Pact of the Phoenix (part one)

August 4, 2009
By
More by this author
Before you read…

This novel, set in the Dark Ages, is nothing but an exaggeration of this period. Magic and shamanism are present, and so are anachronisms. The Huns, the protagonists, have been practically lost track of by historians after the death of the last king. It is possible that modern day Hungarians and Turks are the true descendants of the Huns, yet that is still a theory. Thus, for the Hunnic language I have used deformed versions of Magyar and Turkish words. Additionally, all characters in this story are fictive, regardless of the name they bear. Many are those who still believe that the Huns were blood thirsty killers. However, we must remember that the authors of the time who wrote such things were their enemies. Also, I do not seek to attack Catholic religion, as the Church is the main antagonist in the story, I seek to incriminate those who authorize themselves to steal freedom, be it in the name of God or not.































Prologue


The pale goddess of the night cast her soft blue rays on the canopy of the woodland. A cool zephyr blew through the snowy trees that shielded the frozen soil from the night sky. Owls scrutinized the ground, fluttering here and there, desperate to catch prey, be it a country mouse or a camouflaged rabbit. Many were those who starved this night in that cruel weather. Many were those who joined the gods that night.

An old red deer staggered, his antlers bristling the branches above him and spraying his brown hair with a thin, white quilt. He kneeled down, haggard and glancing at the night birds with what one may call compassion. Fear not he would have told them, My body will be yours to consume. Now, I must take the path to eternity. Indeed, he lay where every deer in Pannonia lie when deep inside them they feel the call of their ancestors. He majestically raised his muzzle a few inches and cried the last cry, the response to the call of the ancients. More birds fluttered around him, hooting him a song of farewell. The great creature grunted in reply and reposed his chin on the hard earth. He shivered from tail to muzzle for a few, long instants and abruptly relaxed. The hooting ended. One first owl flew off his tree, swooped down to the deer and dug its beak in the cold flesh.

All was quiet as the volatiles fed on the animal. They stripped flesh and muscle from bone, too exhausted by hunger to quarrel for the most nutritious pieces. It would have taken them less than an hour to finish their feast. It would have.

They swiftly raised their beaks, all at the same speed. Vibrations, almost imperceptible at first, grew increasingly. Soon the partly devoured body was left alone…and trampled by a mass of riders heading for the river.

They were Huns or Mongols as some call them. Young and old, men, women, on their short, stout and rapid horses rode. The impressive horde obliterated the serenity of night. Clad with furs and mail shirts, women included, they wielded short-bows, spears and curved blades. The Huns being a nomadic population, when seen they were frequently on the move in search of new hunting grounds. Yet these were particularly hasty. They spoke no word and their faces were marked with anguish. Some children even wept. It was dark in the woods, but they couldn’t use torches lest they would be seen. Soon their steeds’ hooves approached the riverbank. With dread they heard a loud roar ahead of them. Those who kept hope when they realized that the ice had melted were scarce. The Danube was raging.

Their leader, a stalwart, mid-aged, long-haired man, trotted ahead of his tribe and contemplated the infuriated water.
“We cannot cross,” sighed a young horseman that had rejoined him, “Even the elements are against us, Ernakh.”
“So be it, I defy the elements,” retorted the chief as he turned back to his people. He almost weakened when he saw the despondency of his clan.

Only he could save the situation. All the responsibility was thrust upon his shoulders like a sack full of anvils, and it frightened him.
“Huns!” he bellowed, “I understand the fear in your eyes as well as I understand mine. Nevertheless, we must follow the river. If my memory is accurate, there is a bridge to the South. Once we cross it, we shall be secure. Do you trust your leader?”
“Aye!” they shouted with a regained vigor.
“Do you trust Tengri*?”
“Aye!”
“Good. With luck we will outrun these pigs the Romans call ‘horses’.”

The sudden sound of barking, clinking armor and Latin curses would have galvanized them even more if their excitement hadn’t already reached its apex. The forest was now shaken with an interminable roll of thunder and all beasts and birds had gone into hiding or left this tract of land. They galloped for an hour, firing arrows behind them to threaten their pursuers. Finally, the cry of “the bridge!” was heard. Indeed, ahead of the Huns stood a Roman bridge in rather good shape, capable of holding a couple hundred riders without cracking. Yet was something was wrong. The edifice, still fairly distant, was freckled with specks of light. At first sight, one could have said that it was blazing, but the sparks remained small and immobile. Ernakh stiffened in comprehension. They were torches.
“Halt!” he cried with all his strength.

It was too late. Crossbow bolts whistled through the air and several Mongols fell. Wails of despair and loud war-cries merged and gave birth to a violent atmosphere.
“Visigoth mercenaries,” growled Ernakh, “Dogs at the service of the Empire. Too bad good old Attila didn’t finish them all. Split up! Parthian tactic*! Protect the youths and the elderly!”


































As soon as the orders were heard, the Visigoth arrows became futile. It was as if the Huns had vanished in the darkness, shooting with their bows at their opponents, who were an easy target for such agile bowmen. Not counting the fact that they were enlightened in obscurity and stuffed on a too narrow bridge, whereas the riders were invisible and scattered. Already a quarter of the mercenaries had been shot, and still no sign of the Romans. Perhaps they had given up the chase. Perhaps all was not lost.
“They flee, the cowards!” yelled a child triumphantly.
“To the bridge, my brethren!” hollered the leader, “Be glorified, Tengri!”

The riders laughed as the last Visigoth scuttled off the bridge and disappeared in the blackness. Whilst the tribe regrouped and set off, Ernakh cantered towards a hooded woman who seemed to have trouble keeping up with the rest. He gently removed her hood and stroked her thick, black hair. She looked up at him and smiled faintly. Her visage was thin and fatigued. Every step her horse made seemed to cause a deep sufferance in her entrails. By her traits it was obvious that she was not Mongol. Her breathing was loud and irregular.
“How is our son?” asked Ernakh nervously.
“He wants to get out,” she croaked, “I can’t keep him for much longer.”
“Soothe you, Actea,” he reassured her, “Once we’re out of this we’ll take care of…”
*God in Hunnic. **Military strategy that consisted in shooting arrows from horseback whilst moving.

Crash!

Screams tore the general joy and pride. A huge, flaming boulder collided with the soil. A loud explosion resounded, followed by others. The nearby trees burst into flames and collapsed.
“Catapults!” barked Ernakh, “To the bridge, fast!”

