Authors: Stephen Baxter
‘You’ve not won it yet,’ somebody dared call out.
There was a mutter, people looked at each other, and soldiers prowled menacingly.
‘No!’ shouted Fabius. ‘No, let him be. He speaks the truth, after all. This war is not yet won. The siege is not lifted. It might take months yet. Years.
, if it were
not for me, if not for my vigilance and the vigilance of my men,
the war would already have been lost.
’ He turned to Nelo, and murmured, ‘Pass me one of those heads, boy. And for
Jupiter’s sake keep the innards from spilling on your clean tunic.’
When he had the trophy, Fabius held it aloft, its red hair grasped in one strong fist. People gasped and turned away.
‘Do you see?’ Fabius cried. ‘Do you see what my men found in your city? Do you see what we are up against? If we had not rooted them out, these infiltrators would have opened
up the gates in the night, and slaughtered you men in your beds – your children next – and then they would have fallen on your daughters and your wives. This is the horror that I have
averted. This very morning!’ He pitched the head into the crowd, and people flinched back out of its way as it bounced and rolled. ‘I cannot promise you a quick victory. Nobody could.
But I can promise you there will be no quick defeat. I can promise you that Carthage will throw off these wolves at the gate, and will rise again. I can promise you all this. Here, you see the
proof! What can the old men on that hill promise you, but to bring me down?
‘Well, this morning I have been summoned to account for my actions. I am a good Roman, and a good Carthaginian. I will obey the summons. But will you come with me?’
‘Will you be at my side?’
‘Will you, will you?’
At that moment Fabius’ driver whipped his horses, and the chariot lurched forward, through the gate and into the Byrsa. The cart followed, the piled-up heads rolling and rattling
perilously, and then came the gathering crowd. Nelo saw Gisco take brisk command, ensuring that the general was secure, and that the chariot was escorted by flanking soldiers.
The chariot rolled up a broad avenue towards the summit of this central mound, passing through the Hannibal Quarter, a district that Nelo had heard of but had never visited before. There were
shops, temples and grand government buildings here, all in shining stone, some faced with marble, and in much better order than the lower city. Yet as in the rest of Carthage those shops that
weren’t selling essentials, such as shoes, clothes, food and oil, seemed mostly to have been turned over to habitation. These days even the Byrsa was crowded with nestspills. As Fabius
passed, some of these folk came out to follow him too, joining their grubbier counterparts from the lower city. Whatever Fabius was up to, this was a chance for them to make some noise, to vent
their frustration, and maybe to smash a few windows and crack a few skulls in the process.
Soon a great tide of people was washing up the slopes of the Byrsa, carrying Fabius to the house of the Tribunal of One Hundred and Four at the summit. Nelo sketched and sketched.
Fabius glanced at what had been drawn, smiling, folding the pages back. But he frowned when he got to one sketch, of himself holding up the severed head before the crowd of the lower town.
He had to shout above the noise of the crowd. ‘The head of this Scand – he’s looking at me. And the heads in the barrow too, all turned – all looking at me!’
‘It’s what I saw, sir. I mean—’
‘What your heart saw?’
‘The dead Scand and Rus are asking why you betrayed them.’
‘Betrayed?’ His voice was deep, ominous.
Nelo knew he was talking himself into trouble. But he said, ‘One of them spoke to me, sir. Before we managed to kill him. He told me—’
‘That I had invited them in.’
‘And so, you conclude, this is all got up by me. A stunt to impress the rabble.’
‘Yes – no, sir—’
‘It’s all right. I took you under my wing because I believe you see the truth, where other men fail. I can’t complain if you see the truth about me, can I? But it is only a
partial truth, Nelo. Only a necessary lie. Greater truths lie beyond.’
‘These fellows, with their ridiculous red hair and their inability to hide, are of course a fiction, a plant. But the city is riddled with spies, informants, would-be traitors.
That’s the greater truth. And it’s only my strict control of the city, my soldiers’ thorough rooting-out of it all, that keeps us safe. It’s hard and it’s not pretty,
but it’s the truth.
‘The Tribunal of One Hundred and Four think this isn’t enough. Some of them are impatient for war. They want me to ride out with the phalanxes and meet the Hatti on open ground. That
would lose us the war for sure, and I suspect some of them know it in their hearts, but the siege has so ground them down that they’d rather lose it than carry on. I have seen sieges,
I’ve laid them, I’ve survived them. Most sieges last
– that’s what they don’t understand.
