as they all say.

I utter a prayer to Hermes, we have to run so far. There are ten thousand of us running, the earth shakes at our footfall. My spear tip is notched, I must replace it. My wife and children are in the city. I am running. There are ten thousand of us.

Hours. Hours upon hours upon hours. We run over the bodies of the slain. Over discarded water bottles from the march towards the Persians. We run over spent sling stones shot out from their ragged line. We march over the uneven ground that slowly shook the phalanx apart. We are going backwards in time, to before the battle on the plain of Marathon. We are running to beat the ships of the Persians to our dock. If they reach the city and there are no defenders they could very well keep us out. If we reach the city before they do it will be impregnable. My thighs are burning with the effort.

I see the walls in the distance. They are gleaming with reflected sunlight.

I am tired and my feet hurt. My knee too, and when I look down I am surprised to see it bleeding. There is a long cut down my shin, I may never discover its source. It stings, badly.

We are ahead of the ships! We cannot stop, we cannot slow down, and we are so very exhausted. The ships had to sail around the peninsula and we could take the direct route but, even so, this is going to be close. This is going to be very close. Did we really just beat a Persian army? My vision wavers. It is so hot. We have run so far.

I can see the walls now. They tower over me. The Acropolis rises off in the distance. This is our land. This is where our Gods live.

I am through the city gate and the sound of ten thousand soldiers grows louder still now it can echo off the walls. I am more sweat than man now, the padding of my armour sticks to me uncomfortably. I consider heading home briefly to hide my valuables in case the Persians do break in somehow. I shake that thought off, I was not the only one to consider it. I can barely stand. I have run twenty six miles in my armour.

I am by the harbour and so are all my comrades. The Persian ships are changing course. They are going to head for home. We are jeering and cheering. I am thinking about the men I killed. Three, at least, I am certain. It is just now lunch time and we have done the impossible. We will be remembered forever for this. We butchered thousands, we have lost so few.

The city is safe. We have won and the city is safe. We are going to live. Forever.

It is hard to estimate the significance of the Battle of Marathon.  It is barely mentioned in contemporary Persian records and the expedition of the Persian army was a success.  But, and it’s an important but, the Greeks had begun to get the impression that the Persians were utterly unbeatable.  Marathon itself was a crushing, overwhelming and total victory for Athens (and Plataea), estimates of the Persian body count vary between 4,000 and 64,000 but perhaps only 192 Athenians perished (including Callimachus, their elected General). There were at least 25,000 Persians to the 10,000 Athenians, though their equipment was rudimentary at best. All of the Greek dead are depicted on the Parthenon, effectively built as a war memorial for the conflict. Ancient warfare didn’t work like that, it just didn’t, more Athenians and Plataeans should have perished, that fact that they did not is ridiculous and extraordinary.

The Mystic’s End.

Dear George,

I really must protest and urge you, in the strongest possible terms, to reconsider this farcical expedition. Can you imagine the scandal if this gets out? Aside from the unseemly spectacle of a respected academic secluding himself with a pair of young women the nature of your research is unchristian and ridiculous. If you won’t cease this preposterous line of enquiry for your own sake would you at least consider the harm you could do to the university? Your little diversion could taint the research of everyone working within these walls.

You are my friend and I am immensely fond of you, I beg you not to throw your reputation away in pursuit of some absurd spiritualist fantasy. They’re all charlatans, George, you must know this in your heart of hearts.

Sincerely,

John.

Dear John,

I am disappointed in you, dear boy! For all your bluster you can be something of an old woman sometimes. You can be assured that I have taken every precaution to “cover my tracks” so to speak, telling nobody but you and Mister Sabilline (who was generous enough to give both the necessary funds and his full backing for this expedition). Besides, the girls’ father is here and I have engaged a room in a hostelry in the village rather than staying in the house with the others. I have told Miss Raycroft, my cleaner, that I am on holiday and she is kindly forwarding my mail to the nearest post office. You are too late, I’m afraid, we arrived yesterday evening.