He had fallen off his mount, covering his head with his perspiring hands. As for the horse, a burning branch shattered his skull and he instantly passed away. He shuddered. Actea had fallen as well, sprawled in the snow, agonizing in silence. Without thinking, he ran at the child-bearing woman, unsure whether she was still alive. Carrying her on his shoulders, conscious of the Roman knights charging right at him, he did not sprint for his sake, but for hers. Sweat trickled on his forehead and blurred his vision.
His skin was almost roasting in the apocalypse of the forest fire. The detonations now sounded like far drum-beats, whereas the clinking mail pounded in his mind like a gong. Several times he narrowly avoided a falling tree. Several times he was forced to impale an attacking hound with his sword. The shrieks of his people trapped in the flames stabbed at his heart. Nonetheless he ran on. The Huns knew the dangers of war as well as themselves and were taught since their early childhood that death was their brother and that they were a hated kind. But not the Romans. Not Actea. Being from a noble, Italian family, she had abandoned the comforts of wealth to live with the man she loved: a filthy, loathed Hun. Such bravery could not be ignored. She had to live. At last he set foot on the bridge. He did not know if his tribe had made it to the other side. As he ran, he did not feel the blazing stone crashing behind him, yet he did notice the stone he was dashing on was splintering. In a last, desperate effort, he leaped.

***


The aftermath of the battle was grim. The few survivors of the inferno tended their wounds or cleansed their weapons. The Romans were far now, and couldn’t follow them since the bridge was no more. The leader sat on a rock a few feet away, Actea resting in his arms. Her skin was badly burnt and her breathing was very faint. Ernakh, worn out and weak, remained there in silence. His ankle was gashed and bleeding continuously, but he didn’t bother to stop the flow. He hated himself, cursed himself, despised himself. Why had Tengri abandoned him? Why, at the sight of all his efforts, hadn’t He protected his beloved? It was obvious for him. Ernakh was a puny ruler, the shame of the Huns. The kings before him had brought prosperity and fame to all the Hunnic tribes, and he had ruined all their work. He was responsible for so many deaths, perhaps to the future extinction of his kind.
“What is it that can break the soul of a Hun?”

Ernakh stirred. He heard exactly the voice that he didn’t want to hear. An old man emerged from behind a tree. Emaciated and hooded, stag antlers placed in such way that they seemed to come out from his head; he held a wooden staff and wore ragged skins flung on his shoulders and around his waist. His eyes, as gray as his long beard, were frozen and intimidating.
“Leave me, Kuldra.”
“Uncountable are the mysteries of this world,” said the elder, “But the hearts of men cannot be hidden to us shamans.”
“Then what will you do, open my skull and read my thoughts?” groaned Ernakh.
“I could indeed,” he chuckled hoarsely, “But I am not blind. Love saps our strength like flies suck our blood.”
“I know my strength has left me. No need to remind me, old man.”
“It never has left you, Ernakh. Death laid his hands on you, and you broke loose. Despite the imminent peril, you led your people and saved them from massacre. Only you are crushed with remorse.”
“What say you here?” exploded the leader, standing up and turning to the shaman, “No more than a quarter of us have survived! Leave me, Kuldra! Return to your woods!”

As he pronounced that last word, Kuldra lifted his staff. His eyes and the tip of his antlers glowed. Ernakh yelled and fell to his knees, attacked by a powerful, invisible force. With relief he saw that the clan wasn’t watching.
“They cannot see us,” spoke a deep, ethereal voice, “Since you are too proud to show respect to a mortal, I speak now in the name of the Phoenix. Look up!”

The voice shattered his insolence, and he obeyed. Kuldra was still there, these terrible eyes glaring staring straight at him.
“You’re the Phoenix,” he mumbled at last.
“I am no less the Phoenix than you Ernakh. Though I despise your impudence, I admire your courage and determination. I admire them in such way that I will heal you.”
“What do you mean?”
“That I will heal Actea, Hun.”
“Really? Now?”
“You have proven that you will do anything for her, and you deserve it. I am anything but human, but am capable of expressing feelings. Unfortunately, I am in such state that I cannot give without asking return.”
“What must I do?” cried the warrior.
“As soon as you have found a new land for your people, come to me, alone, in the land of Egypt. Find my sanctuary, where the two snakes meet. I will shall you the way inside the temple. Do you accept my offer?”
“Egypt is owned by the Romans. They will kill me on the spot! But what can that matter, I accept!”

The directions of the Phoenix still echoed in his head as a huge light blinded him. He protected his eyes, whispering ‘This is a dream, forget about it’ continuously to convince himself.
“Ernakh!”

He opened his eyes. Actea was there, weary but grinning, still lying down.
“We’ve made it, haven’t we?”
“We have.”

Yes they had made it. Now the pact of the Phoenix had to be fulfilled.

Arrival and Departure



All was cool; all was quiet, apart from the mesmerizing frog song. The man sat there, a few miles from home, throwing stones in the murky water of the pond. It was his anxiety that had led him here, far from that room where it was occurring. His efforts to forget it were futile so far. He had no right to complain, though. He was the one that had asked for it, none else, except for her. His head loomed over the creek and he gawked at his distorted reflection. The last time he had done this, at the same pond, a different face looked back at him. Time flies so fast…all these years… ‘That’s it!’ he told himself, ‘I know what I’ll do!’ Gradually his eyelids fell, and he was transported back, years before, back to these memories that meant so much…It felt good.
*****


The sun gradually materialized behind the horizon. The last stars faded away, shunned by the powerful beams of summer. Darkness slowly receded. The trees’ dew reflected the sunlight and was like gems and a dark, green sea. A hawk glided over the landscape, casting his shadow on the land, and crying high-pitched screams of dominion. Flavius was now sixteen, yet the miracle of dawn was still spectacular to his eyes.

Every morning since his early childhood, despite the cold and the blackness, he left the villa and rode through the woods. He crossed the Danube, and when he reached his favorite, tree-less hill, he dismounted, sat in the grass and admired daybreak. At times, his mother Actea accompanied him, but only he never broke his ‘tradition’. He loved his home, nonetheless he felt bizarrely peaceful when in forsaken locations such as the vast forest that bordered his territory. It was his haven.

He felt something nudge his shoulder. Unsurprised, he softly rubbed his horse’s jaw. Have you finished yet? Her eyes seemed to tell him. The mare was right. As a rich, Roman landowner at the boundary of the East Roman Empire, he was burdened with responsibilities.
“All right, Naria, let’s go.”

Still clumsy from not moving for a couple hours, he fitted his helmet on his skull, stood up and mounted the animal. Flavius was a fairly tall man, short-haired and rather thin. He wore a knight’s armor and a red cape, a gladius attached to his belt. His eyes, very immobile, were slightly slanted and his skin, contrasting with his coal-black hair, was as pale as the moon.

***
“Lord Flavius!”

The landlord peered behind his shoulder and grinned widely. A short, red-haired boy dashed up to him. Unwashed, humbly-clothed and bewildered, he looked more like a stag with a pack of wolves behind him, but that wasn’t astonishing to Flavius.
“What is it, Garret?”

The stag panted; lolling his head on the saddle as Flavius caressed his long tangled hair.
“My lord,” gasped the strident voice, “Glad you’re back.”
“Come with me next time, boy,” he chortled, “Now, tell me what can frighten a brave warrior like you?”
“I’m not frightened,” he grunted, frustrated.
“Forgive me, then. So?”
“My lord, I was chopping wood with my father not far from ‘ere. That’s when we saw the monster.”
“Monster?”

