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.

The Pyre of Croesus.

SardisCroesus looked at the pyre beneath his feet and twitched in fear. The bindings around his wrists were tight enough to have cut off the blood flow to his hands and the smoke was beginning to billow upwards. His eyes and throat were dry. He was tied to a stake driven deep into this huge pile of smashed market stalls and the wailing of the fourteen sons of Lydian nobility tied up with him was a stark reminder of his absolute, abject failure.

He tried to distract himself, it wasn’t easy but the flow of adrenaline was strong enough to focus his mind on the little details around him. The marketplace, the agora, had been laid to waste by Median forces some time this morning and rough, calloused hands had seized him at midday. It wasn’t fair. At least the day was growing cooler.

Cyrus, the King of Kings, the guardian of the fire of fires, scourge of the Persians, conqueror of Babylon, was sat on his horse watching with a dispassionate eye. One hundred bodyguards were arrayed around the square, a dozen black clad magi waited in attendance, underneath Croesus their slaves busied themselves with the business of burning men and boys alive. Cyrus stroked his beard and wafted away the smoke with a hand that glimmered with precious stones.

It wasn’t fair. Croesus knew he had done everything right. He had consulted the oracle and, through her, had heard the voice of the divine urging him to war. He had sacrificed more than three thousand animals, given vast amounts of gold, and Apollo had spoken through his priestess; ‘make war with Persia, oh King, and you will destroy a mighty empire.’

One of the young men behind him had begun to scream. Fire is not a peaceful death, there is no dignity in agony, Croesus hoped the poor boy would go to Hades soon and drink the waters of the Lethe. It would be a blessing to forget this.

Even without the fire the noise of the city was deafening. Sardis had been the seat of Croesus’ power and Croesus had been wealthy beyond the dreams of avarice. All that wealth, all that gold, all that art and the rich temples and offerings and statuary, all of it was going to be carted away by the unyielding hordes of rampaging barbarians who had tricked their way into the city. The screams of men and the wailing of women echoed off the sandstone walls. His home was being put to the sack, there was no way to stop it now.

The boy behind him was still screaming. Burning kills slowly. It had been a cruel decree, that fourteen of the sons of the most prominent families of Lydia were to be put to death along with their king, but Cyrus had always been cruel. It was a fate that Croesus felt, perhaps, he deserved. For his death to be entertainment. Dark clouds were rolling across the sky.

He had led a cursed life. Not to begin with, of course, to begin with he had built himself a fortune, a family and an empire. Vast acres of land had been his, and vast wealth with it, and he had always shown his thanks to the Gods. Then Atys, his poor son, had died hunting in the mountains and, perhaps, Croesus had gone a little mad.

He considered this while he stood on his pyre. He thought about the misery it had brought him and the conversations he had with Solon the sage about the measurement of happiness. Solon said that only the dead could be truly happy, their fate was fulfilled and such things pleased the Gods. Croesus had agreed at the time, now he didn’t care, he just wanted his son back. The boy behind him had stopped screaming now. Tears stung his eyes.

‘Croesus?’

He lifted his head to see who had spoken and was surprised to find himself facing one of Cyrus’ magi. This one was young too, about Atys’ age when he had died.

‘The king of kings demands to know why you weep.’

It was a hard question to answer. He did not fear death really, he knew it came to all men and all his fear had been beaten out of him when he had been dragged before Cyrus in chains. Was it the betrayal of the oracle? Was it the suffering of his people? Was it the knowledge that unfathomable agony was creeping ever closer? He thought back to his time with Solon, to the first time he had held a conversation with Atys. Croesus opened his mouth to speak but it was too much, the exhaustion and the horror of the day, the callous gaze of the king of kings, the heat, the smoke, all rose up at once. Croesus wailed, far louder than even he expected, the catch in his voice laid bare his misery.

‘I miss my son.’