You should see this place, John, it is a rare and rugged thing of beauty. Ashgrove house is enormous and overgrown, a Georgian pile set against one of the most dramatic landscapes I have ever seen. Huge and jagged rocks thrust towards the sky, the hills seem to roll like the sea and wild horses gallop hither and thither in the distance. I would holiday here, given the chance, and it saddens me that I have no time to walk amongst the bracken. The house itself sits atop an old hill fort, it rises out of the landscape like a beacon of the old order, like it wears its bloody history with pride.

I think I can do some good here John, honestly. Mister Sabilline believes these girls to be the real thing; true Mediums. They are slight and fey to look upon, almost as if they are half way in to the spirit world already. Tomorrow I shall explore inside the manor. Imagine it, John, contact with the other side, imagine death itself become a mere inconvenience!

Sincerely,

George.

Dear George,

I see. Well if it is too late to dissuade you I may as well help you, if only so I can keep this folly a secret from the wider world. You do know that Mister Sabilline is becoming a bit of a laughing stock? No matter; I expect a full account of your time up there, I will need to stop you getting carried away with this nonsense.

So then I suppose you had better give me some details. I am unfamiliar with Ashgrove house and your hint at a bloody history has somewhat piqued my macabre interest. These girls, also, what makes them such an exception to the usual parade of fantasists and thieves who claim to converse with the dead?

I do not believe your research will bear fruit and, to be perfectly honest, I hope that I am right. Death should be the end George, a world without death would be a terrible place.

Sincerely,

John.

Dear John,

I have had an astonishing day and I simply must tell all, though I shall try to answer your questions while I marshal my thoughts.

The house itself was the property of the Duchy of Norfolk until the last Duke was arrested in all that unpleasantness twenty years ago. There has been a hill fort, a castle and a mansion here since time immemorial and many of its masters, the ones we know of at any rate, were sadistic in the extreme. I am loath to repeat some of the more salacious and unseemly tales about this location but I shall say that it has served the purpose of a prison and place of particularly violent execution for the majority of its recorded history. If there is a place where spirits are likely to linger it is here.

The girls are a sweet pair. They are called Ruth and Lillian Foster and they are twins, both fifteen years of age. Ruth is by far the more talkative, Lillian being somewhat conscious of her pronounced lisp, but other than that these small differences they are very much identical. They are very slim with strawberry blond hair and dimples on their cheeks. They are pretty, I suppose, but they are somehow ethereal creatures, always distracted and distant.

Erwin Foster, their father, is an amiable and rotund chap with something of a liberal bent. He is stocky and short, hails from a mining family, and his hair is flame red. He is a deeply religious man but not overbearingly so, you would appreciate the selection of brandy he remembered to bring.

Their facility with their craft has been well documented in many periodicals, they caused quite a stir last spring when they demonstrated their abilities in the City. They find their trance works best when sat comfortably at a table, facing each other and holding hands, and they coax the spirits to answer their questions through gentle scraping and knocking sounds. I know, it sounds ridiculous and easy to debunk, but they are able to discover some of the most well kept secrets and personal details in this way. When I first met them they revealed such startlingly personal and well hidden information about myself that I was convinced immediately. Even Mister Sabilline is awed by their presence, I shudder to think what they must have heard about him.

Already our labours bear fruit, we made contact last night in the ballroom and I felt the temperature noticeably drop. The tapping at the walls grew louder until the building shook with the efforts of the dead. John, we are making history, if only you could see it!

Sincerely,

George.

Dear George,

You must understand that this whole thing seems squalid and unseemly to me. I do not for a moment doubt your sincerity, or your honest belief in your research, but I do think the best case here is that you are being taken for a fool. These twins and their father are conning you, I have no doubt, and I only wish you could see it.

Imagine that they aren’t, for a moment, imagine that all they do is sincere, is their lust for fame really the most useful thing they could be doing with this power? I have been reading about their activities prior to meeting with you and they have received a quite staggering sum of money for their services so far. Does it not strike you as odd, even cruel, that they would charge such a high price for people to speak with their loved ones?

