The Eastern Empire
Late July, Year of our Lord, 626
When Lecho saw the three walls of Constantinople, rising up like a storm on the horizon, each taller than the last, he knew he’d made his worst mistake. Around him marched the great host of the Avar Khaganate, dragging the skeletal fragments of siege towers. Ahead, he could pick out individual Roman watchmen lining the middle wall, leaning with relaxed arrogance on the crenelations.
Lecho summoned the vilest curses he could and spat them in a circle at his feet. Not for the first time, he damned the blind, hateful luck that had brought him to the foot of the greatest city in the East, ready to grind his flesh into the unbreachable walls until there was little but dust and blood.
As the sun sank in the west, and camps were staked, his motley detachment of Bulgar raiders, Carolingian fugitives, Slavic peasants, and mercenaries from across the continent gathered to hear the words of a minor Avar Khan. Lots were drawn, and they received the honor of being the first over the walls. Lecho watched the Khan palm the tile with the low number etched on it, and pretend to draw it from the ceremonial leather sack, made from some great enemy’s scrotum. He’d known they’d be first, one way or another, but he could do little more than spit in a circle and try not to catch the Khan’s eye.
The drawing of the tile might not have been fair, but it was his fortune. The same hateful luck that had dragged Lecho across the world and far from home, the will and whim of the Gods made manifest in every motherless goat-fucking coward that saw fit to push Lecho to this place. The false accusation of thievery and desecration that saw him flogged and thrown from his village, the bandits that had taken his father’s horse, the mercenary captain who’d smelled his desperation and dragged him along like the tide. He tugged at the stolen charm around his neck, a tiny black leather pouch on woven cord, and fingered the small object inside.
The Khan glared down at him from beneath eyebrows that squirmed like mounds of flies on a corpse, daring Lecho to open his mouth and object. Lecho held his spit and his tongue behind his matted beard. If he could survive the doomed first assault, he could desert. He’d have none of the coin promised to him, but he long suspected the Avar had no intention of paying. They didn’t expect any of the mercenaries to live. He just had to stay safe long enough to slip away to the river.
Besides, the Khan didn’t frighten him. For all his impressive demeanor, he’d spend the next day in the rearguard, beneath a linen tent. And the testicle bag might be impressive to someone who’d never gelded a pig. Lecho knew a fake when he saw one.
After that, there was nothing left to do but get blind drunk at twilight while the Avar engineers raised the leather and wood towers that would deliver Lecho and his countrymen to their deaths. These were the tasks the Avar thought Lecho and the other Slavs and Wends capable of: drinking and dying on command.
Lecho vowed to disappoint on both accounts. He poured the rest of his sour wine out onto the dust, still hot long after the summer sun had sunk. After he’d dumped his allotted ration, he walked away from the blazing fires, intent on finding an avenue of escape that very night.
Instead, he stumbled across an insensible mustachioed Frank, with a nearly full goatskin bladder lying by his side. Luck, again, spat at Lecho’s feet, and instead of deserting in the night, he’d sat with his feet in the waters of the Lycus and drank himself into the black. His last memory was of stroking the little kidskin pouch around his neck.
The morning sun struck him like a spear, sharp and glittering. Vomit glued sand and dust to his filthy beard and tangled hair. One of the Avar sergeants stood over him, shouting. Furious spittle turned to mist the hot air and settled on Lecho’s face, which felt blessedly cool. He was content to lie there, until the furious Avar began kicking him in the guts, and although Lecho had nothing left to retch up, he gagged and sucked in a handful of sand. Rough hands dragged him to his feet and thrust him into a crowd of Slavs and other exiled mercenaries from across the continent, who continued to yell and scream at him, this time in his own language.
An Alemanni tribesman, rings braided into his long beard, thrust a spear into his hand, a blunt iron spade on the end of a knotty shaft of ash. It was not his spear. His fathers spear, and his pilfered Roman sword were somewhere in the camp, but he could not see where he had laid his pack the night before. There was a red and white tent surrounded by Franks that looked familiar, but the surge of the amassed host pressed him away from his birthright weapons, and towards the towering walls. All he had of his own were his clothes, and the talisman at his throat.
A helmet dropped onto his head, a rusted bucket for a man twice his size with cheek flaps that blocked out all vision except for the churning mass of men and dust ahead of him. The thundering sound of the advancing host echoed inside. And then they were marching to their deaths. Escape had eluded him again.
Lecho could have stopped walking, and held his legs bent to his chest, and the tide of doomed men would have still carried him forward. They carried him, singing old chants and shouting death to Rome, to the foot of Theodosian’s walls. Rough hands thrust him up the ladder of a siege tower, and like that, he was scaling the outer wall.