They both stared at each other. The child was slightly unsettled by this obscure, grave, frozen gaze but did not look away. Suddenly, Flavius burst in a warm, loud laughter.
“A monster!” he chuckled, “A bear, to be more precise!”
“No bear, my lord,” stated Garret determinedly, “I saw it. I—”
“Do you remember last year’s dragon?” he chuckled, “You almost killed the poor beast, who was nothing but a camel brought as a gift by some Eastern king. Not counting the specters you saw by the lake—”
“Listen, please! You’re concerned!” he cried, holding his reins.

Whilst another ruler would have immediately slapped him, or even killed him, Flavius simply frowned and spoke no word.
“In what way does it concern me?” he inquired.
“My father threatened to kill ‘im with his axe when the monster approached. That’s when ‘e spoke to us. He spoke an odd tongue that sounded like nothing I know at first, before passing to a rough Latin that we barely understood. He talked about someone named Markan, or Mukran, or something like that. We told him we knew no such person, but he insisted. In the end he left us, muttering to himself. That’s when my father said I ought to warn you.”
“You’ve done well.”
Flavius glanced around him, suddenly invaded by a bizarre anguish. He glanced around like a tracked rabbit. The mare bristled and grunted. Quite ashamed of his childish demeanor, he shook his head and tightened his grip on the reins.
“Don’t worry about it,” he mumbled to Garret as he trotted away in the villa’s direction.

It wasn’t long before his peculiar tension left him. As he passed through the fields, he was warmly saluted by the harvesting peasants. Some even treaded up to him and bantered in pleasure. Each peasant on his land at least appreciated Flavius. He certainly did not resemble the nearby lords, and he was aware of that. It had to stay that way.

Humming to himself, he passed under the portcullis that allowed access to a small court between his dwelling and the wall that surrounded it, and that the sentinels on the fortification had raised at the sight of their lord’s arrival. Without even asking for it, a stable boy scurried up to the rider and took his steed away once Flavius dismounted. The two conversed for a few minutes, either rejoicing in the good weather or making fun of that portly, ale-full Duke Marcius. That boar was hated by both his serfs and Flavius’.
“Oh, and I forgot,” added the stable boy, “Mistress Actea wishes to speak to you.

Flavius froze.
“Isn’t she still ill?” he mumbled.
“That’s not sure. You’ll have to see that with her.”

The landlord dashed inside the villa, ignoring the guards’ and the slaves’ awkward glances. He hated himself for having let his beloved mother sneak through the fortified barrier that was his mind. He hadn’t seen or talked to mother for weeks. She had caught a cruel fever, thus access to her was strictly forbidden. Her poor son was forced to hear her terrible cries of sufferance without running to her aid. At first her screams haunted his dreams, but as time elapsed, Flavius realized that feelings could not overlap his important duty and submissively continued his job. Gradually his heart hardened. Only one thing rejoiced him: if she had called for him, that demonic disease must have left her…
“Mother!”

He gaped all around the cubiculum as a gladiator searches for his last opponent in the arena. The room was dark, and he assumed it had been quiet just before his violent irruption since the noisy, hoarse breathing had halted. Actea stood near the window, gaping at the mosaics on the walls, wearing a white, embroidered tunic. As she pivoted her head, the steel fist of sorrow squeezed his heart. Her wrinkled yet once so vigorous face was battered with fatigue. Her curly silver hair had lost their thick, healthy appearance.
“You’ve come,” she breathed, smiling sadly.
“How do you feel?” he uttered, calmly approaching her.
“I curse hell for this disease,” she replied, “Now it has left me, or what remains of me.”
“Don’t be anxious,” he uttered, “You’re just convalescent. Soon you’ll be just like before.”
“Aye. I’m afraid soon you’ll never have to worry for me again.”
“Don’t say that! I forbid you!” he roared, and Actea might have been terrorized if she did not know it was her son furiously grasping her arm. Instead she raised her chin indignantly and sternly glared at the young man.
“What is it now? A few weeks are enough for you to forget all I’ve taught you? I thought you knew better than ignoring respect. I’d say you’re still a child. Greece isn’t far; find some good pedagogue to finish your education.”

That last phrase whacked his mind so hard that all his anger instantly turned into compunction. In a flash lord Flavius lost six years and was that tiny, pesky, rebellious boy getting castigated for the hundredth time. Humiliated, he squatted on the floor, his back against the wall, burying his face within his hands, wishing that the monster that terrified Garret would emerge from nowhere and devour his heart. He felt an arm on his shoulders and a hand rubbing his backbone.
“You still have much to learn, my son,” spoke the elderly woman, kneeling beside him, “You’ll keep losing people you love throughout your life. People are like shooting stars in the night sky. That’s just the way things are.”
“Well thanks,” moaned Flavius, “I know the laws of nature.”
“It seems like you don’t know the importance of repeating,” she chortled.

She gently took hold of his hand and pressed it against her heart.
“When I knew your father would never come back,” she sighed, “I sobbed for weeks and I attempted to commit suicide several times. That was the most selfish period of my life. Imagine! You would be all alone without a mother and our lands would be abandoned. Anyway, I didn’t call you to narrate you my life. Before I go, let me give you your
last lesson.”

Her breath quickened and her grip on his hand loosened. For a moment, Flavius believed that he had already lost his mother.
“Remember one thing,” she croaked nonetheless, “Stay close to God.”
“What?” exclaimed Flavius, “You hardly ever talk about religion.”
“I know. I just didn’t want you to be like…them.”
“Them?”
“Worms of this rotten apple that our empire has become. But that doesn’t matter for now. Do as you wish, but keep one thing in mind: there’s always a burden. Don’t accept God’s load, and you’ll obviously have to bear other, heavier ones. In any case, whatever you do, never, never let anyone choose for you who you are. You’re an individual being, which means you may believe what you want to believe, be what you want to be. Remember this, for sooner or later you will learn that independence is the greatest of powers.”
***

Hours passed. Sobbing, the Roman strongly held his mother’s inanimate body against his breast. He was still mournfully hammered by a cruel feeling of emptiness, by the loss of a being that meant all for him. In a desperate effort to ponder on something else, he gawked at the mosaics on the opposite wall. It worked.

Before long he found himself in a vast plain, in the middle of a dreadful rainstorm like he had never seen. Naturally he ran to find shelter, but all he could find was a tree to clutch with all his strength. His hands clasped around the trunk, his legs flying, he hang on with all his remaining strength. Just when he thought he could cling on to his tree until the end of the storm, he saw a blinding light in the clouds, too bright to be the sun. That’s when, astounded, his eyes met with a giant, golden silhouette in that bulb. The imposing torso of a colossus appeared in the stormy clouds. His long, tangled, white hair and beard flew in the wind. His sapphire eyes gazed at him in amusement, and, delighted by such a humorous spectacle, his laughter boomed throughout the landscape. Laughing even harder, shattering his ears, a lightning bolt took shape in his hand. He aimed cautiously and with his bulky arm he thrust his weapon right in the poor man’s direction.
Crack!