Keep me up to date with your research, I feel the need to be your anchor to reality.

Sincerely,

John.

Dear John,

Today has beggared reason and turned the world upon its head. Contact was made once more but the usual gentility of the scrapes and bumps that the spirits elicit was replaced by an audible low moan and a distant grinding noise that set my teeth on edge and sent Mister Foster into fits of convulsions. The dead do not rest easily here, John, indeed they roil about in the shadows like a rough sea of melancholia.

The girls set to taking care of their father and I left them to it for a while, trying to follow the retreating noises, I am not a complete fool, John. I saw nobody and nothing but shrinking shadows as I ran through the dusty halls, clattering cutlery from the kitchen and what felt like minor earthquakes making me stumble.

Eventually I found myself in the kitchens, long emptied of any useful cookery equipment, and I could still hear quiet noises coming from somewhere nearby. It took me a minute of searching through the dusty detritus until I finally discovered an old pair of doors in the floor leading down, presumably, into a wine cellar. I took my lantern and began to descend the steps, noting that the walls there were of stone and appeared considerably older and less well maintained than the rest of the house. The ceiling was low, I had to duck to make my way down into the dark, and I could hear what sounded like ecstatic chanting ahead of me.

As you may imagine; by this point I was terrified. I was extremely conscious of my isolation and the difficulty of even finding my way back to the others once my business was done, I was also mindful that the machinations of the spirit world may have been at play ahead of me. There was no comfort to be had in discovery and little comfort to be had in the weedy light my lantern was emitting. Stumbling down in between the wine racks, clearly a much later addition to the under-croft in which I found myself, I began to take a few tentative steps towards what I believed to be the source of that dreadful noise.

What I saw there defies description. A black shape, a twisted man, arms stretching and billowing in the dark, piercing, lightning-blue eyes and an aura of malice like the end of days. I have no idea what it was, and it had vanished by the time I returned from my flight with the others, but I am certain, at least in my mind, that we are not alone here. It was not a ghost, John, it was not some lingering man from days long past. There is something old here, something that never died. Something that was never born.

I do not feel safe but the urge for discovery outweighs my fear, we are going to hold the next séance there, in the wine cellar.

Sincerely,

George.

Dear George,

Stop! For Gods’ sake man, are you simple? This is the stuff of children’s stories, the stuff of penny dreadfuls, would you seek spring heeled Jack if you heard rumours of his schedule? Would you go willingly into the arms of the covens and cults which seem to spring up in their hundreds with each new day? This way lies madness and wilful belief in falsehood, you cannot have abandoned your reason so completely. Please, stop this before you lose yourself to esoteric mysticism, it shall be the ruin of us all.

Sincerely,

John.

Dear John,

Too late. Too late. I have seen spiritus mundi split and the heavens disgorge their fetid bounty. The wail of falling souls trapped in a static abyss. There is no safety for the widow’s son, no divinity in the sigils of Kronos. I will feast on false enlightenment and taste the ashen air of a fallen world. All drifts towards its end. The light tumbles from on high, the dark rises towards a starless and eternal night. I see an Earth scoured, pitted and scarred, no dwelling places, no structure, a grey graveyard wrought across all land. This must be what Buddha feels like, certainty of truth. Dreadful certainty. It is beautiful.

Sincerely,

George.

Dear George,

I am coming to you now, I should be with you some short while after you receive this message. I advise you to pack a bag, I have contacted the local constabulary and they should be with you by now. I hope you get this.

Sincerely,

John.

Dear John,

I think I died yesterday. I am leaving you this letter, I have no time to post it but I believe you will come here soon. You will be filled with concern for me. Bless you for that.

I am sat here now, in the cellar, with the others. Ruth and Lillian no longer speak. Ruth’s hand is affixed to Lillian’s and they creak when they move. I take instructions from Erwin.

