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Authors: Ross Laidlaw

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BOOK: Theodoric
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The ensuing silence, born of shocked amazement, seemed to stretch out interminably, then was broken by a storm of cheering. Rough and violent they might be, but the Goths admired two virtues above all others, even when displayed by an enemy: martial skill, and valour.

‘Farewell, then – for the present,' Strabo told his namesake at the monastery gate. ‘You turned the tables on me,' he admitted, a note of wry respect entering his voice. ‘This time. When next we meet – as the Norns who weave the web of men's lives have surely decreed we shall – Theoderic Thiudimer will be the one to lose.'

SIX

In the banqueting hall . . . these bold fighting-men took their seats. A servant . . . performed the office of pouring out the sparkling beer. From time to time a clear-voiced poet sang

Anonymous,
Beowulf,
seventh century(?)

Five days after crossing the boundary between the empires into Pannonia (nominally a province of the West, but long abandoned by a weakening Rome first to the Huns then, following their collapse and dispersal after the death of Attila, to the Ostrogoths), Theoderic and Timothy, having parted with their escort at the border, approached Thiudimer's ‘capital'. This was a straggling
baurg
, or townlet of thatched huts, in a forest clearing north of that great inland sea the Lake of Balaton.

Thanks to the presence of Thalassios' Excubitors, the remainder of the journey, from the Succi on, had been comparatively uneventful. Isaurians had a formidable reputation far beyond their homeland, and the sight of a well-armed band of these ferocious hillmen was sufficient to deter all but the most foolhardy of marauders. Only once did they encounter any trouble, when a party of mounted warriors sallied forth from Singidunum
*
and attacked them. This imperial city had recently been taken by one Babai, a Sarmatian petty warlord who fancied himself a second Alaric or Attila. Stripped of most of its garrison to replenish the distant field army, the place had fallen to a surprise attack in which luck had played a greater part than skill. Those assailing Theoderic's group had paid dearly for their temerity, being swiftly put to rout, leaving several of their number dead on the ground.

Word of the party's coming had preceded them; Theoderic and Timothy were still some distance from the baurg when a richly attired figure on horseback, accompanied by two retainers, appeared round a
bend in the path. Theoderic's heart swelled; apart from greying hair and beard, Thiudimer was just as he had been all those years ago: tall, broad-shouldered, with a strong yet kindly face.

Father and son embraced with exclamations of joy. ‘What a fine young fellow you've grown to be,' declared Thiudimer, pretending to remove a mote from a watery eye. ‘Those Romans have looked after you well, then?'

‘Very well indeed, father,' enthused Theoderic. ‘I can speak Latin as well as Greek, have read the works of all their famous authors, studied their philosophy and law. You should see their buildings; why, a score of our villages could fit inside their Hippodrome—' He broke off, seeing a frown crease the other's forehead. ‘Still, it's good to be back home,' he finished lamely, embarrassed by his tactlessness.

‘I'm glad to hear it.' Thiudimer glanced at Timothy. ‘And who's this lowborn-looking fellow? A
skalk
– a slave – perhaps?'

‘This is Timothy, father,' said Theoderic stoutly, ‘my bodyguard and friend. To save the lives of all my escort, he killed a man in single combat.'

‘He is welcome, then,' said Thiudimer stiffly. ‘But why are we wasting time gossiping here like old maids?' he went on, his face clearing. ‘A great feast is preparing, to welcome home my son. Come.'

Thiudimer's
gards
or palace consisted of a great timber hall surrounded by outbuildings – kitchens, smithies, stables, store houses, etc. Inside the hall, the chief feature was a long trestle table flanked by benches. Near the entrance, temporary fire-pits had been set up; above them spitted carcasses of oxen, boar and deer gave off delicious smells. On the side of the board nearest the wall, in the centre, sat the king, with Queen Erelieva at his side, Theoderic to his right. Beyond, on either side, were Thiudimer's chief retainers and their ladies.

Thiudimer rose; all followed suit.

‘Friends, fellow Amali,' announced the king, his voice vibrant with emotion. ‘This is indeed a joyous day for me and for our nation, as we welcome home my son, your future king. As you know, he has spent the greater part of his life among the Romans. This was a great sacrifice for me, but one which, because it sealed our friendship with the Empire, I made willingly. Our gain is twofold: today, I have my son again; and our people have as ally, the greatest power in the world. I give you – Theoderic.'

