April 3rd, 1144
Outside Thessalonika, Greece
The camp was a sprawling temporary city, larger than the walled enclave of Thessalonika that it surrounded. An outsider might have seen chaos; but Arkadios had designed the underlying order, and his eye could pick out the steady flow of supplies coming from Thessalonika’s harbour and the nerve-pulses of couriers bringing word from regiments marching to the muster point or from spies deep inside Croatia. He had a purpose for every man he could see, and a proper place for him; and from the tenor of the shouts and cries which made up the murmuring noise of a great army, he could tell that every soldier was where he, Arkadios, intended him to be. He nodded his satisfaction as he turned to the tent where his sons awaited their conference; for he had not, of course, achieved such order by telling each man where he was expected, but by building a disciplined army with good officers, not placemen. A place for every man, and every man in his place; and if that place might happen to be, on a particular morning, “recovering from a wild carouse and finding that last night’s woman had stolen his purse” – well, the point was to ensure that only the correct number of soldiers were in that place. So many on guard, so many drilling, so many on camp leave, so many digging latrines – the details did not matter, only that each function should be fulfilled; and Arkadios’s experienced ear could detect no sour note in the disciplined bustle around him. It would not remain so; no army’s order survived its first meeting with the enemy, and then an officer’s work would consist of restoring it as nearly as possible, to maintain the striking power that depended on order in the ranks; but it was a good start to the campaign.
As he entered the tent he felt the first twinges of pain in his chest, and ignored it as he always had. But this time it did not remain as a tolerable ache; it spread into his arm, and then his throat. His vision darkened, and he realised that he was falling; and that he had forgotten how to breathe. It was very important that he remember how to breathe.
He woke with a soldier’s instantness; woke, and knew that it was for the last time. There was still pain in his chest, great pain; he could feel his heart tearing itself apart with the struggle to sustain him for just one more hour. That could not be allowed to matter. In a short while it would be over, and meanwhile it was necessary to make the most of what time remained.
“I am here, father.”
“Good. And Thomas – yes, there. Listen.” He paused to draw breath; his youngest son leapt into the pause. Zenobios, more experienced in the ways that men die, merely stood, looking grim.
“We have sent for the doctor, and the priest.”
Arkadios nodded impatiently, dismissing this as obvious. “Yes, yes, that is very well. But listen. This war is now much the worse for us. For thirty years we have kept the infidel at bay in the East. Now I die. And so we lose the main thing that we relied on to keep our eastern border peaceful while we crushed Croatia, the terror of my name.”
There was a commotion outside, and Eusebius entered the tent at a run, shrugging into his vestments. He stopped abruptly when he saw Arkadios sitting up and talking; but then he looked again and came forward. “My Lord. I have brought the oil.”
“Yes, fine. It will keep for a minute; I am instructing my sons. Zenobios…” and he paused, even his diamond concentration overwhelmed for a moment by memory. Zenobios, his eldest son! A father himself now, a bearded patriarch. It was a comfort, facing the dark, to know that his blood had passed on; but how strange, to recall a squalling infant in a crib, and see the same man in his late middle age, a scarred veteran of many wars.
Eusebius, taking the hesitation for a worsening of the pain, came forward again, insistently. “My Lord – I must insist. Worldly concerns cannot be your task now; there is little time. You will care little for the war if you are denied entrance to Heaven; I must prepare you for…” and he subsided.
Thomas, watching the exchange, shivered. It was the first time he had realised, had truly understood, why the name of Arkadios was feared among the infidel; for he had seen the brown eyes turn black as winter, and Eusebios, a powerful man in his prime, a Bishop and an anointed priest, had shrivelled like a child of five chastised for stealing sweets. Flat on his back, on his deathbed, the will of Arkadios was indomitable. Such a will could dominate battlefields and countries, could hold back death itself. There would be time for whatever Arkadios thought it necessary to say, for the Angel of Death himself would hold back until the Strategos was done. And yet time was always the victor; no man’s will could hold back the Angel forever. A silent dread crept up Thomas’s spine, as he understood what shoes it would be his task to step into. He understood, for the first time, how much a part of his life that adamantine will had always been; how much he had relied upon its presence to overawe his foes. Now that support tottered, and Thomas’s world shook with it.
Arkadios shook off the distraction of his personal priest wanting to prepare him for eternal life, and turned again to his son. “Zenobios. You will be Strategos of Antioch after me; Strategos, but not Emperor. There is no need to hide your eyes; I have seen how you look at your brother’s purple. I lay this on you, my last command to you who have been my officer and right-hand man: Be satisfied. There is power enough in Antioch; wealth enough for your children, and theirs.”
Zenobios knelt, bowing his head. “Yes, father. As you say.”
Arkadios nodded. “Good. And you, Thomas; my youngest son, as Zenobios is the eldest. Emperor of Rome; the only true Emperor. Two thousand years of history on your shoulders; and you are fourteen. Younger than some of my grandsons. But you will do well, I have no doubt of it; you are my son.”
“Th-thank you, father.” Thomas’s voice was thick in his throat.
Arkadios nodded, and then his eyes blazed again; no sentiment now, only the steely will that had brought victory on a hundred hard-fought fields. “It is well. Now, hear. You must win the loyalty of the army; you must win the fear of our enemies. It is not necessary that you win the war; that is impossible now, for the Caliphate will move when they hear of my death. Do not exhaust the realm in attempting it. But these two things you must have: Loyalty, and fear. Crush the Croatians. Let them off easy at the peace table, by all means; but crush them in the field. You can do it if you do not falter; there is no army in the world finer than the Theme of Antioch. Strike as though your life depended on it; for it does. When they flee, and they will, hammer them; be utterly ruthless in pursuit. You need not win the war, but one thing you must have: You must have a victory. One glorious battle, one victory to uphold your name among the legions. Descend upon Croatia like a river in flood, and let nothing stand in your way.”
Thomas straightened. Perhaps it was his imagination; but he thought he could feel some of his father’s willpower streaming through him, putting iron in his spine and winter in his mind. “Yes. The Basileus Romaion; a river in flood. I will do as you say, father.”
A firm nod. “Good. You will do well. Now – ” his eyes turned coolly upon Eusebios, still standing ready with the oil – “there are some other matters to attend to. Sing your rites, Eusebios. Although, to speak truth, I don’t think it will help.”
Eusebios looked shocked. “My Lord – you must not say such things!”
“Be quiet.” And if there had been winter in the tent before, now the frozen ice of the hardest Georgia winter coated every surface. “When you have sinned as I have, when you have driven a knife through the throat of your son as he welcomed you for a guest at his table… then you will be fit to say whether a song and a bit of oil will win forgiveness of sins. But we shall observe the forms. Sing, I say. It can do no harm.”