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Authors: Ross Laidlaw

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The approaches to the Succi were heralded by steepening slopes hemming in the highway on either side, a dramatic V-shaped cleft on the far horizon marking the pass itself.

‘Well, Deric,' remarked Timothy, ‘so far, so uneventful.' He jerked
his chin towards the distant gap. ‘Once through that, perhaps the fun will start.'

‘We may not have to wait that long,' observed Theoderic drily. ‘Look.' He pointed to the hillside above them to the right, where scores of men were emerging from the trees.

‘And over there.' Timothy pointed to the left. All at once, the surrounding slopes were swarming with footsoldiers who, rapidly descending to the road, surrounded Theoderic's group. Big, fair-haired fellows armed with spears, they were clearly Goths. One, their leader, judging by his sword and gilded
Spangenhelm
– the conical, segmented helmet favoured by Teutonic warriors – approached Theoderic and Timothy. ‘You will come with us,' he announced in passable Greek.

‘What's all this about?' asked Theoderic, striving to sound calm despite his pounding heart. ‘We were promised safe passage through Thrace.'

‘You will come with us,' the man repeated stolidly. ‘Now, surrender your weapons.'

Theoderic looked at Timothy and Thalassios. They shook their heads in unison. ‘Better part of valour, I think, sir,' said the captain, shrugging. ‘No choice, really; as you see, we're heavily outnumbered.'

After handing over their arms, Theoderic's group dismounted and, leading their horses and pack-animals, accompanied the strangers two abreast along a steep path snaking up the hillside to the south. All questions to his captors being met with silence, Theoderic gave up, to share his speculations with Timothy. Neither could think of any reason to explain their abduction.

That night they camped in a forest glade, the Goths issuing their captives blankets and strips of dried meat. Next day the trail led high into the mountains, past tarns, rushing streams, remote villages and occasional stone keeps, to enter a strange and silent world of sandstone pinnacles carved by wind and water into fantastic pyramids and columns. Once, they passed a line of figures performing a processional dance, dressed bizarrely in the skins of animals surmounted by the heads – bears, wolves and bison.

Not long past noon, a turn in the path suddenly revealed to Theoderic an arresting view. Ahead, the terrain fell steeply away to a verdant cup enclosed by tall spruce-clad mountains rising to spires of naked rock
and seamed by silvery waterfalls. In the middle of the hollow rose an extraordinary building, or rather a complex of connected structures – something between a fortress and, with its peristyle and outer courtyard, a typical Roman villa. There followed a difficult descent, the path continually looping back on itself to accommodate the gradient. The great doors in the gateway of the surrounding wall swung open and the column entered a courtyard hung with long wooden galleries and dominated by a massive tower. Grooms led away the horses and baggage-mules, and Theoderic's party were conducted through an open colonnaded square into a long hall. This was filled with noisy Goths, seated on benches or reclining on pallets, drinking, furbishing gear, playing dice or board games. At the chamber's far end, seated, very still, on a throne-like chair, was a young man perhaps six or seven years older than Theoderic. In contrast to the others in the hall – they were bearded and attired in belted tunics, some with cloaks fastened at the shoulder with chip-carved
fibulae
– he was clean-shaven and wore a Roman dalmatic of fine but plain material. The most singular thing about him, and the obvious source of his nickname, was a marked squint in one eye, which however did nothing to detract from his air of authority and calm self-confidence. A hush spread throughout the great chamber as Theoderic's group was led towards him.

‘Welcome to the monastery of St Elizabeth the Miracle-Worker, Theoderic, son of Thiudimer,' the young man said in a quiet voice, beneath whose apparent friendliness there was an edge of hostility. ‘The monks have graciously granted us the temporary use of the cloisters and this refectory. I am Theoderic Strabo, son of the great Triarius and king of the Thracian Goths; also
Magister Militum
, Master of Soldiers, of the diocese on behalf of the emperor. When we heard that you were on your way, we thought it only proper to arrange that you be met by a reception committee at the Succi.'

‘Is that what you call it?' responded Theoderic. ‘Then why do we find ourselves treated as prisoners? Before we left Constantinople, I was assured that we would be given safe passage through Thrace, under your protection.'