He is no longer Erwin. He waves his arms about and they bend at unnatural angles. He laughs at my pain and forces me to write letters of introduction for his daughters, he plans to take them around the world, to seed his evil everywhere. It is my fault, I should never have insisted they open their minds to any influence which may be present. I should never have told them that they would be safe without their usual safeguards. There was no ghost here, I have loosed something far worse on the world.

I don’t have long to write, my arms are heavy and soon I shall be shut in a suitcase and dragged about by these two girls until I am needed again. These little marionettes of the creature inside Erwin. I see a flickering light dancing in the distance sometimes, my spirit guide come to take me to a place of judgement, perhaps, but it is afraid to come closer to the thing I have loosed. It is a horrible feeling, John, to have no heartbeat. My pulse is gone, I am stiff with rigor mortis and I can feel my blood crusting in my veins. There are bruises forming where my blood has settled. Even my eyes are shrivelling as I desiccate in this dry hell. God help me. God help me.

Help me,

George.

The Devil Came to Béziers.

Cathars_expelledThe first thing that struck Teivel Rothenberg about Esclarmonde’s chamber was its emptiness. There was a jug of water on the floor next to bundle of rags that clearly served as a bed, an arrow slit in the wall let the sunlight in and nothing else was there save for two chairs and a desk clearly brought in solely for their meeting.

Teivel was well travelled. He had spent most of his life in Prague but over the years the place had seemed to become darker and less welcoming of its Jews. The new Christian bishop had started to preach veiled threats in the marketplace, dark warnings about the dangers of usury and followers of false Gods, and the people had eaten it up. Jews were not allowed to work in almost any profession, as it had always been, but Christians were barred from charging interest on loans so there was one area of work left open to them. Violent gangs had begun to roam the streets at night, often led by scowling men in debt to the money lenders. Teivel had left before it got worse.

He had travelled North first, into the Holy Roman Empire, only to find that nowhere in any of the German states was safe. He had thought about going further North into cold lands infested with pagans, and had even begun to make arrangements for the trip before hearing about a place where his people were treated with respect and the climate was more forgiving. So he had come to Toulouse, in Languedoc, and found peace.

Here was a Christian land, true, a place where many of the people were still wary of the Jews, but here they did not spit on him in the street. They did not refuse him access to the taverns and the nobles did not bar him from owning land. More than once now he had found himself in discussion with Christian priests, chatting late into the night about the nature of God, forging an amiable truce between faiths.

And then there were the Perfect.

They were a common sight in Languedoc, though Teivel could not remember ever hearing of them anywhere else. When he had first seen them he had stopped and stared, uncomprehending, at men and women dressed like beggars treated with such reverence by the common people. The first time he saw the melioramentum, the deep bow and complex prayer offered to those he took to be vagrants, he had no idea what to make of it and had to stifle a laugh of disbelief. Beyond the respectful deference these holy men and women were shown he knew nothing of their creed, when he asked churchmen they simply shifted uncomfortably in their seats, muttered the word ‘Cathar’ and changed the subject. When he asked laymen they blankly stared and told him they were ‘good Christians’ then went about their business. He had heard one preach, once, about the evil of the material world and the beauty of heaven, about the dwindling spark of divinity within every living human. He had listened with interest until the Perfect had turned his ire on the church, calling it ‘the mother of fornication and abomination.’ Even the local bishop had nodded his head while the believers cheered.

Now he was meeting with one of them for the first time. They were treated with such reverence and carried themselves with such pride that Teivel could not help but feel intimidated. This one was nobility to boot, she was Esclarmonde of Foix, sister to the Count.

‘Feel free to take a seat.’

Her voice echoed around the room, a harsh twang of Occitan accenting her French. Teivel sat down, facing a woman in simple, filthy robes with unkempt hair and a jagged scar across her right eye.

‘My lady, it is a joy and an honour to be in your presence, how can I serve?’

He barely had time to finish speaking before she began, she was clearly in discomfort.

‘I am pressed for time and the situation is dire. I need to borrow a substantial sum of money and I will be happy to repay it with any interest you deem to be fair.’

‘…I see. You do know, my lady, that I am not a money lender? I am a merchant and a farmer, did you mistake me for someone else, by any chance?’

