Authors: Tim Leach
The Last King of Lydia
is a graduate of the MA writing course at Warwick University, where he has also taught creative writing on the undergraduate programme. This is his first
First published in hardback and trade paperback in Great Britain in 2013 by Atlantic Books, an imprint of Atlantic Books Ltd.
Copyright © Tim Leach, 2013
The moral right of Tim Leach to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act of 1988.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical,
photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.
This novel is entirely a work of fiction. The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it are the work of the author’s imagination and not to be construed as real.
Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or localities, is entirely coincidental.
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A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.
Hardback ISBN: 978 0 85789 917 0
Trade paperback ISBN: 978 0 85789 918 7
EBook ISBN: 978 0 85789 920 0
Printed in Great Britain
An imprint of Atlantic Books Ltd
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For Gill and Michael
The preparations for the execution began many hours before dawn.
In the heart of the royal palace, servants had uprooted and removed trees and rare plants from a courtyard, and raised a high wooden pyre in their place. In the darkness of the winter morning,
they untied sacks of dry timber and stacked it neatly around the pyre. They brought out a finely carved table from one of the royal dining rooms and placed it on a balcony that overlooked the
courtyard. On the table they laid bowls of dates and olives, flasks of wine and silver bowls of water, and they placed a pair of braziers nearby, ready to warm the cold air when the time came.
On the far side of the palace, in a cellar that had once held grain and which now served as a dungeon, a door was unlocked. Insistent hands shook the prisoner awake and led him from his cell
through the dark corridors of the palace. The guards who escorted him could see well at night and saw no reason to light torches to guide the way, and so the prisoner moved slowly. He was a man who
had never had to move in darkness.
His guides did not beat or otherwise punish him for his hesitation. They led him around corners and up stairs with soft taps to his shoulders and chest, as an experienced rider can direct a
horse with gentle pressure from his knees. They did not bind his wrists with iron, gave him water when he requested it, and before they had gone far they led him to a chamber pot behind a screen
and gave him privacy. There, too, the guards handed him the simple white robe in which he was to die, and let him change into it without being watched. They went further and further into the
palace, until they were almost at the courtyard, and not once did a man so much as raise his voice to the prisoner. The guards had long since learned the way to make a royal prisoner docile. So
long as you allowed a king the illusion of servility he would go with you calmly, even as you led him to his death.
The barber who was assigned to the prisoner did not observe this principle. He had never seen a king die, and as he cropped the prisoner’s hair and trimmed his thick, black beard, he
placed little nicks in his scalp and chin, apologizing for his clumsiness each time, even as he keenly watched the royal blood flow. The guards did not share the barber’s curiosity. They were
veterans of many wars of conquest, and they knew that a king bled and died like any other man.
After the barber had finished his work, the captain of the guard observed the blood that had stained the prisoner’s robe. He barked a curse, and gestured to his men to hand him another
robe. They always carried a second in case a prisoner were to soil himself on the way to his execution, for it was an impious thing for a man to be put to death in stained clothing. The captain
took the clean robe and handed it to the prisoner, gesturing for him to put it on.
The prisoner spoke out in protest, and although they did not speak the same language, the captain understood him well enough. He looked for some means by which to screen the prisoner’s
nakedness, but there was nothing in that room to serve that purpose. He glanced out of a window and saw that morning light was rapidly spreading across the sky. They had no time to waste.
The captain gave an order to his men and, as one, they turned on their heels to face the wall. After a moment, the prisoner pulled the dirty robe over his head and put on the clean one, hunched
over in an attempt to conceal his nakedness. The barber glanced swiftly over his shoulder at the naked king, but the captain cuffed him sharply and told him to keep his eyes down.
Wearing the new robe, the prisoner straightened and turned towards the guards. He did not speak. The guards would wait until he said that he was ready. For a single moment, he retained the right
to command with which he had been born. For the last time, he was free. He stood silent for as long as he could, before clearing his throat to signal that he was ready.
The captain pushed open the doors to the courtyard. The space opened up around them, vast and threatening after the narrow corridors. The prisoner looked up and shuddered as he saw the pyre loom
before and above him like a beckoning finger. At the very top, where the fire would be hottest, there was a simple wooden throne for him to sit and die in.
They led him up the steps, the wood creaking beneath their feet. The prisoner’s place was far above the ground, so high that he was level with the upper balcony. The man who was to watch
the prisoner die was not one to stoop or peer down on a spectacle. He too was a king, and would offer the other this last act of respect: to be high above the slaves and soldiers as he died, to
stand equal with the king who would take his place on the throne of Sardis.