With a yelp he woke up. There was a violent thunderstorm outside, but nothing compared to what he had seen. With relief he gaped at the painting representing that pagan god Jupiter casting lightning in a deluge. His imagination had carried him too far. With a sigh he carefully placed his mother in her bed and covered the body with sheets. Unfortunately, her death wasn’t his imagination at all.
“My lord?”
“What?” exclaimed Flavius, startled, “Oh, it’s you, Marcus.”


The guard frowned as he saw the shape under the sheets.
“I—I’m sorry, my lord,” he mumbled.
“It’s fine, Marcus,” articulated the lord, making great efforts to keep his tears inside.
“My lord, the sentinels have spotted a cluster of riders galloping through the rain. They’re coming in this direction. We believe they’re some embassy.”
“Riders...How many?”
“I would say about a hundred.”
“Very well. Ask that stable boy to fetch my horse and gather a few dozen horsemen. We shall greet these men before they enter my residence.”
***


Keeping his chin raised despite his desire to protect his face from the pouring rain, Flavius rode in the fields, his riders closely following him. The sentinels had not lied: he spotted the group a mile ahead of them. He noticed they held a large banner blowing in the gale. This can’t be! He yelled to himself. The flag bore two keys and a crown. It was a papal army.

When no more than ten meters lay between the two groups, they both halted. No word was exchanged as they scrutinized each other. Differing from Flavius’ henchmen, who wore at the most breastplates and greaves, the papal knights were entirely confined in steel, head and all. They held their spears high but didn’t move an inch. Their mounts were equally still and armored but grunted loudly and angrily, more like boars than the horses they were.

The leading rider snatched the flag, and, as his horse reared and gnashed her teeth, he planted it practically right in front of Flavius. Doing his best not to tremble, Flavius spoke up as loud as his vocal cords allowed him:
“I am Flavius Acteus Scaeva, governor of Southern Pannonia*. You are welcome to enter my province. However I must know your reasons and intentions.”

The leader trotted towards him and as he approached, Flavius could hear his heavy breathing.
“I am Priscus, general of the papal army. The divine monarch of the civilized world has demanded that I inspect this region.”

As he removed his helm, Flavius discovered a pale, aged, and hard countenance. A black scar ran from his left cheek to below his chin.
“You must be exhausted, general Priscus,” stated Flavius, “Rome is far away. We have food and shelter.”
“Yes, the road was long. Fortunately, we had with us a talented guide who had many shortcuts in memory. Am I right, Saxon?”
“I have done my best, general,” said a familiar voice.

A second rider parted from the army and joined the two men. He flung off his helm and Flavius recognized that long, blond hair and these deep, azure pearls on both sides of a straight nose.
“Well, Algar,” grinned the landlord, “It seems you haven’t changed one bit!”
“Nay, I have other things to do.”

They dismounted, ran, and literally crashed into each other, laughing, weeping, regardless of Priscus’ inexpressive glance and his knights’ strange looks. Flavius didn’t have many friends other than the peasants and the soldiers of his territory, but he had been through so much with Algar the mercenary: that campaign against the Sassanids in the East. They had cried together, killed together, bled together, suffered together, rejoiced together… and at last they were united once again. That was all that counted for now.
“What about your mother?” asked Algar, “You kept talking about her…”
“She finished breathing a few hours before your arrival,” whispered Flavius, looking at his feet, feeling culpable one again for having forgotten Actea.
*Pannonia: Western Hungary



“Oh,” replied the Saxon, biting his tongue, “Well, feel lucky. In these times it’s pretty rare to ever get to know your mother. I’d have liked to see mine if she hadn’t died after offering me her first and last gift: my life.”

Flavius let out a tear and hugged his friend. His cheerfulness had resurged once again. That’s what Actea would have wanted he thought with a smile.
“Excuse me,” interfered Priscus’ blank voice, “I believe I must inform you that we will organize a conference in my pavilion tomorrow at twilight. There are several things that you would not consider negligible and that we must discuss.”

He turned to his men.
“Prepare the tents!”

As Flavius cantered away with his men, great battles raged inside his mind. He did not know what to think about these visitors. The image of that Priscus and his ‘metallic’ attitude flashed in his thoughts, and he thought he would have felt quite awkward if Algar wasn’t present. He ended up silently laughing at himself for his intuitive, pointless…fear. After all, these men were indirectly messengers of God. So what was there to fear?
















Tribulations



The vast plains stretched out for miles and miles. No trees, no bushes, no mountains, nothing but green grass at the mercy of sun and rain. That was his true land. Balamber the Hun rode through the plains, his plains, breathing the air that he once could inhale without feeling a pang of nostalgia. His long hair flew wildly behind him as he raced among the spirits of his predecessors.


Once the Huns roamed the plateau. Once king Attila himself held his court here. Yet when the Hunnic Empire was no more, the tribes fled into hiding, in the mountains or in the woods. Indeed, the plains offered no shelter. Balamber remembered the pain in his father’s look when he announced they were forced to leave. He was but a child back then, he did not realize what it meant for his people to be separated from the lands of their fathers. Now he felt like a bear in a desert. Therefore, once a moon—his rank of chief didn’t allow him any more often—he left the tribe and galloped for hours into, despite his change of dwelling, what he still named home.


When he reached the foot of a hillock, he solemnly dismounted, leaving time for his steed to graze. The Hun pulled out his sword, a curved, Mongol blade, and knelt to the ground. He planted the sword before him and shut his eyes. He felt the grass with his fingers, digging into the soil with in his nails.
“Oh, Tengri,” he whispered, “My people’s values are ill. They argue, lie, and grow arrogant. Please bless them, give them back their honor. Please give me the strength to lead them, as my father did before me. Please give us back our lands…”


In alarm he heard something budge on the hill. It couldn’t be a deer; they were too shy to approach any human being, besides shamans like Kuldra. He threw himself to the side just in time—but not soon enough to avoid the arrow, originally meant for his back, which buried its tip into his shoulder. He roared at the sharp dolor and in a flash pulled out a short bow and an arrow from his quiver. One projectile was enough to slay his mounted attacker, whom he did not have time to identify, but there were others. He mounted his stallion as more arrows whistled around him. Zigzagging, he took time to learn the position of each enemy. They were all on horses, posted on the hill and firing. One of them detached from the group and charged right at the leader, yelling and cursing, as if suddenly mad. Balamber shot him like a rabbit. “Pathetic!” he spat, “My own people have forgot how to control themselves. How farther down can we get?”
“Spare us your teachings, Balamber,” they shouted hatefully, “No longer shall the Huns have you as their chief!”