Esclarmonde fixed Teivel with a withering glare, he no longer doubted her noble blood.

‘I am aware you are not a money lender, you are a man of good standing with the Jews of the city and will be able to organise lending on the scale I need amongst the Jewry of Toulouse. A substantial amount of money is desperately needed.’

‘I, hmm, I may be able to help sort something out, can I ask what you need the money for? It may make it easier to organise.’

‘I need to hire mercenaries for my brother.’

There was silence now, in the empty chamber. Teivel knew this to be dangerous ground. At the best of times the Jews of Europe were a step away from the fires of the fanatics, if they were found to have leant money to the army of a defeated noble the victors may not be very forgiving. Even if the clients won whatever war they were fighting it was possible they would decide to launch some violent pogrom just to avoid paying them back. Teivel found his voice again.

‘Who would these mercenaries be fighting?’

‘Crusaders.’

No. There was no way this could be done safely, it would be insane even to entertain the notion. He had heard rumours of a crusade coming towards Languedoc but he had been told they were going to go straight through to fight the Moors of Iberia, why on earth would the Roger family want to fight them? It was clear that his body language had given away his fear to Esclarmonde.

‘You can’t… you can’t say no. You can’t. They’re going to kill everyone.’

‘They will only kill Moors, surely? Fighting men pass through here all the time to battle in Iberia, why on earth would you want to fight them?’

‘They’re not coming to kill the Moors, they’re coming to kill US. Haven’t you heard? This isn’t some renewed push in the south, this is a crusade against Languedoc.’

‘But…’

‘They are coming here to kill us all. The Pope has declared that we are all heretics, that the Perfect are to be burned to death and the Jews of Languedoc are to be expelled. He has sent a man, a terrible man, to do all this by force.’

‘Are you sure?’

Esclarmonde of Foix sat back and took a deep breath. She had been clawing at the table as she spoke, growing agitated and fearful. Teivel had never seen a noble so tense, he had no idea what to do. She stood and walked towards the window, bare feet padding along the dusty floor, speaking calmly, quietly. Teivel strained to hear.

‘I was in Béziers three days ago. I had gone to receive the consolamentum and become Perfect. I arrived hours before the army came over the horizon and I was trapped in the city as it was besieged.

I saw all the people come out, as one, into the streets and on to the walls to look out at the army in front of them. It was big, I can’t say how big, but it was the largest mass of humanity I have ever seen and a red lion banner flapped in the wind above them. There were legions of monks chanting alongside armoured knights and men at arms, each had a cross sewn on to his tunic. It was a crusade, a full crusade, ready to take the city.

I was there for a day before I heard the scuffle at the gates and ran to find a place to hide. The noise was deafening, like a thousand thunderstorms as horses and men rampaged into the city. I thought they were going to put it to sack, or to raise their lion banner over the keep.

And I was wrong.’

She paused, the sunlight wavering over her scar as she stared out of the arrow slit over the bustling city.

‘They slaughtered everyone. It didn’t seem to matter who they were. I saw knights covered in blood wading through seas of dead and dying. I saw Simon de Montfort himself laughing as he castrated a Jewish man outside his home. They weren’t interested in accepting surrender, they put the whole city to the sword. The streets… they ran red with blood. Literally. I heard children crying over men chanting “Deus Vult” and saw a bishop rejoicing at the spectacle of murder. I hid under a pile of corpses, felt a blade slashed across my face to spite my corpse. I saw the joy of de Montfort as he urged his men on to greater butchery. They have exterminated the city, Béziers is gone now. Twenty thousand people lived there, every last one of them is dead.’

Teivel found himself afraid, searching for hope.

‘Surely you could sue for peace? Not even the Pope is going to let that sort of thing continue.’

Esclarmonde looked him in the eye, simmering with fury and hatred.