‘Theoderic!' echoed the guests. Goblets and drinking-horsn were raised, and the toast drunk to the young prince. Seated beside him to his right, Timothy nudged Theoderic. ‘I think you're supposed to reply,' he whispered.

Theoderic was gripped by panic. This was something he should have foreseen and prepared for. To strike the wrong note, could, quite conceivably, compromise his position as Thiudimer's successor. With these people –
his
people now – to be accepted as a leader you needed more than inheritance. You had to look, sound and act like a leader. Desperately combing his brain for inspiration, he rose to his feet. The faces of his audience – fierce and proud, intensely curious – swam before his eyes.

‘As my father says, I have lived as a Roman for more than half my life,' he began haltingly, nervousness making his rusty Gothic even rustier. ‘But I hope I have not become too Roman. At heart, you see, I am an Ostrogoth [too late, he realized he should have said ‘Amal', their clan name within the tribe] and will do my best to become like one of you.' His mind went blank and he could think of nothing more to say. He sat down amid a scatter of half-hearted and perfunctory applause. He had made a wretched start, he thought miserably. His ‘speech', if you could call it that, had been feeble and apologetic when it needed to be bold and confident. His father must be deeply disappointed.

A young man to Thiudimer's left leant forward. ‘Congratulations, brother,' he said. ‘At least your life among the Romans has given you the gift of eloquence – something you may have need of on the day you claim the throne.' And he sat back with a malicious smirk, forestalling any intervention by Thiudimer.

The speaker must be his brother Thiudimund, whom he remembered only dimly, Theoderic realized. Did his words imply that Theoderic's succession was somehow invalid? But how could that be? Thiudimund was his
younger
brother. Was there some dark secret here, or had the lad spoken merely out of spite and the eternal jealousy of the younger sibling passed over in matters of inheritance?

Any jarring of the atmosphere produced by Thiudimund's words was soon forgotten as the feast progressed. Gold arm-rings were distributed by the king for feats of valour in raids against the Sciri or the Gepids; beer flowed copiously, with endless toasts proposed and drunk;
vast quantities of pork, beef and venison were consumed; jokes (mostly simple puzzles such as ‘What is the cleanest leaf?' Answer: ‘Holly.'
*
) did the rounds, to gales of merriment; a harper sang of the deeds of Goth heroes from legend and history, of Amal, the founder of their clan, of Fritigern, who had smashed a Roman army at Adrianople, of Alaric, who had taken Rome itself . . .

Self-conscious in his Roman clothes, ashamed of his poor showing in his speech, Theoderic found himself unable to join in the revelry, becoming increasingly tense and silent. The never-ending toasts (which he was compelled to drink or risk giving offence) were making his head swim and his stomach rise. The plentiful but greasy and monotonous meat dishes – unrelieved by sauces, fruit, and puddings, such as he had known in Constantinople – grew cloying, and the tales of battles and heroic exploits wearisome. He had nothing in common with these valiant boors, he told himself. A tide of longing for the life of Roman culture and refinement he had left behind washed over him. (In contrast, Timothy, who had acquired a fair amount of Gothic during drinking sessions with Aspar's troops, was proving a great success, regaling those around him with tales of brawls and drinking bouts in Tarsus and Constantinople.)

After hours that seemed interminable, with the torches guttering and guests slumped snoring on the benches or the floor, the king turned at last to Theoderic and laid a kindly hand on his shoulder. ‘Go to bed, my son. Things will look better in the morning.' The pity in his voice made the young man burn with shame as he stumbled to the curtained alcove reserved as sleeping quarters for Thiudimer's family.

Awakening in broad daylight, Theoderic picked his way over sleeping bodies to the entrance of the hall. Outside, he breathed in grateful lungfuls of morning air, which helped a little to clear his pounding head. Despite his father's words of reassurance, things didn't look any better; in fact, in the cold light of day they looked considerably worse. Deciding to take a solitary ride in order to sort out his thoughts, he made his way to the stables and asked a groom to saddle his horse. As he was about to mount, he was accosted by Thiudimund.