The leader analyzed the situation. They were four, and that was enough to bring him down with their bows. Additionally, they had the high ground. Desperate to keep his temper, he circled the hummock.
“If you really are Huns,” he cried as he dodged another bolt, “Stop cowering on your mound and cross blades with me!”
“Do you think us so foolish?” one bawled, “Why would we give up the chance to safely murder you when we’ve awaited it for years?”
“Perchance are you afraid? You’re lucky your mothers aren’t there, they’d have died
of shame.”


That last phrase directly attacked what may be considered a dangerous Achilles’ heel in the Huns: pride. Not arrogance, but pride, pride of their culture, of their leaders, of their legends; pride of being what they were. Other peoples knew not to meddle with that strong feeling. To insult a Hun’s pride was to make an eternally determined enemy, but Balamber had no other choice but to attempt to blind them with their anger.


The four riders cantered down the hill, reluctantly at first, but with increasing enthusiasm. They halted only ten feet from their opponent and dismounted. As they were closer, the leader, having hoped to learn their identities, noticed that they were hooded. Balamber imitated them; having left his sword at the hill, he seized two, long daggers.


The assassins cautiously paced towards him, holding out their scimitars, forming a semi circle around their chief. This surely wasn’t Balamber’s first fight, yet drops of sweat rolled down his cheeks. He observed each one of their movements, trying to perceive the instant they would strike. He had learned to anticipate every blow by simply listening to his opponents’ breathing rhythm and watching every twitch and gesture. For example, some quick motion due to excitement could betray the instant of the attack. Balamber was fully aware of his capacities and of the respect it inspired, yet he wondered if he stood a chance against the four masked figures.


He noticed with ease a quick inhalation from the left murderer and managed to block his high swing with one of his daggers, goring his liver with the other. He had little time to rejoice at the sight of the traitor bringing his head to his knees on the ground like a dying wasp and screaming in a pool of blood, for his three companions lunged to avenge the fallen warrior. He failed to escape a gouging in the shoulder but angrily kicked an assailant in the groin and slashed his belly open while sparring with the two others. The poor conspirator yelled and crumpled to the soil. The pair fought surprisingly well, and Balamber’s shoulder stung excruciatingly. He found no other solution but to throw his dagger in an unfortunate chest, even though it left him with only one weapon, so he could concentrate on one offender. He hopped to the right, avoiding a mid-jab, caught his wrist and twisted it until the bone snapped in a terrible crack. Untouched by his blood-curling cries of pain and his pleas for mercy, he tore the hood off. The unlucky attacker was very young, no older than fourteen, and with long, curly hair like most Huns and sharp green eyes.
“Kutri!” gasped the leader, “Not you too!”
“My lord,” he sobbed, feeling crushed by Balamber’s cruelly disappointed eyes, “I— ”
“Silence!” he snapped, “So that’s what all my teachings have led to? I thought better of you, filth! You deserve to die for your shame!”
“Balamber…’
“Silence, I said! You’ve betrayed your own chief, the one that every Hun worthy of that name and of this tribe owes unlimited loyalty to. Feel very lucky to be still in possession of your unmerited life. Who sent you?”
“I’ve sworn allegiance to our group! He’ll kill me if I denounce him!”
“To hell with your allegiance! Would you rather I kill you now?” he bellowed, seizing him by the back of the neck and pressing the flat of his blade on his throat, “Speak!”
“All right, all right!” he squeaked, “It was Dengiz! He told us—N’bhrak, Rua, Adelb, Karach, Taan, and I—terrible things.”
“What things?” urged Balamber, a slight change in his tone.
“He said that—that you killed him.”
“Him?”
“I c-c-can’t,” he stuttered.
“Tell me!”
“He said that you killed—Ernakh.”
“WHAT?” he cried, “And you believed that?”
“I’m sorry,” muttered Kutri.
“I’m dreaming,” he gargled, letting go of the boy and clasping his hands on his face, “I knew Dengiz never really appreciated me, but to invent these—these slanders!”


Balamber’s straight hair quivered and rose as a soft breeze slithered through the plain, bristling the grass. Kutri trembled violently, staring down.
“You’re right,” he mumbled, “I don’t deserve to live.”


He snatched a dagger from his furry belt with his hand, the one that was still in good shape. As he slowly pointed it toward his heart, a strong, leather boot kicked it out of his grip. Balamber stood there, tall and straight. The breeze had turned into a fierce gale that swept through the landscape, and the leader’s hair now reared like stallions. The gash in the shoulder bled continuously, but he didn’t seem to notice. His terrible eyes glared straight through Kutri’s, and the sight was so impressive that for a second the boy thought that Tengri himself had descended from the heavens. In truth, in front of him stood stoicism, strength, and leadership. In front of him stood the very spirit of the Huns in person.
“No, Kutri,” he boomed, “You will not die today. Instead you shall go in exile for two moons so you can meditate on the consequences of treason. Return to the camp. You’re lucky Kuldra has decided to leave his forest for a few days and spend some time with us. Ask him to heal you and take all the supplies you need. Make sure you leave before dusk. Be gone, now.”


The boy mounted his horse hastily and set off.
“Tengri bless you,” he called as he galloped towards the camp.


Once he was alone, Balamber took care of burying the corpses. It was a hard task with nothing but a dagger to dig in the ground, but it took him a little more than an hour. He sneered at their faces, but as their leader he felt obligated to give them a proper burial. The job done, he fetched his horse and mounted. He glanced one last time at the five mounds of earth at the foot of the hill.
“You die in indignity,” he told them, “But you were brave Huns nonetheless. May your souls rest in peace. (He cocked his head) As for you, Dengiz, I will have a word with you sooner than you think.”
***


The shaman treaded through the camp, unused to the atmosphere after all these moons in the woods yet glad to be amongst his kin. He was easily recognizable and well-known since his visits were very infrequent, and he was occasionally saluted by men and woman, from outside or inside the yurts. Even his stride was familiar: two long steps followed by a short ‘clop’ from his tall staff. Children called to him from the top of a tree or ran up to him to see ask for anecdotes in the forest. Each time he chuckled and sent them off, telling them that they would hear everything at the fireplace tonight. He reached the chief’s hut, which was guarded by two bowmen. He grinned and stepped inside—removing, of course, the famous antlers—as they respectfully greeted him. The chief’s ‘throne’, no more than a high wooden chair elevated by several twigs, was empty. He had expected that. The shaman took a seat on a comfortable wolf’s pelt to the right of the chair, quietly humming a long-forgotten ballad to himself. He took a tiny bag made out of stoat fur, no bigger than his thumb, and pulled off the string that closed it. The sack was full of white powder. The elder poured some in the palm of his hand and fractioned both of them for several seconds. Next he smeared the powder on his cheeks until they were chalky and as white as snow. Satisfied, he began to design intricate pictograms with his powdered fingers on the black soil. Most were exclusively memorable to him. Indeed, they came from a distant time, centuries before the Huns had left faraway Mongolia to conquer the Western world, a time so ancient that it had been embellished with all sorts of legends over the decades.