‘The Pope? He is a vile, false, idolatrous pig. A pig. He wants us all gone because he cannot stand the Perfect. You didn’t see Béziers, you didn’t see what I saw. The Pope unleashed that… man against us. That thing. Simon de Montfort is a butcher who laughs at mutilated men. He was sent by the Pope to kill us all. He grinned when he saw the blood running through the streets. He started to sing when he saw his men slaughtering children. He cursed the men who refused to join in his madness. The Pope will not stop them.’

‘But…’

‘No, not “but,” not “but” anything. I don’t think you understand what I’m saying, we cannot fight this tool of the Pope, he has the resources of all Europe on his side. Simon de Montfort is not some drunken lord who revels in violence, Simon de Montfort is the Antichrist and he is coming to kill us all and keep us trapped on the Earth forever.’

There was silence in the chamber again. Teivel could not risk lending her money, he would certainly be put to the torch by maddened Christians bent on revenge. That might happen anyway if the crusade came.

‘I can’t.’

Esclarmonde’s shoulders sunk. She sat heavily on the stone floor, her head in her hands.

‘I know.’

And she did know. They were all going to die. They were all going to die by the hand of the Antichrist.

There were very few options for Jewish people in twelfth and thirteenth century Europe, they were barred from positions of power and almost any form of employment.  A great deal of them became money lenders from necessity, given a choice between that and starvation.  This trend gave rise to some of the most vile antisemitism alive in the world now, let alone then.  Unfortunately it has also made me somewhat uncomfortable about portraying a Jewish money lender, I did not intend to cause any offence and, hopefully, I haven’t.  The word ‘Cathar’ was never used by the Cathars themselves, they always maintained that they were simply ‘good Christians,’ with the underlying implication, of course, that everybody else wasn’t.  A belief in earthly reincarnation, asceticism, a disregard for the base trappings of the Catholic church and a stubborn refusal to return to the fold was enough for them to be labelled as the most insidious and dangerous of heretics.  I have some sympathy with them, from what we know of the Cathars they were a fairly tolerant and egalitarian lot as far as the denizens of medieval Europe go.  They were also the victims of a successful attempt at genocide, all of them were burned by the inquisition or put to the sword by crusaders.  The last Perfect of Languedoc died in 1321.

Elephants across the Alps.

The wind began to pick up again, howling through the mountains and along the narrow pass, driving yet more snow before it. It was loud, almost enough to drown out the deafening sound of the war elephants’ discomfort. The leading beast reared up, bellowing such a trumpet as no man present had heard outside of battle, and all of them began to panic while their handlers tried to calm them down. With a mournful cry one of them lost its footing and tumbled down the mountainside, disappearing into the billowing snow.

“He is mad.”

Salicar tore his gaze from the ravine. It was a dangerous thing to say out loud, though many of the men had been thinking it. They had been winding their way through the Alps for days now and nobody really knew how much further there was to go, nor how many men they had already lost. It was Admago who had spoken, Salicar knew he had to shut this down before grumbling turned into mutiny.

“Who’s mad, Admago?”

He didn’t look up from the snow at his feet, from Salicar’s angle he looked like a mass of furs with a shield slung over it. Almost literally sheepish. He began to breath a sigh of relief, his breath misting in front of him, but then Admago looked up, looked him right in the eye. He’d had enough.

“You bloody well know who, sir. He’s thrown in with Mot and now he’s leading us all to our deaths while Baal hurls fresh suffering down from the sky. We’re all going to die here, sir, and even if we make it there won’t be enough of us left to fight the bastard Romans.”

This was bad, there were too many nodding heads around Admago. The men had been suffering this climb for a week and even reaching the base of the mountains had seen them fight off Gauls allied to Rome and insane mountain tribes. An avalanche had torn its way through a thousand good warriors. The cold was unbearable, the few allies they had found had sold them furs for the crossing but that was only doing so much good. Not to mention they had spent years, some of them almost a decade, conquering the entirety of Hispania. If Salicar never had to see another blood drenched, screaming Iberian charging at him again it would be too soon. It didn’t matter though, Rome had to be punished, they had all sworn an oath and they needed to be reminded.

