May 5th, 1383
Kantara Castle, occupied Melitene Province
“…and so, because the Imperium is unable to maintain order in this province, we request by duty of courtesy, and require by right of conquest, that the fortress gates of Kantara be opened to our men, that bread and salt be provided, and that hostages for good behaviour be given. Fail not in this charge, at your peril.” The herald concluded the formal part of his demand for surrender, and lowered his stentorian bellow to a clipped “You have until sundown.”
Alexa looked at her court. The men were old, except for the few who were very young; the last levy had taken anyone with so much as a peach-fuzz on his cheeks, or a faint hint of black among the grey. None of them met her eye, presumably because none wanted to be the one to say what was obvious: What choice did they have but to surrender? She herself felt the pull of that conclusion, inevitable as a rock falling. But there was that within her which screamed in primal protest, and she could not bring herself to say the words. A deep anger built in her; how dare the Persians come onto her land, how dare they demand that she open her gates? And hostages… her son, David, to be at the mercy of any peasant with a grudge against the occupiers? And yet, what other options were there?
Finally one of the women spoke. Deirdre was some sort of cousin to Alexa, a Phokas by birth, and married to some sort of cousin of Basil; another link in the labyrinthine dynastic schemes of the Komnenoi. “The walls of Kantara are strong,” she said experimentally.
“That’s true,” Alexa said, feeling encouraged; she hadn’t wanted to be the unreasonable one, but if Deirdre started it… “And we have food, water – even weapons and armour.”
“Weapons and armour, and walls, but no men!”
Alexa looked thoughtfully at old Eusebio. He had fought in the wars against Croatia and Russia; he knew about sieges, and he was well respected. It would not do to try simply to override him. “No men suited to long marches, perhaps,” she said instead. “But for garrison duty, standing on a wall and heaving rocks at Persians? We have men for that, I think; age steals endurance, but it cannot steal experience and skill.”
Eusebio looked much struck by this flattery, and thoughtful, as did his comrades. But he shook his head slowly. “My lady” – and there was respect in his tone now, not the curt dismissal of before – “I am sorry to be the voice of unpleasant necessity. But consider: If we close the gates, and the Persians lose men coming over the wall, they will not be gentle. They won’t ask for hostages. They will kill every woman and child within the walls; kill, and – ah – worse. I’ve do – I’ve seen it happen, in Croatia. It’s not easy to control soldiers who have seen comrades killed; and the Persians won’t even try. Why should they, if we defy them? You, hmm. My lady… you have lived a sheltered life. If they have to come over our walls, you won’t be treated as a noble lady. It’s – not a good way to die; or to live, if you should be so lucky. Or unlucky.”
Alexa nodded. “Yes, I know,” she said softly. “I am a Roman, and I have a good sharp knife.” She gestured to her left wrist. “Lengthwise, not crosswise; I won’t be taken alive.”
Eusebio looked her in the eye, searchingly; she looked back steadily. “Aye,” he said at length. “I believe you would, my lady; although it is always easier to live and hope, even for a few more minutes, than to decide that now is the end. And then it is so often too late, and it is the end after all, only worse… but I believe you. You have the steel in you to make that choice. But can you make it for everyone here? What of your son, David? The Persians will let him live, as a hostage in their court at Baghdad; they will even give him land, somewhere, when he comes of age. Reduced wealth, lessened power, but wealth and power still; and life.”
Alexa looked down; that struck close to the bone. But she replied evenly, “If I thought it were truly hopeless, that what you speak of were really inevitable, then no. I would not choose death, either for me or David, or for anyone. But we speak of war, Eusebio; not of the workings of fate. Kantara is a strong fortress; it has stood siege before, once for six years. Melitene is a border province, its fall does not herald disaster; the Eagles will gather strength in the core of the Empire, and return. Can we not hold until they do? It is a risk, true. I would not choose so as to make death inevitable; that is sin, and hopeless. But to take a risk of death, in a good cause; soldiers and mothers alike do that.”
Eusebio shrugged, fatalistically. “Well. You are right, perhaps; the Eagles may come. And all men are initiates in the mystery of death.” He straightened. “Close the gates, my lady; and give me a sword. I’ll hold the walls for you, while there’s breath in me.”
Alexa looked around; nobody looked truly happy with the decision, but nobody spoke against it. They were all Romans, all of good families if not of senatorial rank; they had all been raised on stories of holding desperate positions against masses of barbarians, and of the Eagles arriving at the last minute to save the day. None of them would be the first to argue for surrender. “Open the armouries,” she ordered briskly, “and organise a watch schedule. Men to the walls, as fast as they can be armed; women too, if they can handle a crossbow. And children, if they can load. And anyone who feels like it can take their chance with the Persians. Kantara holds.”