He tilted his head and listened. He instantly distinguished the footfalls that approached the yurt. He managed to intercept a few words from outside: Kuldra… inside…wants to see you…
“You’ve come,” said Balamber joyfully as he penetrated the dwelling. Kuldra clumsily stood up and the chief knelt down in respect. The shaman smiled and told him to rise back up. The two friends hugged, Kuldra not feeling crushed despite his old age.
“It’s so good to see you,” whispered Balamber, “a scout told me you would arrive.”
“That donkey ruined the surprise,” he joked as they sat back down, face to face.


The close friendship between the two men was explained by the fact that the leader, as a child, rarely ever saw his father. Ernakh seemed to have too many preoccupations to take care of his son, and his first wife, Karna, died right after Balamber opened his eyes for the first time. The former leader chose Kuldra to take the charge of his education. As a young boy, he spent many years in the forest with the shaman to learn the ways of nature, how to live with it and how to use it without harming it in any way. He also taught him the way of the blade and the bow, battle tactics, and enriched his imagination with countless stories. When it was Balamber’s turn to rule the Huns, Ernakh’s son knew it meant the end of wandering in the woods with his preceptor, yet he rejoiced for he could now show the result of all his patience.
“Did you tend to Kutri’s wounds?” asked the leader.
“Yes. And I see a shoulder that needs attention as well before it gets infected,” he chortled at the sight of his blood-stained clothes.
“I’ve had a few…troubles,” he wavered.
“I know. Kutri said it all.”
“He has? Brave boy. But I believe I’ve made the right choice in punishing him. May I ask you a favor?”
“Speak.”
“Can you go see him from time to time? I mean…just make sure he’s fine?”
“You can count on me. Don’t worry about it. Tell me, what does Dengiz have

against you?”
“An old story. As children, we always had arguments that ended in violent blows. He kept saying that my father was a foolish tyrant, that he enslaved us all. He believes in anarchy, apparently. But, at adulthood, we both fell in love with the same woman, Velna. When she chose me, Dengiz’ little dislike turned to eternal hatred. I must say, I’m quite surprised though. I didn’t think he’d actually conspire against me. I’ve been too naïve.”
“Unfortunately, even the least naïve are starting to realize something,” frowned Kuldra, “The Huns are changing. Time covers their honor as dust covers weapons. Their hearts are stained, their values are fading. Can you feel it too?”
“Aye,” he spoke softly, remembering his prayer at the hill, “Yet this problem seems out of my reach. Everyday, I helplessly watch the spirits of my own people rotting to the bone. And all I can do is to pester Tengri to help me put things the way they were before.”
“Tengri isn’t responsible for this…”
“I never said that!” he exclaimed.
“…And neither are the Huns. Balamber, my friend, this is all the Phoenix’s doing.”
“The Phoenix? Why would he do this to us? We’ve never bothered him! Most of us barely know his existence.”
“Have you forgotten your father? His debt?”
“His debt? He…”
“Yes, I know. ‘He was killed on the way home’…I’ve heard this a dozen times. I’m sorry, but that false information was spread by some scouts to prevent you from abandoning the tribe and leave it without a chief. Balamber, I’m sorry, but your father has failed. His blood must replace him.”
“Then I must go! Right away!”


He sprang to his feet and turned to his guards, and opened his mouth to say something.
“Oh no, Balamber,” grinned Kuldra before he could utter a word, “You’re not going anywhere. You’re a strong chief, and the Huns have many enemies. The scouts were right, the tribe needs you. Your place is here, among the Huns. Let me take care of this.”
“But his blood…”
“Trust me,” he said calmly, “Trust your old friend.”


The old man stood up as well, picking up his staff. The leader apologized for his irritation, slightly ashamed.
“Bah, it had to happen,” grinned Kuldra, “Well, well; I guess I’ll go see these children out there. I promised them a good story.”
“As for me,” said Balamber sternly, “There’s somebody I ought to see now.”
“Don’t be too harsh,” warned Kuldra, “Be cautious. He’s a treacherous beast.”


The ruler didn’t answer. His eyes stared right in front of him, ferociously determined.
***
“Dengiz!”


The rider stood there ten meters from the entrance of the yurt. Balamber’s horse reared menacingly as his master unsheathed his scimitar. Saliva fell from the steed’s lip and his mane and his hooves brutally stomped the earth.
“Dengiz!”


Balamber held the weapon high in the air, reflecting the red light of the setting sun, making it look more like a torch from far-off. His cheeks were red, his whole body was stiff, his blood kept dripping down from his shoulder, forming a small, red pool.
“Dengiz!”


The horse reared again, neighing terrifyingly. Balamber’s bloodshot eyes showed a spark of impatience. He repeatedly raised and lowered his blade in excitement and his legs hammered against the stallion’s haunches.
“DENGIZ!”


This time, a figure appeared behind the entrance. He had a long black moustache and small, evil eyes. His neck and arms were crushed with jewels and bracelets. Dengiz was the wealthiest Hun—if not, the wealthiest barbarian—in Pannonia.
“Oh, it’s you,” he said falsely surprised, and then, with exaggerated reverence, “What do you wish from me, most divine leader of the tribe?”
“Stop licking my boots and listen closely,” he snarled, “You’ve sent murderers to kill me. Even worse, you’ve told them lies about my father’s death. This time, you go too far!”
“I don’t understand!” cried Dengiz, seemingly shocked.
“Silence when I speak! Tomorrow morning I will go visit my uncle, leader of the tribe near the lake. By the time I come back, pack up, bring everything you need, and leave!”
“Never!” he snapped, suddenly aggressive, “You think I’m like all the others who foolishly obey your orders, like sheep! But no, I’ll never take orders from a tyrant!”
“You’re right. You wish to live with nothing but your money as leader, so be it! If you refuse my dominion, leave!”
“Not in your dreams!”
“If you’re still there by the time I return, I’ll make sure you’re gone for good.”


With that he pulled an arrow out of his quiver and flung it so it landed right between the rich Hun’s legs.
“Think about it,” he growled as he swiftly cantered away from his most hated enemy after the Romans.










Revelations

Once in the town, those who had fled like deer,
Wiped off their sweat and drank their thirst away,
Leaning against the cool stone of their ramparts.
Meanwhile Achaeans with bright shields aslant
Came up the plain and nearer. As for Hector,
Fatal destiny pinned him where he stood,
Before the Scaean Gates, outside the city.

