Read Strategos: Born in the Borderlands Online

Authors: Gordon Doherty

Tags: #Historical Fiction

Strategos: Born in the Borderlands (4 page)

BOOK: Strategos: Born in the Borderlands
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The Strategos


The Seljuk ghulam dipped to the right of his saddle as his mount thundered forward through the melee, then he pulled his scimitar to one side and let loose a guttural roar.


Time slowed for Cydones. Grounded, his mount crippled and whinnying in terror in the slop of blood, flesh and bone underfoot, the ageing strategos felt the moment pass where long ago his nerves would have shuddered. The ghulam had it all: armour, high ground, momentum and morale. For Cydones, klibanion torn and hanging from one shoulder, spathion bent and shield lost in the fray, his years of bitter experience were all he had to counter the attack. He pushed to his feet and braced.


Allahu Akbar!
’ The ghulam cried.


Cydones stood firm, squinting in the sunshine until he could see the red wetness at the back of the rider’s throat, neck muscles clenched, scimitar held aloft and ready to lop off the strategos’ head. The split instant flashed before him: the ghulam’s blade scything for his neck but both mount and rider’s flank lay wide open and undefended. Cydones shot his twisted spathion straight up in a two-handed grip to catch the scimitar blow. His shoulder jarred, a spray of sparks stung his face and his ears numbed at the metallic din as the two swords screamed at one another. The blow parried, he pirouetted and lunged to punch his blade into the gelding’s chest. In a high pitched whinny, the beast threw the ghulam rider forward then splattered down into the gore, thrashing in the foam of its own blood. Cydones stalked over to the rider, lying motionless in the bloody swamp
The Seljuk lay with his face pale and his eyes closed. Cydones made to turn for the next man to fight
, when the ghulam’s face burst back into life in a fervent rage as he whipped a dagger from his boot, thrusting up at Cydones’ thigh.


The pain barely registered. A sharp blade it must have been and on the classic weak spot of the armoured body of a kataphractos. Hot blood flooded over his thigh and his limbs trembled but he held firm to turn his spathion over, blade down, to thrust it through the ghulam’s throat with a crunch of vertebrae and sinew. Then he crumpled to his knees, eyes fixed on the ghulam’s final gaze. Together, their blood pumped into the scarlet mire that had only this morning been a verdant plain.


The battle was won and Byzantine victory cries rang out over the atrocious scene. Cydones felt his mind wander and his vision dull.


‘The strategos!’ One voice called out. ‘The strategos has fallen!’


‘No,’ Cydones croaked, raising a hand. He had felt the tearing near-certainty of an arterial death blow before, the angry welt of scar under his thick forked beard a testament. This was a bad wound but not one that would kill him. Heart thundering, a chill sweat bathing his skin, he shivered and rose to stand. The handful left from the hundred he had led out that morning stood, panting, exhausted, some throwing up into the bilious swamp as the battle frenzy drained from their limbs, the Christian Chi-Rho on their battered crimson kite shields spattered in blood. They had fought for their emperor and for God. Now they looked to their strategos to vindicate them for the lives they had taken today. Cydones acknowledged this all too familiar numbness in his heart but he raised a fist and mustered all his strength to roar the holy victory cry.


Nobiscum Deus




A torch burst into life on the short timber platform the men had erected on the hilltop plateau and the two men on the first guard shift watched the pitch black countryside manfully. A roll call had been taken and it had been worryingly swift: three kataphractoi and twenty one skutatoi were all that was left of the hundred that had marched from the barracks at
that morning. A score had fled when the Seljuks had attacked but the rest were cold and dead. The truth was, Cydones mused grimly, the remaining and spent handful were also as good as dead if another Seljuk raiding party decided to investigate the firelight. The imperial maps might say otherwise, but this far east it was definitely borderland. Thanks be to God for the loyalty of the Armenian princes, he thought, without their subjects, the borders would be threadbare of manpower.


He ran a filthy hand over his bald scalp and pulled at his forked beard, swigged water from his skin and then let his thoughts drift. He thought back to his old stamping ground, Constantinople: the tales of the rise and fall of emperors, often in inglorious circumstance, reached these outlying themata all too frequently. He still shivered at the report of the last emperor’s demise: the feckless Michael the Fifth had been pulled from his horse as he tried to flee the city, his pleas for mercy going unheard as the populace pinned him to the street and prised his eyes from his sockets. Emperor Constantine Monomachus now sat at the pinnacle of Byzantium and so far he had proved only how short-sighted a leader could be, disbanding garrisons all across the land in order to line the bare imperial treasury with a few pounds of gold.


All the turmoil at the heart of empire meant that the border themata were left to fend for themselves, Cydones himself juggling the scant funds raised from the lands of Chaldia to mount an increasingly threadbare defence against the ever more frequent Seljuk incursions.


You’re getting too old for this
, a voice whispered in his mind. At forty-six years old he couldn’t disagree; the crudely bandaged thigh wound snarled rhythmically, every bone was racked with pain and his muscles seared even now, a half-day after the battle. Despite the fire, heaped high with kindling and brush, he felt the night chill more than ever. He had passed out shortly after the victory cry but fortunately Ferro had been on hand to grasp an arm and disguise the fall. The men had gathered the bodies of their comrades in an exhausted silence and then dug grave after grave. Cydones had narrated the Christian rites as his men buried each body.


‘Eat up, sir, there’s plenty spare,’ Ferro spoke hoarsely as he sidled over, easing his athletic frame down onto the earth to rest his back on a rock, pushing fingers through his dark curls. He threw a chunk of salt beef to his commander.