Silence rang out across the agora. A dark cloud threw them all in to shadow. Even the crackle of flames seemed to hush for a moment to salute his grief. Cyrus’ servants dared not move, even the slaves tending the fire paused in their labour.

Cyrus sighed and waved a hand.

Everyone sprung in to action trying to douse the flames. The pyre was too tall to scale and the fire was too hot to approach, slaves and bodyguards formed bucket chains as the magi shouted orders. Fire, though, fire is fickle. It is not a tool, it is a pet, mistreat it or grant it too much freedom and it will begin to disobey. Cyrus turned his horse and rode away.

Croesus stood and watched the flurry of activity below him. He was bemused at first, but when it dawned on him that he was to be spared he started to struggle at his bonds and shout advice to his captors. The sky grew darker. Not dark enough.

Dozens of men hauled at the pile of wood under him and it wasn’t going to be enough. The flames were climbing higher, the smoke was beginning to overwhelm him. Croesus could feel his hands getting hot, the inferno was creeping up behind him. It wasn’t going to work. He was going to burn to death and there was nothing anyone could do.

Fear gripped him again. Immediate and overwhelming. This was not fair. He had fought so hard, so valiantly, done all that the Gods had told him to do and lost everything to a man much stronger than he could ever be. His hands were charring. He had been respected, but he had never been worshipped like Cyrus. He could hear the screams of his people haunting his city.

In desperation he began to pray, tears streaming down his face, he looked up at the shaded sun and shouted; ‘Please! Please, Zeus, Hercules, Apollo, please, please, if I ever did anything, if ever any offering I made to you was acceptable then stand by me now, save me from the flames.’

The sky was dark already but it grew darker still. The gentle patter of rain became a pouring torrent.

***

He was dragged in chains before the king once again. He wasted no time falling to his knees, begging for mercy. Cyrus the Great, conqueror of Lydia, looked at the man he had broken. He had toppled warlords before, brought chiefs to heel and crippled ancient nations, he had his enemies impaled and traitors subjected to the most exquisite tortures but he had never seen anyone so utterly crushed. He reached out a jewelled hand.

‘What happened to you Croesus? I’ve given worse punishments to people far less deserving. Where is your pride? Where is the man who enslaved my people? Where is my enemy? I don’t understand. I want to.’

Croesus sat up and spent a moment in thought, kneeling before the might of the king of kings in the opulent palace that used to be his. He struggled to find the right words.

‘I suppose… I suppose I’m ashamed.’

Cyrus cocked his head, puzzled.

‘I’m not… I fought well. I fought very well. I took land and wealth and killed my enemies. I took slaves and… I shouldn’t have done any of it. All of it was sinful. All of it was wrong.’

Cyrus maintained his gaze, though it softened.

‘I shouldn’t have made war against you, of course, the Gods have seen fit to see me fail and make me your slave. They should have done that long ago. I miss my Atys. There are a thousand families out there who’ve lost someone. Someone I took from them.’

The king nodded, Croesus turned his gaze to the boy with him, Cambyses, son of Cyrus Prince of Persia.

‘It’s never right is it? Not really. War, I mean. Even when the Gods give their blessing it’s never right. Someone’s always after something trivial. I wanted land and gold. I was so petty. So sinful. There’s no mystery to it, it’s a simple horror; in peace sons bury their fathers, in war fathers bury their sons.’

Silence rang out in the hall of the palace of Sardis, the rumble of rain masked the screams of the dying.

I hesitate to call this historical fiction, there is some debate as to whether anything even remotely like this happened at all, but it is a story that some historians accept and it appears in Herodotus’ ‘Histories’.  Herodotus adds some odd bits and bobs and it reads somewhat like a fable, this is my attempt to write out what could have happened, take it all with a pinch of salt.  All named persons were real historical figures.

Riverbank.

ishtargateshtargatebabylonI remember sitting on the banks of the Euphrates when I was young and watching the boats sail in. My father was relaxing in the heat of the high sun and the blue and gold walls of Babylon shone with its brightness. My mother was playing with my sister, teaching her to speak in her infancy, poking her pudgy belly and making her giggle. I splashed the water with a stick as the little boats rounded the bend of the river and came in to view.