‘Others, meanwhile, want to clip my wings. They are envious of my power, my position, and so on. Such envy is a constant in the affairs of human beings. Some, indeed, think my appointment
with the cross is overdue.’ He glanced at his hands, flexing them, as if his palms itched. ‘Again, they want this even though they know it will lose them the war, or at least they
suspect it. They want me downed even so. But I, you see, cannot allow that, Nelo, for my duty is to save Carthage, despite the difficulties I am having with some of the Carthaginians.
‘So it is true that I have rigged this business of the red-headed saboteurs. I’m sure you won’t be the last to spot it. But I am doing it to force the Tribunal, and the elders,
the suffetes and the rest, even the
, the ordinary folk of the city, force them to accept that they need me if they are to survive this war. And that they need to give me a free
Nelo thought he understood. ‘You’re going to take over the government.’
Fabius grinned. ‘It’s happened before, as I know very well, for all literate Romans are perforce taught a great deal about Carthaginian history. A man called Bomilcar, for example,
back in the days even before Carthage went to war with Rome. Not that his coup succeeded, but he had the right idea.
‘It is quite a feat I am attempting,’ he said now. ‘A foreign general who won’t call his troops out to fight the besieging enemy. Hardly a basis for great popularity with
the people, you’d think. Yet here I am, strolling up the Byrsa with a mob at my back.’
‘And if you win today, sir? What then?’
‘Two things. I’m going to want to talk to your people, Nelo.’
‘The Northlanders. I’m aware there’s quite a community of you here, having fled from your own frozen country. And I’m also aware you’ve brought treasure with
Fabius rapped his temple. ‘Up here. Secrets. That’s what I intend to acquire next.’
Nelo thought of his enigmatic conversation with Ontin the doctor, his talk of secretive House of Crow projects, work Nelo had never been able to progress but perhaps others had . . .
‘That’s the first thing,’ Fabius went on. ‘And the second – I will rewrite history, for all time. A Roman defeating Carthage at last! In a manner of speaking at
least. How the Carthaginian historians of the future will spit and fume as they are forced to copy out my name, over and over! And all of this, my boy, you are going to capture with your clever
scribbles. Scribbles that will some day be etched into stone friezes that will cover the walls of the new buildings that will flourish in this miserable old city.’
Now they approached a grand, square building, sitting on a stone pavement on the terraced summit of the hill.
‘Is the Tribunal of One Hundred and Four in session, Gisco?’
The sergeant jogged up to interrogate the guard at the door, then turned. ‘Yes, sir.’
‘Then get those big doors open.’
‘Yes, sir.’ Gisco snapped commands to a soldier nearby. Soon a group of men were running at the doors, swords in hand.
When the doors were open Fabius urged his driver to drive the chariot right into the great palace, into the central chamber itself, to shouts of outrage from the white-robed men who sat in their
rows within. The cart with the severed heads followed too, its wheels leaving trails of blood and mud on the marble floor. Fabius leapt down, ignoring the shouts and pointed fingers of the outraged
Tribunal members, and he started hauling the heads from the cart and throwing them at the members. ‘This is why you need me! And this, and this! This is what I protect the city from!’
The delegates flinched back, as blood and grey skull-matter splashed over their white robes.
Nelo saw it all, everything that came about that day, and fixed it all on paper, scribbling, scribbling.
The ship sailed on, heading west, making for the Sea of the Arabs. The crew toiled to repair the storm damage. Pyxeas grumpily put his notes in order and rewrote those that had
been spoiled by water from the leaks. The weather, for now, was calm.
Then the pirates struck.
Avatak and the scholar were immersed in a deep technical discussion on the absorption of fixed air by a given unit area of farmland, and its production by the burning of the
same unit area of forest. ‘Once men hunted the worldwide forests,’ Pyxeas said. ‘Now they farm – not in Northland and its hinterland, but elsewhere, they farm. It must make
a difference. It must! I nearly have it, Avatak – I nearly have it—’
Bayan burst into the cabin, and slammed the door shut behind him.
Pyxeas glared. ‘What’s this? I left clear instructions not to be disturbed.’
‘Pirates,’ said the boy. His eyes were wide, he was bathed in sweat, and Avatak saw that his shirt was stained red with blood. ‘Yes-yes-yes. Hide me!’ He dived at the
floor, into the heaps of scrolls and books, and burrowed in like a rat into garbage.
‘Get out of there!’ Pyxeas ineffectually pawed at the papers.
‘I’ve never seen pirates like these. Monsters. Killers! Yes-yes-yes!’