The tower’s wide maw had been built to carry the lumber and materials needed to reassemble another tower on the far side, and though it was lined with tanned leather and wooden planks, he could see through the gaps that the first wall had no guards at the top. The blood rode high in his drunken companions, believing that the Romans had failed to stop their initial assault, but Lecho felt a violent surge of terror in his guts, and his tongue scraped in his dust-dry mouth.
Someone pushed him off the ladder onto the top of the wall, next to a vacant guard tower. He stood, spear at his side, and could only watch as his fellow sacrifices came to realize what had happened. The Romans had withdrawn from the first wall, so that the second wall held twice as many men. They whooped with delight as the ragged mercenaries poured from the siege towers, and begin to let loose with arrows and spears.
Withdrawing from the first wall, they had simply allowed the first wave of the Avar army to pour itself into the space between, a barren field of death where the Romans could stand a hundred hand’s breadths above them and rain down whatever missiles and filth they desired, jeering and laughing like boys on their first boar hunt.
All across the leagues-long wall, the over-confident host spilled out of siege towers only to face the iron truth that they would never scale the second wall. The Avar had expected casualties, but they believed they had the men to breach each wall in turn, through brute force and persistence.
As Lecho watched, his companions fastened ropes and dropped into the dead zone between the walls, where they could do nothing but be stuck, pierced, coated in flaming pitch, and skewered as the Romans laughed above. In a matter of heartbeats, the triumphant crossing of the outer wall had become a slaughter.
They would never get the material to assemble the next tower, they would never get reinforcements, Lecho knew. The idea of attempting carpentry at the foot of the enemies stronghold was a folly that would cost ten thousand men their lives. In the opening moments of the assault, the Romans had already won.
There were more Romans than he could have dreamt atop the second wall. Had the Sassanids not split the Roman force by sea? Were the Avar’s Persian allies already broken? Lecho dropped his pitted spear, and stood slack-jawed in horror as men streamed up from behind him and leapt down below to be slaughtered. The siege of Constantinople, a joint assault by the enemies of Rome, would end in blood and confusion before the sun was at its zenith.
This was his luck. First man over the wall, among the first to die in a war that meant nothing to him. He turned, to fight his way back down the ladder, to take his chances with the Avar calvary that waited behind the dying mercenaries, to be anywhere but sitting at the open jaws of death.
The arrow struck his too-large helmet and rung his skull like a bell. The world went black as the helmet spun nearly all the way round and covered his eyes, but the sound of the cheering Romans echoed in his ears as his feet crossed each other and he tilted out, and down, into the air, dropping into the charnel space between the walls.
It was cool twilight when he opened his eyes. The quiet music of dying men filled his ears. He lay, almost comfortably, on a pile of corpses. Slavs, Wends, Franks, landless exiles. All men of the first assault, men he had crossed the continent with, only to spill their blood trapped at the foot of Constantinople. The whimpers and labored exhalations of broken men supplanted the sounds of warfare.
Of course fortune wouldn’t just let him die, honorably in battle. He found, aside from the shattered glass feeling in his skull, that he still possessed unbroken limbs and both his eyes. He stood, his body uncoiling like the frond of a fern, and cursed at the bruise-colored sky. He spat and swore and kicked at the corpses around him. He howled at the bloodied moon, and it grinned down at him from behind the smoke-choked darkness, malevolent and mocking.
In the falling light, Lecho saw the silhouettes of Roman guards, relaxed and triumphant, grinning at him like the red moon. They could have spitted him with ease, but instead they only pointed and murmured in Greek at him. Lecho spat curses at them from a bone dry mouth, but that only stoked their amusement.
“Kill me now, or let me free,” he shouted up to them, in broken Greek, but this only set them laughing louder. “Then give me wine, you issue of motherless whores! I thirst.”
“I’d bet on it,” one of them hollered down to him, in the tongue of the Avars. “Patience, sellsword. You have no other place to be.” The guard captain flicked a wrist at one of the younger Romans, who vanished behind into one of the towers that studded the wall. He returned moments later with a skin, bulging and full. The Roman captain, his armor more delicate and detailed than his companions, tossed the skin down. It hit the dust in front of Lecho, liquid squirting out from the seams to mingle with the pooled blood. He dove for it, only dimly aware that the skin was hot to the touch.
They were laughing even before the piss hit his tongue, and when he began to gag, they howled at the moon like dogs. He threw the skin back up at them, but it only made it halfway up the wall, where it split and burst like overripe fruit, raining back down to sting his eyes. The Romans’ joy was unrivaled.