Cydones examined the stringy strip of meat with disdain. Some wretched animal had died to provide this, but rations were plentiful only because so many men had died in this defensive sortie, men who would not be returning to their farmlands or their wives, mothers and children. ‘Aye,’ he smoothed his beard, ‘I’ve never felt so hungry and yet not, Ferro.’ He handed the beef back; a week with no meat or wine was his usual act of penance after so bloody an encounter.


Ferro nodded gently, gazing around the camp fires dotting the plateau, his eyes sparkling in the firelight. ‘I’m dog tired, sir, but I’d prise out my own teeth to see the sunrise right now and to be headed for safe ground. Training and gathering supplies for the warehouse would be a pleasant task, for once.’


Cydones grinned wryly. Ferro was his touchstone to reality. If the
was feeling the grind of being on a sortie then they truly were in a bad way. Ferro relished every chance to muster and set out with his infantry, temporarily freeing himself from the mire of
district administration that came with the role. He and the other tourmarchai were vital in allowing Cydones to run the Chaldian Thema as a whole.
His mind chattered with the legal and taxation wranglings he had left neglected back in Trebizond and worse, the tense diplomatic meetings with the neighbouring themata
. Not quite the ideals he had once strived for, he mused, touching the dull bronze Chi-Rho on his neckchain.


His mind wandered back, as it often did after battle, to the lady of the forest all those years ago. Sometimes he felt sure the whole episode was just a dream, yet a twinge in his heart would see the words repeated over and again in his head.
Be true to yourself,
he wondered how closely he had followed that mantra. How many mass graves of Seljuk warriors could he really absolve himself of in the name of defending the rotting hulk of the empire? Killing one thousand to save one hundred. Worse were the times when those graves contained fellow Byzantines; the ever more frequent and bloody in-fighting between rival themata was especially repugnant to his ideals yet he had still obeyed orders. He dipped his head to rid himself of the bitter imagery. Then the lady’s other words trickled into his thoughts;
find the Haga
. Now that was still a mystery to him. A riddle as murky as life itself and one he reckoned he might never solve before the reaper came for him.


Age had come on fast in the last few years for the strategos. Cydones looked over to his tourmarches and wondered if Ferro would be the man to replace him and take on the burden of guilt when he retired gracefully.
Or when I end up gurgling on the end of a Seljuk scimitar!
He chuckled to himself.


‘Sir?’ Ferro cocked an eyebrow, mumbling through a piece of salt beef.


‘Just letting my mind wander,’ he stretched his arms, fatigue enshrouding him. ‘Tell me, Ferro; how many of our lads do you think are officer material?’


‘Them?’ He jabbed a finger over his shoulder, sweeping across the tattered men behind. ‘What rank?
? Komes?’


Cydones frowned. ‘It doesn’t matter whether it’s a ten or a full bandon, Ferro. Just look at them,’ he lifted a hand to the group of three gangly soldiers who huddled around the fire.


‘They’re not the bulkiest of lads, true, and maybe a bit too young to be officers?’


‘None of that really matters, Ferro. What I see when I look at them is fear. They are scared. They need men to lead them, Ferro.


Ferro coughed. ‘Well, sir, I think I’m a bloody good fit to that description. Give me a spathion and a good stallion, any number of men behind me. They’ll follow me, I tell you.’


Cydones’ shoulders jostled as a gravelly laugh tumbled from his chest. ‘I know you would, only too well.’ He rubbed the angry scar under his beard. If it wasn’t for Ferro’s counterattack all those years ago in the eastern desert, the Seljuk horde would have slaughtered Cydones and every single one of his men. The tourmarches had spurred his five hundred riders into such frenzy that they had charged nearly four times that number of Seljuk ghulam and spearmen, shattering their ranks like glass.


‘It’s the fact that you’re a dying breed that worries me, Ferro. You’re never going to be beaten, even on the day when somebody does manage to get a sword under your ribs, but the rest of the men in the ranks these days . . . well, you can see it in their eyes, they don’t believe in what they‘re fighting for anymore.’


‘For God?’


‘We all have our ideals,’ Cydones’ brow creased, ‘and I would never question the faith of any of them.’


‘Then for the Empire?’


‘Exactly,’ Cydones nodded. ‘The men need to feel like the empire is theirs to fight for, but it is not. The themata were founded on the principles of the old Roman levies; soldier farmers willing to fight and to die to protect their lands. Then our emperor decrees this exemption tax and he has hamstrung his borders with it. I know many men who would have made great soldiers but have taken that option, handing over a few coins to tend their lands and grow fat at home. It is a foolhardy and short-sighted mindset that will lead to not only poverty but destruction and the end of our empire.’


Ferro nodded. ‘And out here in the borderlands we will always go unheard.’


‘Until it is too late,’ Cydones said. ‘One day our riders will be too few to stave off the Seljuk incursions, there are less than five hundred of us in all Chaldia. A Seljuk invasion is only a matter of time, Ferro. When that day comes, the infantry of the themata will be mustered; they are a far cry from their ancestors, the sons of the legions. Perhaps the emperor will be there to see their impoverished state? I fear that when the sun sets on that day Byzantium will be no more.’


‘I wish there was an answer to it, sir.’


‘There is, Ferro,’ Cydones leaned forward, ‘a brave and loyal soldier will stay brave and loyal if he is led by a competent and fair officer, while those with fear in their hearts will be lost to us. But if a leader is tenacious, tactically shrewd and willing to fight on the front line . . . then the brave and loyal will fight with all their hearts and the fearful will start to forget their fears. That, Ferro, is the key. Good men.’


His words were cut off with a
as Ferro pulled the cork from his skin of wine and took a swig, then offered it over the fire. ‘Good men!’

BOOK: Strategos: Born in the Borderlands
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