Avatak was bemused.
‘Bayan, come on. Al-Quds has beaten off pirates and nestspills before—’
‘They killed al-Quds! Slit his throat with a single swipe – near enough clean took his head off – they killed him, yes-yes-yes, the first heartbeat they were aboard! Oh,
they’re coming, they’re coming . . .’
Avatak heard it now, heavy footsteps, shouting, the scrape of steel – screams. He tried to think. ‘Maybe we can block the door – maybe if we hide—’
It was too late. The door crashed open, smashing off its iron hinges, sending Avatak tumbling back into the little cabin, landing on top of Bayan in a mess of scrolls and parchments.
Pyxeas stood and faced the intruders. ‘You have no business here—’
A gloved fist slammed into the scholar’s mouth, and Avatak heard the crunch of breaking teeth. Pyxeas fell back, landing against the outer wall with a thump, his mouth a bloody mess.
Two men pushed through the door. They seemed huge, their arms and necks bare, their trousers blood-soaked leather, their hair tied back. They had weapons at their waists, cruel-looking swords
and axes. Each had his face covered in intricate tattoos, like a tracery of black-walled veins. Avatak scrambled back against the bunks and reached for his own weapon, a blade hidden in his
mattress. Before he got there one of the pirates grabbed him by the shirt front, raised him with one unbelievably strong arm, and drove his fist into Avatak’s belly. Avatak fell back, doubled
up, hollowed out by pain.
Bayan took his chance. The little Mongol scurried on all fours through the men’s legs and out of the cabin.
As Avatak and Pyxeas lay helplessly, one pirate brutally rummaged through the cabin, lifting the bunks, ripping through heaps of paper, shaking out bundles of clothes. Uzzia’s coat, with
the jewels sewn into the quilting, hung unnoticed on the back of the sagging door.
The other man, who had punched Avatak, grabbed him again. ‘You! The old man’s bum boy, are you?’ He spoke a guttural Persian. With his free hand he roughly frisked Avatak, soon
finding his pouches of coins. ‘That what you are? Bum boy?’
‘Take it,’ Avatak said, his voice a mumble.
‘What? What’s that?’
‘It’s all we have—’
The pirate slapped Avatak. ‘All? Where’s the rest of it? An old man like this, a ship like this – where’s the rest of his treasure, boy? Up your arse? Because if it is
I’ll slit you open to get it.’
‘Not rich. He’s a
’ He had used the Northlander word. He tried again, in Cathay, Mongol. He didn’t know the Persian. Maybe he could make them understand.
Make them spare the old man, even if only through pity. ‘Not rich. His treasure is what he knows.’
The pirate slapped him again, almost routinely. ‘What treasure?’
‘Inside. It’s inside him—’
But the pirate grinned, and threw him down, and Avatak realised he had made a horrible mistake. ‘Ha! That old trick.’ The pirate called over his shoulder. Avatak recognised the words
‘tamarind’ and ‘brine’.
A third man came, carrying a filthy, heavy sack. Avatak’s captor threw this over to the man with Pyxeas.
The scholar lay unmoving on a heap of bloodied manuscripts. The pirate cradled Pyxeas’ neck and raised his shoulders, so that his head was tipped backward. Then he forced open the
scholar’s injured mouth with his fingers, making Pyxeas moan with renewed pain, and held Pyxeas’ nose, and he poured a thick crimson liquid from the sack into the scholar’s mouth.
Pyxeas gagged, choked and struggled feebly, but the pirate held him firmly – almost skilfully, Avatak saw, wondering, almost like a mother in a winter house with a wilful infant – and
Pyxeas had no choice but to swallow, to take in great mouthfuls of the stuff. Then he convulsed and doubled over. With a bark he vomited out a mass of crimson fluid laced with half-chewed
ship’s biscuits, a foul-smelling pool that spread out over the mess of papers under him. The pirate laughed and stood back from the pool, making a show of trying to keep his feet dry. Now
there was a fouler smell, and the pirates laughed again. The man dragged at the old man’s breeches, pulling them down with a casual rip, and Avatak saw shit dribbling from between the
scholar’s skinny buttocks. Soon both men were rummaging in the vomit and shit with their bare hands – looking for Pyxeas’ treasure, which they thought he had swallowed because of
Avatak’s own foolish words. And, he saw, they would keep on doing this in their frustration until they had squeezed the old man dry of every drop of fluid in his body, and perhaps finish the
job by slitting him open. All because of Avatak’s mistake.