Lecho, at least, now had something to spit.
They let him wander for a while, following his pace from the top of the walls. They jeered at him in Greek too accented and filled with local slang for him to comprehend, but he took its meaning. He could only keep his eyes to the killing field at his feet, and try not to give them any more entertainment.
When the moon was high above, and the smoke from far-away fires had slunk from the sky, Lecho could do nothing but sleep on a patch of unbloodied soil. He’d walked a thousand paces on an ankle he was now sure was broken, and while he had seen hundreds of his dead countrymen and mercenaries, he saw no ropes, no ladders, no part of the siege towers that were meant to assault the second wall. He was at the mercy of the Romans, and as always, his own foul fortune. He tugged at the charm around his neck as he drifted off, dreaming of the burial mound he’d taken it from, so long ago.
He awoke to the sound of whimpering pleas. The sun struck his eyes, and his skin was already seared red by the rising daylight. A few paces away, a giant in glittering bronze dragged a shining sword across a dying Slav’s throat, splashing the dust in crimson.
The action was done with such grace and tenderness, by a man of such massive stature, that for a moment Lecho believed he gazed upon some divine agent. Above him, the Romans watched with none of the previous nights amusement as the giant moved on, gently prodding the bodies in the dust, and providing mercy when they responded with dry croaks.
Lecho held still as the man approached. The image of heavenly perfection was not diminished by the spray of blood on the man’s breastplate and face. The little crimson beads caught the morning light and sparkled like rubies. They locked eyes as the giant approached, and the broad, friendly face stretched into a smile upon seeing Lecho.
“Good morning, sir,” the giant said, in tones as warm and as inviting as smoke, and then he lifted his gleaming sword in a salute. “I bring you the mercy of Augustus Heraclius, should you desire it.”
“Fuck him. Fuck you,” Lecho hissed as he stood up to his full height, still three hand’s breadths shorter than the giant. The giant only laughed, emerald eyes sparkling.
“Your war is over, sir. The Avar are almost routed, the Persian fleet set aflame. Rome stands as she always has, in Mary’s grace, as Sergius preached. Although, I expect this was never your war.”
Lecho didn’t know how to answer. The shining giant’s disposition, and his dehydration and exhaustion left him befuddled.
“Indeed,” the giant continued, “You seem, unharmed. Perhaps the Christ has other plans for you, and who am I to stand in His way?” He craned his massive head up to the walls, where he sought the gaze of the Roman captain.
The captain, the same man who’d thrown piss down at Lecho the day before, looked down with a blank expression, and then, with a shrug, nodded once. Then he tapped the back of his hand three times. The giant grimaced, and nodded in return.
“Sir, If you swear never to take up arms against Rome, I will take you to the gates and set you free.”
Lecho, fearing a ruse, could not respond, could only gape at this sudden change of luck. With a stiff and crooked neck, he nodded, feeling thick tears sting his eyes. “I never want to see Rome again. I promise.”
“Good! Good! We never want to see you either!” said the giant with unfeigned pleasure. “Please, if you would, put your hand out. Your left, let it never be said that Rome is not generous.”
Lecho stared at him, uncomprehending. The giant’s eyes tilted downward and his symmetrical face crinkled in sympathy.
“Ah. I’m sorry. The oath we require is not just words. It is your hand. But my sword is sharp and my arm is still strong. It will be quick, and I will bind the wound.”
Lecho lifted his left hand and held it in front of him. The world collapsed until it was only the familiar shape of his calluses, the scar from the hearthstone when he was a child, the missing fingernail, the whorls and patterns of his skin and hair. The giant cleared his throat.
Lecho held out the hand, as if in offering of friendship.
“Good!” said the giant with a nod. “Now, on the count of three, we’ll-”
And he swung the sword. It passed through the air like a falling leaf, and took Lecho’s hand with it. There was no pain, only the sudden cessation of sensation, a blindspot where a hand had been. Then, as the twitching lump of flesh hit the dust, the ghost of the hand caught fire, and Lecho’s world went red.
He sunk to his knees, the stump livid and pulsing blood in the too-bright sun. A high keening wail echoed off the walls, somehow coming from own his clenched throat, and twining with a sudden ringing in his ears. He tasted blood, bright copper splashes as he bit through his tongue. The giant caught him, held him upright as his body went slack, and cooed quietly in his ear, the same sympathetic drone he’d made for the wounded men he’d given mercy.