Of all authors, Flavius preferred the Greek writers. And of all books, his personal favorite was Homer’s Iliad. The epic tale of the siege of Troy forced tears out of his eyes each time they read the small, Greek text. He admired above all the Trojan warrior Hector, who fell against the Achaean hero Achilles. He esteemed his courage and his will to defend his city at all costs. On the other hand, he despised Achilles’ arrogance and cruelty. He reminded him of the neighboring landowners.

It was late afternoon. The meeting would commence in a few hours. Flavius offered himself a few minutes of reading, lying on a couch and eating grapes, to disregard his anxiety at least for a while by stepping into the world of legend. If only things were simple like in myths he often thought quixotically. He recalled his first encounter with mythology: Actea constantly threatened him that the Minotaur would gobble him when he refused to sleep or when he bothered the sentinels. He dreaded that name Minotaur until he had the courage to ask his mother what it was. Since then he dreamt of the tale of that deadly labyrinth in which the monstrous beast lurked. With time he asked to hear more myths and grew an everlasting fascination.
“Ah, if only I could read Greek” sighed a voice.
“AAH!”

That rough, raspy accent surprised him of course, yet the fact that a head was peering over his shoulder while he believed to be perfectly alone left him stunned. And not any, ordinary head: it was tattooed with black marks, bearded, bony, and with two deer antlers coming out from a dark, furry hood. In his shock he tumbled off the couch, followed by the book and the fruit.
“I see. The antlers destabilize you.”

The lord rose clumsily. His ‘guest’ chuckled croakily and removed the horns, carelessly dropping them. Garbed with rags, he rested his elbow on his staff, his eyes wandering around the room.
“A very nice room. Yet you should remove that marble statue. It takes too much space.”
“Who—who are you?” articulated Flavius.
“A monster. A bear to be more precise.”
“Don’t fool with me, stranger. Do you wish me to call the guards?”
“But isn’t it what you said to that funny little boy?”

With a gulp his memories flashed to his talk with Garret the other day. He frowned and glowered at the old man.
“Not only have you caused fright amongst the peasants,” he snapped, “You also spied on us, old fool!”
“I believe you confuse the words ‘spy’ and ‘overhear’. Wind always carries all sorts of sounds to us shamans.”
“How did you get in here?” he raged.
“We shamans have our ways.”
“Very well, master shaman,” said Flavius, doing his best to stay calm, “Can I at least know the reason of your intrusion?”
“Have you ever heard of Ernakh the Hun?”
“I have,” he nodded, “Wasn’t he the most wanted barbarian chief in the Roman world back then?”
“Yes…you can put it that way. Do you also remember how he ended?”
“He eventually was captured and decapitated, am I correct?”
“I was sure you’d answer that. Alas, you’re wrong, my friend. The Romans spread that that erroneous information after he disappeared.”
“But—”
“In fact, did you know he had a son with a Roman woman? No, obviously…His son still breathes, and his name is Maarnakh, but people call him differently. The queerest is that he wasn’t aware of all this until now.”
“How do you know all of that? And why did you reveal it to me?”
“There are things that I must know. And if you weren’t so tense, you would understand.”

Until now. These two words boomed in his head. Flavius bristled and made a few steps backwards.
“You don’t mean that…”

The shaman tapped the lord’s shoulder with one hand and pushed away the hair that dissimulated his forehead. In response, Flavius angrily turned away.
“My father was Julius Acteus Nerva, and he was a nobleman, not a barbarian! He was assassinated in Africa a few months after my birth; he didn’t vanish in thin air! He was respected and admired, not hated and despised!”
“I am not familiar with any Nerva. All I can conjecture is that your mother has hidden the truth from you.”
“You lie!”
“Let me finish. When your real father tried to save his people from Roman pursuers, your mother accompanied him. She was already awaiting you. At the end of the battle, Actea was dying. I can tell you you’ve escaped an almost certain death, my dear friend. That’s when the Phoenix intervened.”
“Phoenix?”
“An extremely powerful being. I often act as his speaker. He accepted to heal Actea if Ernakh travelled alone to his temple in Egypt, where the two snakes meet. After giving you your name—which your mother has hidden from you as well, it seems—he left. I waited for years. From time to time I asked the spirits of Nature about our leader. They remained silent. Ernakh never came back.


Yesterday, as I attempted to do so once again, I felt the Phoenix’s essence. It told me that Ernakh was no more. After letting me weep for several instants, it reminded me that it was time that the Hun’s blood should succeed where he had failed. You must believe me, Maarnakh.”
“My name is FLAVIUS” he cried, “I’m sorry, old man. I am no Hun. My place is here, in Pannonia. I will stay there and do my task as lord of this province: protect my land. I cannot help you.”
“I wouldn’t be so certain…”
“Enough! I must now ask you to leave.”
“Your desires are orders for an old man, my lord. But don’t expect it to be the same for the Phoenix. Even I do not know his reasons, but he is stubborn and won’t leave you in peace until you are obligated to head for Egypt. He won’t falter to beset you with all kinds of troubles. Even the elements will turn against you.”
“So be it, I defy the elements!” retorted Flavius, standing straight and unsheathing his blade, “Go now.”


The old Hun picked up the two antlers, fitted them on his head, and shambled towards the exit, murmuring to himself. For the last time, he looked back
“You really are your father’s son.”


After his departure, Flavius picked up his book and surprisingly noticed it vibrated in his hands. He realized his body was trembling from toe to hair.

***



Dusk unfolded her red wings, covering the vast forestlands. The Danube’s cold water slowly turned orange. The first night birds appeared whilst the day creatures hustled to their high nests or underground burrows. Not far from the peasants, who returned to their humble homes after a day of labor, was a throng of soldier tents.


In the heart of that multitude, Flavius strode, his mind still beleaguered by the words of that shaman, and doubtful on what to think. That Phoenix story is ridiculous, he assured himself, That man is mad. He passed by a few knights once in a while. Their allure had not changed one bit, and he conjectured that behind these helms were eyes full of hostility. He nonetheless saluted them and ignored their silence. Before long he found himself just before the main pavilion where the meeting was meant to transpire. He clearly wasn’t the first to arrive. The tent was illuminated from the inside and he distinguished mobile silhouettes. He advanced a few steps, yet something suddenly froze him to his feet. His breathing came to a halt. Guarding the entrance stood a figure he believed would never leave his thoughts.


A man or a beast? That question trotted through his brain. The body held a torch with one hand and the other rested on a huge double-axe. The two were connected to colossal arms that could have strangled an elephant. Footed with black leather boots and wearing ample trousers, his torso was bare and impressively bulky. Flavius noticed that it was also scarred with an infinite number of red whip slashes. His long, chestnut, filthy hair would have given fits to Actea if she was still there to see it, even if it wasn’t her son’s. At the top of a monstrous neck was a head essentially covered with hair and beard. But the most appalling were his hateful, flaming eyes.