‘And so you would have been,' replied Strabo equably, ‘had the situation in the capital remained unchanged. Events, events,' he murmured. Then, casting aside the mask of mocking affability, he said with icy menace,
‘The Isaurian troops in Constantinople, no doubt jealous of what they see as preferential treatment of his Goth soldiers by General Aspar, have risen in revolt. In the course of the disturbance, Aspar and a number of his Goth bodyguards were murdered by order of his rival, General Zeno. Natural justice demands some evening of the score. Do you not agree?'

Theoderic's heart seemed to turn to a block of ice. This was appalling news. Strabo, as a barbarian leader, could not afford to let such a situation rest. To avoid a loss of prestige which would inevitably endanger his position as monarch, he must act overtly to avenge the deaths of his fellow-Goths, and of Aspar, his people's protector and champion. ‘Some evening of the score': the words had an ominous ring which hardly bode well for Theoderic or his companions.

‘What happened is regrettable – extremely so,' Theoderic conceded. ‘But surely no blame can attach to my Isaurian escort. The things you mentioned happened after our departure from Constantinople.' Even as he uttered them, the words sounded hollow in his ears. In a barbarian society's simple code of justice, someone always had to pay – if not the transgressor, a member of his kin or following.

‘I could have your party slaughtered on the spot,' declared Strabo. ‘My men here would certainly approve. But I am not quite the lawless savage some Romans no doubt think me to be. As perhaps do you, being Roman-bred. Nine Goth soldiers were slain by Zeno's men. Therefore nine of your Isaurians must die. You yourself will remain here as my . . . ‘guest', shall we say, until the situation in the capital resolves itself. Your men will now draw lots to decide who are the ones to die. Sentence to be carried out immediately thereafter.'

Theoderic's brain seemed to spin. Nine deaths – that was half his entourage! Their deaths would be for ever on his conscience. Moreover, the chances of his party completing the journey to Pannonia safely would be thrown into jeopardy, even should he be released. And that was unlikely to happen any time soon. As Strabo's hostage, he would be far too valuable a bargaining chip in any negotiations with Leo (or rather with Zeno, his puppet-master) to be readily set free. Perhaps he was destined never to succeed his father. And that would mean the ending of a cherished dream, Theoderic, the Friend of Rome. These reflections flashed through his mind in seconds, to be succeeded by a sudden thought which offered, perhaps, a ray of hope.

‘Wait,' he cried. ‘There is another way.'

Strabo smiled indulgently. ‘Convince me.'

Raising his voice so that all in the chamber could hear, Theoderic declared, ‘Single combat, a duel between a champion of yours and one of ours. The condition: should your side lose, my party be permitted to continue our journey unmolested.' The suggestion stemmed from Theoderic's recollection of something he had learnt at Constantinople University. The institution boasted two famous chairs of law. Although the subject was not one for which he was formally enrolled, Theoderic had sometimes attended law lectures, especially those touching on the laws of Germanic nations, as contained in tracts such as
Lex Gothica
,
Leges Visigothorum
, and the recently enacted
Codex Euricianus
. Written statutes known as
leges scriptae
or
belagines
often referred to the time-honoured practice of settling disputes by combat, with God (or, in the recent pre-Christian past, gods such as Thor or Odin) the arbiter: a tradition with which even kings meddled at their peril.

A charged silence throughout the great hall followed Theoderic's words, witness to the interest they had aroused. An enthusiastic murmur arose among the assembled Goths, gradually swelling to a roar of approval, with weapons being banged on the floor or benches. Watching Strabo's face intently for any sign of reaction, Theoderic hoped against hope that the other would be swayed by his followers' mood. A German king –
reiks
in the Gothic tongue – was not like a Roman emperor whose orders commanded unquestioning obedience. A
reiks
ruled strictly by consent and force of personality. Once perceived to be weak, unsuccessful, or acting against the interests of his people (or at least of those that counted), he would swiftly be replaced. The Goths present were probably Strabo's
andbahtos
, his personal following of armed retainers. Such men would belong to the top rank of Goth society,
frijai
or free men, the other orders being freedmen, then slaves. Should they approve the duel (something members of a warrior society in which a man's status was linked to his prowess as a fighter might be expected to endorse), could Strabo, as no more than
primus inter pares
, afford to ignore their collective will? Theoderic had read in the
Histories
of Ammianus Marcellinus, that eminent Roman soldier-turned-historian, that German kings often found great difficulty in controlling the martial ardour of their warriors.