“He’s not mad, they’ll never see us coming. All their best men are off fighting our boys elsewhere, can you imagine the booty? Not to mention we still owe the buggers a drubbing for last time, remember? Have you any idea how much tribute we have to give them every… oh, for the love of Tanit, won’t this wind ever BLOODY STOP?”

It had picked up again, that biting wind hammering at them all. The cold was bad enough but the wind, drying out eyes and mouths and carrying snow that caught up in beards and furs, was unbearable. The beasts trumpeted their displeasure into the sky. Admago started to shout back at him.

“He is mad! Barking mad! Crossing these mountains in winter’s impossible, we’ve been talking with the local lads and they all say the same thing, the only reason they’ve come along is because they want to see us make the effort! The cold’s going to kill us, or the ground’s going to give way, and we all saw Gisgo fall to his death yesterday and even if we make it we’re going to have to fight some more and I can’t even really work out why! What’s the point? We’ve conquered the whole of Hispania already, isn’t that… enough…”

Admago trailed off, distracted by something behind him, but Salicar didn’t notice. He was furious, these were warriors and they were whining like petulant children. He bared his teeth and put his hand on the hilt of his sword.

“Shut your mouth” he hissed, but Admago wasn’t looking at him any more. Salicar spun on his heel, his jaw dropped. The general himself was standing behind him.

“Do you remember when Hamilcar led you?”

The question had caught them all off guard, Admago opened his mouth a couple of times but said nothing, afraid of where it might lead. Salicar just stared.

“He was my father. But you knew that.”

A smile played across his face, predatory.

“He never lost against Rome. He fought but he never lost. And the old men of the senate back in Carthage just sent him on his way. They couldn’t pay him, you see, the Romans bankrupted the city with their demands for tribute after we lost the last war.”

The wind was dying down and the man had all stopped, the whole army, standing still on the freezing mountain side.

“He made me spill my blood on the altar of Baal Hammon when I was just a boy, made me swear on oath to never be a friend to Rome. He hated them. It wasn’t just because we had lost the war, or that he’d fought them and won but still come off worse, it was because he knew them for the jackals they are.”

He turned his back, fine furs wafting around him, looking across at the army he had inspired to attempt this madness.

“They are a hungry city. A greedy city. Carthage, for all its faults, just wants to trade. We need people who aren’t us. We need tribes and nations to keep the coin flowing. Rome, though, Rome wants the world to be Rome. They want to bleed them all white. For all our faults, for all the backsliding and corruption of our senate, we do not worship war. They have to be stopped.”

Admago couldn’t seem to find his tongue, the general turned back to face him and the gathering crowd.

“They have to be stopped. They have to be put down like the rabid, blood hungry dogs they are or they will burn Carthage to the ground. This is the only way in to Italy, in the south there are Greek cities who will help us, Sicily is still loyal to us. We will suffer and we will die in this crossing and we will repay them for our lost blood. We will tear down their city walls, we will crush their legions, we will loot their wealth and our names shall live forever. Look at us! Thousands of men and beasts making this crossing! They will never see us coming. They will never forget us.”

A quiet cheer began to rise along with the wind.

“Who do we fight for?”

The reply, hesitant but loud, echoed through the valley.

“Carthage!”

“Who do you fight for?”

The reply, clear and fierce, rose with the wind.

“Hannibal!”

His smile flashed again, like a predator, battered by the snow.

It took Hannibal’s men 16 days to cross the Alps in winter. The conditions were appalling, the men were mostly from Iberia and North Africa,they had a large number of elephants with them and they had been marching for almost five months before they started ascending the mountains. Thousands died in the crossing, most of the elephants didn’t make it, the less experienced and committed men were dismissed before they even began and the rest had to fight through Rome’s allies most of the way there. Hannibal was cruel, as were all the rulers of the time, his men carted off thousands into slavery, it is possible (though disputed) that the native religion of Carthage involved mass child sacrifice by burning… and despite all that there is something extraordinary about Hannibal’s march across the Alps and the courage of these long dead men.