‘Good morning, brother – or should that be “Crown Prince”?' Thiudimund sneered.

It might have been the combination of an aching head, nervous exhaustion, humiliation at the feast, and his younger brother's renewed provocation, but a red rage he had never before experienced swept over Theoderic. He took a step towards the other, fist raised. ‘Guard your tongue!' he shouted.

Thiudimund stepped back, eyes widening in alarm. Then, noticing an interested knot of stable-hands gathering nearby, he recovered his courage. ‘Why should I, brother?' he retorted. ‘My claim to the throne is better than yours. Our father was married to
my
mother, not yours. Your dam, Erelieva, is his concubine, not his wife, which makes me his rightful heir and you a royal bastard.'

His mind reeling, Theoderic was too shocked to react to Thiudimund or notice him depart. Mounting, he rode off in a daze. Could the words of his brother – his half-brother as it now transpired – be true? He had always assumed that Erelieva was the mother of them both.

Two hours at a canter, through wooded hills where saker falcons flew, took him to the tree-lined shore of Balaton lake. The ride in the bracing upland air had helped to clear away the cobwebs from his mind. He could now see where his future lay. If Thiudimund had the better claim, let him have the throne. He, Theoderic, was a misfit here. He would return to his beloved Constantinople and resume his studies. There, a pleasant life of
otium
awaited him, beckoning to a scholarly career, perhaps a lectureship at the university . . .

These reveries were broken by the clip-clop of approaching hooves; he looked up, to see a familiar figure riding towards him.

‘Timothy! How did—?'

‘To see but not be seen, to hear but not be heard,' broke in the other with a grin. ‘Remember?' He shot Theoderic a quizzical glance. ‘Anything you want to tell old Timothy? A trouble shared, and all that?'

Glad of the chance to unburden himself, Theoderic let it all spill out: his feeling of inadequacy as a reclusive scholar among rude fighting men, his nostalgic longing for the culture and refinement of Roman life, the fact that his succession might be dubious. ‘My father's people would soon see through me – if they haven't done so already,' he concluded. ‘I'd become an embarrassment to everyone, myself included.
My future's in Constantinople, not Pannonia.' He looked at the tough Isaurian appealingly. ‘I'd like you to come with me. Say you will.'

Timothy shook his head. ‘No, Deric, I'm not going back. And neither are you. You're angry, disappointed and confused. Quite natural; but those feelings'll pass. You know your trouble? You put yourself down too easily. You say they'll see through you. Not the case. What they'll see, if you give them time, is what I've already noticed. One: courage – you showed that with Cambyses, and the charge of the Excubitors. Two: decisiveness – you challenged Julian and won, and did the same with Strabo. Three: authority. Either one has it, or one doesn't. You do, although you may not know it yet. Look how Julian's archers snapped to it when you told them not to shoot.'

‘But . . . what Thiudimund says about my claim, suppose it's true. That would mean my staying on was pointless, anyway.'

‘Why? Among the Goths, I think you'll find that primogeniture has never been the deciding factor regarding the succession. Take Fritigern and Alaric: successful warlords who became kings despite not having royal blood. Besides, your father's named you his successor; it's unlikely the tribal council would disagree. If it comes to a choice between you and that spiteful little whelp Thiudimund, I know who I'd put my money on. As for your own people, don't let their lack of polish put you off. They may be rough and simple, but their hearts are true. Once they've accepted you, as I'm sure in time they will, you'll have their total loyalty. Roman sophistication – that's just the stamp on the obol piece; it's the man, Goth or Roman, that's the gold.' He pointed to an imperial eagle stooping above the waters of the lake to take a fish. ‘Forget Constantinople, Deric. There's your destiny.'

All Theoderic's doubts and fears, which a short time before had filled his mind's horizon like dark thunderheads, seemed to shred and dissolve to a few wispy clouds in a clear sky. He looked at the Isaurian with renewed affection and respect. ‘Thanks, Timothy. I needed putting straight.' He smiled sheepishly then, after a pause, asked, ‘What must I do?'

‘I can't answer that, Deric. Only you can. But you'll find the solution; of that you may be sure.'

BOOK: Theodoric
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