“It’s alright, it’s alright, you’ll be free now,” he whispered, in a tone so warm and paternal that Lecho could feel nothing but gratitude for the man who’d just taken his hand. Lecho pressed his face into the giant’s shoulder and sobbed.
The giant pressed a salve onto the stump, a fecund mash of herbs he kept in an oilskin pouch, and then tore a segment of his own brilliant red tunic to make a dressing. Lecho’s right hand worked frantically at the charm around his neck, spinning the little sphere inside the leather sack. The giant inspected his work, and grinned at Lecho.
“You’ve not found the Savior yet?” he asked, gesturing with his own left hand at Lecho’s charm. “This is your chance, this is why He let you live! You can stroke your pagan icon all you wish, but there is only one true Lord, and he is merciful.”
Lecho couldn’t think straight, could only nod along with the giant, who seemed to be the only person he’d ever met that had made sense in his entire life.
“Here, hand it to me. We will throw it away together, and I will give you my own symbol of Our Lord. Brothers in Christ, enemies no more.”
Lecho opened the drawstring on the black leather bag, the only thing left that tied him to his youth, his village, his family, his past. A past that held nothing but ill fortune, pain, and a path to these vile days. He dumped out the charm into his hand.
A golden eye. A sphere of polished metal, carved with intricate, delicate detail, and an uncanny, perfect representation of two impossible side-by-side pupils. Lecho had plucked it from the eye socket of a skull. The skeleton in the burial chamber had four arms and two heads, some pagan chimerical burial where two men, likely twins, had been stitched together in eternity.
He had been accused of raiding all the treasures of the burial mound, a sacred space, and driven from his home, but it had not been him. He’d merely stumbled across the overturned earth and exposed chamber after a night of childhood drinking and taken the last thing that glittered, the golden eye.
Now that he thought about it, clear-headed for what felt like the first time, this was no good luck token. Instead, it was everything that had ever gone wrong. Even the grave robber who’d unearthed the burial mound hadn’t wanted it. He wanted to throw it, to smash the gold into a shapeless lump, but it felt heavy, stuck to his remaining hand. He had the vague sensation that liquid sloshed inside, even as he held it perfectly still.
The giant stared, a slack expression of horror on his face. The twin pupils of the eye pointed directly at him.
“What have you done?” he asked, in a faraway voice.
Something wet splashed on Lecho’s chapped face, a warm spray of fluid that dimly reminded him of his thirst. Salt on his lips. Blood that mingled with his own.
The giant reached up one great hand to probe the arrow that emerged from his neck, a dull and bent iron tip that made a wet ruin of his throat. He looked at Lecho with gleaming, sad eyes, and smiled before sinking to his knees like a felled tree. Lecho wanted to reach out, to hold him, to catch him like the man had caught him, but the guards above cried out, and nocked their own arrows.
At the foot of the inner wall, there lay a cracked hollow space, a flaw in the wall that had been patched up, only to crumble again. Crouched inside, avoiding the Roman’s sight, was a Saxon mercenary, a man Lecho dimly recognized. He held an curved Avar bow and he gestured wildly for Lecho to come, to join him in the safety of the crevice. A javelin passed through the air, nearly striking his bound left stump, and Lecho surged forward on his cracked ankle, clutching the golden eye. He slid through the dust and pressed his body into the hollow, the Saxon moving his own ruined leg to make room for the both of them.
“Thank Woden, brother!” the Saxon whispered in rough Avar as he embraced Lecho. “The Roman beast is dead, and we yet live.”
Lecho could only stare, as arrows and spears clattered down at the mouth of the hollow, and the Romans screamed in anger. The giant lay in a spreading pool of crimson mud, his hands flexing and releasing. The Saxon’s smile faltered, seeing the fury in Lecho’s eyes.
“You don’t speak Greek,” Lecho said. It was not a question, but he had to understand why this Saxon bastard had damned him to a second death, had put an arrow through the neck of the best man Lecho had ever met. The Saxon shook his head, not comprehending.
“Then I will make this quick.”
Dropping the eye, Lecho reached out his right hand, his only hand, and willed it the strength of its fallen brother. He crushed the Saxon’s throat, feeling it collapse before the man had a chance to raise his own hands in defense. When the man had stopped flopping and twitching like a landed fish, and his eyes had gone shiny and dim, Lecho pushed the body out, head first. He let the Romans pierce the corpse with every arrow and spear they could muster until their need for vengeance was slaked.
Inside the little hollow, Lecho clutched the golden eye with his remaining hand, and sobbed, but his dry eyes could make no tears.