After interminable instants of observation and bewilderment, Flavius straightened his back and took a few steps cautiously. You’re not afraid of a vulgar barbarian, are you?... Taking deep inspirations, he drew nearer to the guard. To his surprise,


he respectfully inclined his head and stepped away. That servile attitude almost made Flavius chuckle, both at himself and at man with the axe.
“Ah, here we are,” said Priscus, standing up from his chair, “Hail, Flavius Acteus Scaeva. Take a seat, the meeting may now commence.”


About fifteen people sat around a round table with candles. Flavius took time to look at their visages: Priscus’ captains, the most numerous, showed stern, dull expressions. It was the first he saw their faces. He recognized a few of his men, who stopped whispering to each other at his arrival. He noticed Algar beckoning to him and he sat down between the mercenary and the head of the sentinels.
“Now,” spoke the general, satisfied, “Let us go straight to the important. You Pannonians are probably wondering why I and my men have been sent to travel all the way to your country in these dangerous times. Indeed, we have lost several valiant soldiers in the journey, this due to vicious barbarian attacks.
“Since a few months, strange, bewildering rumors permeate through the Empire, from Greece to Hispania, from Britannia to Palestine, and even in Rome, the glorious, eternal city. The Pope, at the sight of the odd fear that animates the people, answered to their call. That is the reason why we are here, where it all began.
“You must be getting impatient, for I have still not explained the rumor itself. Be prepared for grave news, men. A barbarian village was arbitrarily discovered by a hunter not far from here. They weren’t Goths, nor Franks, nor Gepids. The hunter was experienced and with great apprehension recognized their tongue. They were Huns.”
“Huns?” interrupted Flavius, “In Pannonia? I thought they dwelt in the East.”
“As you know,” continued Priscus, “A few decades from now, the Huns swarmed in this province. Indeed, they slaughtered and plundered our lands, and Rome itself was threatened. After the death of their leader, a demon whose name I shall not pronounce, no man was strong enough to replace him and their empire was scattered into many tribes. Only Ernakh’s tribe caused us trouble for a while. We caught him and severed his head one night, near the Danube, ten years ago. Since then we believed our trouble with these abominations were over. Yet now, Roman scouts have seen the village as well. We have its exact location.”


Flavius senses a wave of consternation in the tent, as if the Huns beleaguered the tent, awaiting a barked order to charge. Only Priscus stayed impassive.
“Therefore,” he pursued, “Military intervention is crucial. That is why we are here. We must destroy the nest before the wasps choose to attack. Tomorrow, we will set out and do so, after that we will return to Rome. Of course we shall benefit from your support, shan’t we, Scaeva?”


As every eye turned to him, Flavius stood up.
“You say you are sure there are Huns in the area?”
“Absolutely.”


The lord crossed his arms, his eyes lost in emptiness.
“I’m not sure about this,” he affirmed after a few instants.


The papal soldiers’ eyes flashed with anger. Some trembled in irritation.
“I’m not used to contradictions,” coughed Priscus, still as emotionless as ever, “My plan could save you. What is wrong with it?”
“Well,” he went on, “You might imagine it is difficult to be a Roman lord in a province where Roman legions are slowly replaced by barbarian tribes. You’re right.


The Goths caused us some problems a long time ago, but we ended up treating peacefully, in such a way that their leader is almost a friend. Apart from that, we and barbarians don’t necessarily appreciate each other but to the least show respect for one another. Naturally, nearby lords will tell you entirely different stories. We were frequently summoned to settle conflicts between Romans and Goths or Gepids. Apparently, these landowners still don’t understand that their arrogance will only make things worse. Tell me, Priscus: if we attack these Huns, won’t it arouse their anger? If we shed their blood and burn their huts, won’t they desire revenge?”
“You deer-hearted coward!” snarled a papal captain, leaving no time to Flavius to see his subjects’ advocating looks, “No wonder barbarian tribes are replacing Roman legions! People like you are responsible for the decline of Rome!”
“Fool!” snapped Priscus to the captain, “What image of us are you giving? Your back will feel the whip tonight!”
“The whip won’t be useful for now,” interceded Flavius, “Let us continue.”
“Scaeva,” replied Priscus, “I am not idiotic like captain Lucius and I understand your feelings. Yet, it seems you forget that we speak not of Goths and Gepids. We speak of Huns.”
“Remember that the Huns would have been little more than nomadic riders if their king wasn’t Attila. And you’ve said it yourself: After the death of the demon as you call him, he could not be replaced.”
“Flavius, we cannot take risks!” cried Algar, “We must eradicate them!”
“I strongly disagree. To insult their pride would be an even greater risk.”
“Whatever you say, you have no choice but to obey,” said Priscus, exaggeratedly articulating.
“That’s wrong,” retorted the head of the sentinels, “Our land is no longer in the Roman Empire.”
“You are as naïve as a child,” sneered Priscus, “The Emperor refused to give us his support. He belies the truth of the rumor, claiming it is a simple hoax. Nonetheless, remember that as a Christian lord, Scaeva and all his people’s loyalty to the Pope is undisputable. He turned to his men: “Men, tomorrow we will avenge our ancestors on the battlefield. Tomorrow, the dreaded predators will flee like rabbits! Feel no pity; perform your duty with zeal. It is the will of the Church.”
“Aye!” shouted the captains.
“At our return, we will be greeted like heroes!”
“Aye!”
“This is mad, but you have said it, I have no choice,” let out Flavius, “Go to sleep, men. Tomorrow we head for the village.”

He noticed a certain deception in his followers. Embarrassed, he bid them goodnight and strode out of the tent.
***

A mild breeze blew across the land. Flavius felt it flow like water right through his body and every muscle beneath his skin relaxed. He stood on top of the fortified wall. This time he wasn’t dreamily admiring the landscape. His eyes shot straight up at the night sky. They jumped from one cold star to the other, almost begging. They scanned the freckled, black quilt, desperately searching for something irrational, something that would change what should be changed. Whether it settled everything or simply carried him off to an illogical world, that did not matter. The importance wasn’t there. He needed it—not even knowing what it was—above anything. He felt frantically lost without his mother, and that feeling forced him to his knees. He felt a hand shake him gently. He didn’t care. He had to find it…soon. The shaking augmented.
“Flavius! Wake up!”


He opened his eyes to see a blond man tugging his shoulder. He was still on the wall, and it was still night. The stars were still there, and the it was still absent.
“Algar…”
“If I hadn’t come to have a look at the stars, you would have stayed here all night,” he chuckled.

He wore no armor, which gave him a friendlier appearance. He pulled out a knife and played with it.
“Don’t worry about tomorrow. After we’ve done it, you’ll be glad you came. And it won’t last very long, I promise.”
“Algar, I fear vengeance. The Huns are proud, aren’t they?”
“Don’t act as if you knew them. If they’re all dead, how can they take vengeance?”
“You never know…By the way, who is that man in front of the tent?”
“Eh?”
“The guard with the axe.”
“Oh, I see. That one. Impressive, isn’t he?”
“Indeed.”
“Don





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