They shackled the prisoner to the chair at the top of the pyre. One of the guards held a bucket in his hand, and after they had secured the prisoner he turned to his captain in enquiry. The
captain nodded, and the guard began to daub the prisoner’s robe with oil so that it would burn faster. After this was done, the captain inspected the bindings one last time, and reassured
himself that everything was as it should be. He nodded to the prisoner, as if in thanks, and then he and his men descended the steps to wait.
The preparations had been completed ahead of time. The servants lit the braziers on the upper balcony, and the guards lounged at the base of the pyre, rolling dice for coins and favours, trading
memories of women they had bedded and battles they had fought. The prisoner on the pyre stared ahead without expression, watching as the day began to dawn, and the dew rose from the wood like
At the very moment that the sun broke over the horizon, Cyrus, king of Persia, emerged from the doors of the palace. He sat in the cushioned chair, his long fingers toying with the dates in the
bowl that lay in front of him as his taster sampled the food and the drink on the table. This servant turned to him and nodded, and Cyrus ate lightly, as was his custom, paying no attention to the
condemned man. He raised a cup of wine and took one sip, then put it down. At last, he looked at the man on the pyre. They had gone to war to destroy each other, had traded countless messages,
threats, and ultimatums through heralds and emissaries, but it was the first time that the two kings had met face to face. Cyrus stared at his prisoner with an idle curiosity; the condemned man
blankly returned his gaze. The Persian king raised an eyebrow and inclined his head slightly, to indicate that the prisoner might speak if he wished, but the other man said nothing. Cyrus leaned
back in his chair, then made a slight gesture to the men who waited below.
Four dark-skinned slaves lowered their torches to the pyre at the same instant, holding the flames to the dry wood until the fire had caught and there was no danger that a gust of wind would
extinguish it. That might be taken as an omen, and this was not a time for omens. A servant on the balcony lit a bowl of strong incense and placed it on Cyrus’s table. It would not do to
expose the king of Persia to the smell of burning flesh.
The prisoner stared down and watched as the fire spread languidly from one pile of wood to another. He looked up again towards Cyrus, but the Persian king no longer watched him. Sheets of
parchment had been unrolled in front of him, and the king was lost in the matters of state. Just once, he leaned forward to observe the fire and see how far it had progressed, like a man who has
come early to a race and wishes to see if the entertainment is likely to begin soon. Apparently satisfied that there was still plenty of time, he went back to looking over his papers.
The prisoner first felt the heat against the soles of his bare feet. There was only a slight increase in temperature, but it was filled with the promise of pain to come. He tilted his head back
until it rested against the wooden stake behind him, and looked up at the sky. He had heard that in some nations it was taken as a sign from the Gods if it rained hard enough to extinguish an
executioner’s pyre, sparing the condemned man. He didn’t know if the Persians believed that. It did not matter. The sky was clear.
The first curls of smoke began to reach him, and he sucked at them greedily. It would be better if he were to fall unconscious before the fire touched him, but there was no hope of that –
the dry wood burned cleanly and gave off little smoke, and he could hear the fire advance. It would reach him soon, kill him slowly.
He closed his eyes, his lips moving in prayers to the Gods in whom he might no longer believe. His face remained calm and unmoved, even as the flames rose higher and nearer. Then he flinched, as
a memory struck him. A low groan escaped his lips.
Cyrus heard this cry and looked up. He saw the prisoner shuddering again, like a soldier run through with a spear, his head hanging low and his eyes open. For the first time that day, the blank
mask that he had worn crumbled.
‘Solon,’ he said, as a coil of thick smoke ran up his body and wound round his neck like a noose.
‘All hail Croesus, king of Lydia, son of Alyattes of the Mermnadae! Wise Leader, mighty Warrior, loving Father and benevolent Ruler! Know this, humble Lydians, know that
you stand in the presence of the greatest king that these lands have ever known. Under his great leadership, we Lydians have truly become the most blessed nation on the earth. For who can match our
nation in wealth? Our wondrous city for splendour? Our women for beauty? Our warriors for skill and valour? Even the Gods themselves might be humbled by our king’s treasuries, and his wealth
is matched only by his kindness to his people, his nobility of spirit, his ruthlessness to his enemies, his . . .’