The boats are small and round. Each of them carried a crew of two men and a donkey. They are made from simple wicker frames and the hides of a dozen creatures. They are shallow, trying to sail the fast river with a deep hull would be impossible, and they are hard to steer, so the rhythm must be precise. I watched them round the bend of our river and keep on coming. There must have been fifty boats that day, a hundred men and their pack animals keeping themselves afloat with their labour. I marvelled at the sight, and then I heard their song.

We are a hardy bunch, us Babylonians, we are stern and we follow stern gods, but that sight, so many men singing with joy of the summer air, moved something in me. I stood and watched, stupefied, clapping my hands together in my youth, my father beside me drinking it in. My head filled with mad dreams of running off to join the nomads, spending my days riding about the plains and building a little boat, singing and sailing it to the city. Once there I would do what they do, dismantle it and sell the hides and wood, load the rest of my goods onto my donkey and go to the market. Then I would leave on foot, against the flow of the river, heading off home to ride through the hills with my tribe. It would be a beautiful life, but it could never be mine. I remained a farmer after all.

As I watched them sail past and heard their songs I felt a pang of sadness. They were wild men, foreign men, and I would probably never see any of them again. I waved and they smiled back, strong arms pulling on oars, sunlight glimmering off the rapid water.

Later that day we went to the temple of Marduk. It always excited me, going into the city, the noise of it all and the bustle. We would see travelling Greeks in their togas and Egyptians in their tunics, Saka in their pointed caps and Jews in their robes, all the world flows through Babylon. When we passed through the second ring of city walls, through the carved lions of the Ishtar gate, the hubbub slowed. There were open spaces, grand houses, temple after temple and the palace of the king.

It was that time of year when the king walks alone to the temple and shows his supplication to the God of the city under the stern gaze of his statue. The priests of Marduk gathered around and bellowed their insults as the mounds of incense burned and sent great, gusting clouds of white smoke into the air. It was the dull bit at the beginning and I was a child, my mind wandered. I had always found him frightening, the God I mean, how his statue towered over us all and looked at us with such disdain. I understand it now, of course, he is stern because sometimes Gods have to be stern, but back then I just thought he was mean. A mean old God with a mean old face that liked to hurt people. I liked the guardian lions, and Ishtar, not the grim and unyielding protector.

The king stood up and nodded at the priest. I wanted to look away but father put his hand on my shoulder and steadied my nerve. Everyone stood in silence, we all knew what was coming next, the incense stung my eyes.

When the king nodded the priest set about him. He began with two hard slaps to the face, shouting like a wild animal. He stumbled back, everyone stood in absolute silence, staring at him. The priest looked into his eyes, then reached up and wrenched at his ear with all his might. A little blood spilled, a flash of anger over the his face, he had balled a fist.

The silence was deafening. If he struck back, if he lost his temper and assaulted the priest, we would all be doomed to an awful year. Nobody could remember the king ever having to take such a beating, but he was mindful of his duty through the pain and nodded again. Once more the priest raised his gnarled old hand and, with lightning quickness, slapped his face before grabbing hold of his ear, still bleeding, and pulling with all his might.

The King screamed, blood dripped onto the floor. He fell backwards, clasping a hand to his wound and howling. The priest’s face remained impassive as he squatted down, I felt my father’s grip on my shoulder tighten as we waited for the verdict.

I think I saw it before the priest and I fought the urge to smile. A glisten, small but visible, dripping down the face of the king. The tears had been drawn from him and spilled upon the temple floor. As the priest raised his arms in victory and the cheer began we knew Marduk would be pleased and the harvest would be good that year. I remembered the song of the boatmen, it was the happiest day of my life.

With thanks to Herodotus for his description of the Armenians rowing into Babylon.