He passed the day lying in imitation of death, huddled beneath a pair of corpses, as Roman patrols passed through, looking for him, or any of the host that yet lived. It took five men to cary the giant away, his head flopping backwards as congealed blood dripped like honey across his still-smiling face. Lecho wanted to stop them, to offer some last respect for this immense, gentle man, but he held his tongue and waited for them to pass.
There’d be no more mercy, not now.
Lecho would die here.
As night fell, he rolled the golden eye between his fingers, spinning the sphere over and over again. His throat cracked, and his lips split like dried mud. Something tugged at the last threads of his will. Liquid sloshed inside the eye. He probed each line, each filagree, and pressed at the pupils.
With enough pressure, they rotated, like a wheel nestled into the surface of the sphere. He spun them both, first one way, and then the other. He spun them in opposite directions, toward, away. He was about to toss it to the dust, to lie down one last time, when a tiny metal click sounded from inside, and one pupil lifted away on a hidden hinge.
Something cold, river ice on a winter morning, leaked out onto his hand. He thrust the fingers into his mouth without thought, and sucked at the liquid. It was the sweetest thing he’d ever tasted, like fresh water on the morning after a drinking spell. Ale after a long hot day. Tears welled at the corners of his eyes, crisp wet drops as his body responded to the single bead of moisture from inside the golden eye.
He overturned the gold sphere, so that the open pupil stared down his throat, and drank, swallowing every last drop from the hollow space inside.
He laughed, first a dry hissing chuckle, and then a mad, wonderful howl. He’d almost died of thirst, yet carried the water of the gods themselves around his neck all this time. His body responded, swelling with life, and his limbs stretched wide. He wanted to wrap his arms around the world, to hug it close, to choke the life out of it.
Getting out would be simple. He walked across the space between the walls, hearing the Romans above calling to each other as he appeared. They sounded like they were right next to him. He heard the whistling of one man who lacked his front teeth, heard the croaking sounds of another who was recovering from a cough. He paid them no mind.
He passed his own severed hand, and reached the outer wall. Pressing his fingers into the slot between two giant stones, he pulled. The skin on his fingers gave way, the bones scraping against the rock. He did it again, abrading the bones, but the stone scraped away in equal measure.
When the fingers were gone, more rose up to take their place. Something like a hand, fetal and soft protruded from his weeping stump. Then another. On his right, a dozen fingers twitched and pulled at the stone. Slowly, it gave way.
The Romans loosed arrows at him, threw spears like Lecho was an entire army. They stuck into him, splitting his lungs, severing his arteries. He paid them no mind. Skin crawled back to cover the holes, his body ejecting the arrows even as it expanded and split.
Four arms worked in unison, then five, two and three hands at each wrist. They cracked apart and scraped away, bled and fell upon the dirt, but more rose to replace them.
The Romans had gone quiet.
Lecho dug through the solid stone of the walls with a thousand fingers.
One way or another, he would live.
In the morning, Andreas, the Roman captain, could make no sense of the babbling madness of the night’s watch. Two would no longer speak, one more had cut his own throat as he watched some inhuman thing tear a hole in the outer wall.
He’d threatened and screamed and finally begged, but only two men would agree to join him to inspect the hole.
Far away, at the eastern edge of the walls, the Avar Khagan launched one more desperate attack against the great city, but it was doomed. The war was over, and God would be victorious. The Avar broken, Augustus Heraclius would take the war to the Sassanids, and there could be no result but victory for God.
Rome had won, but with his champion and oldest friend Gabrielus dead of an arrow to the throat, and the mad carnage of the night, Andreas could feel only cold dread.
The gap in the walls, near to where Gabrielus fell, yawned like a mouth. Around the crack, so thin that Andreas could not imagine a man sliding through, lay a pile of ragged, steaming flesh. Hands, with fingers ground down to nubs. Whole limbs cast off with shattered stumps. A jawbone, fragments of a dozen skulls, a pulped eye. The stone itself was slick with blood, and steaming in the morning light.
There was no sense to be made, no story to be told. Only meat and madness.
On the other side of the wall, a slick path of blood and viscera wound across the dirt. A dozen feet blazing a crooked trail across the plains, towards the river Lycus, only to vanish beneath the corpse-choked waters.
On a rock, worn smooth by water and time, perched a single, shining sphere. A golden eye with two pupils, staring back at the walls of the city. It rocked, gently, from side to side, as if filled with something alive.
With the tip of his spear, Andreas pushed it off, and watched it sink beneath the bloody waters.
Until his last days, as vile fortune dogged him to an early death, he would dream of the golden eye, twin pupils forever locked on his own.