‘Very well,' at last pronounced the Squinter, his face impassive. ‘It shall be as you suggest.' He leant forward, yellow hair swinging about his shoulders, to look intently into the other's face. The squint was unsettling, disconcerting, and lent a chilling weight to the king's next words. ‘However, by your terms, should my champion win we would have no advantage over and above the status quo. That is hardly fair. I therefore add this rider: should your champion lose,
all
your party, yourself excluded, will suffer death.'

The thunderous applause that greeted Strabo's verdict made Theoderic's blood run cold. The ingenious ‘solution' he had sprung upon his namesake had backfired, creating a situation with implications too nightmarish to contemplate.

 

*
I hesitate to differ from the great Ammianus, but Dacia, not Illyricum, is the diocese adjoining Thrace on the west. Perhaps he is using the term ‘Illyricum' in a loose sense for the area known as ‘Illyris Graeca', the western Balkans, Greece and Macedonia.

*
Plovdiv.

FIVE

A Goth, Valaris by name, tall of stature and most terrifying . . . challenged all the Romans, if anyone was willing to do battle with him.

Procopius,
History of the Wars, c.
550

A tense hush spread throughout the mass of Goths packing the cloister's pillared walkways. Facing each other across the grass-covered central enclosure, stripped to the waist, were the rival champions: the Goths' a flaxen-haired giant armed with a great two-handed sword; Timothy, the choice of the Isaurians, with a slender knife. (Thalassios had reluctantly given way to Timothy, who had persuaded the rest of Theoderic's party that his background of no-holds-barred street fighting gave him the edge.) On the face of it the pair were unevenly matched. The Goth's huge stature, powerful physique and formidable weapon appeared to give him a distinct advantage over the short, stocky Isaurian with his puny blade.

The umpire stepped into the middle of the arena. ‘No gouging, no backstabbing,' he announced, ‘the contestants to fight until one is killed or surrenders, in which event his life is forfeit.' He glanced at Strabo, who was seated on a specially erected dais. The king nodded, whereupon the umpire called, ‘Begin,' and exited the courtyard.

His sword a whirling silver blur, the Goth charged at Timothy, who waited till the man was nearly on him then skipped nimbly aside, just avoiding a ferocious cut which, had it landed, must have split him from neck to navel. Forged by master-swordsmiths and edged with razor-sharp steel, such blades were lethal. Time and again the Goth repeated the manoeuvre, on each occasion Timothy's deft footwork proving his salvation.

‘I see what Timothy's game is,' Thalassios murmured to Theoderic's party, huddled in a tense knot apart from the Goths. ‘He's letting the big chap wear himself out, then he'll go in for the kill.'

‘Risky,' demurred another Excubitor. ‘If he spins things out too long, chances are the Goth'll score a hit. Just one would finish Timothy.'

Which is what almost happened. With his opponent's next rush, Timothy fractionally mistimed his avoiding action and the sword-tip flickered down his rib-cage. A scarlet thread tracked the point's passage, widening instantly to a ribbon pouring blood. Timothy staggered, flung himself clear as a second blow parted the air inches from his head.

A collective sigh, like wind in a cornfield, rippled round the audience, followed by a gasp of horror from the Isaurians as Timothy appeared to slip on grass made treacherous by dripping blood, to measure his length on the ground. With a roar of triumph his adversary swung the great sword above his head.

Suddenly, in a sequence almost too rapid for the eye to follow, Timothy doubled forward from the hips, tucked his legs beneath him, then sprang upright with the speed of a striking adder. His knife, a wicked-edged Anatolian
sica
, insignificant to look at but deadly in close-quarter fighting, flashed across the other's throat. The Goth, sword still raised aloft, blood jetting from a severed artery, swayed, then, with a look of surprise, collapsed, shuddered, and lay still.

BOOK: Theodoric
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