LAMBOURN BOOKS
presents Simon LeVay's new novel, The Donation of Constantine

READ AN EXCERPT


Chapter 1

——

 In the seven hundred and fifty-first year of our Lord’s Incarnation


T

he end came at night.

Shouts and screams and the clash of metal flung the news across the sleeping city: another assault from the south! Bells rang, torches flared. Soldiers and priests, men and women, children and greybeards—all were torn from their dreams of fatness and feasting. Famine-thinned arms clutched for sword or staff or spear. Those who could do so ran or hobbled to the Cesarean Gate. There, at the parapets, the night guards were struggling to fend off dozens of men—how many, it was impossible to tell—who had already succeeded in scaling the walls. They must have come from the direction of Classe, easily crossing the spit of sandy ground that formed a weak link in the city’s watery defenses. And the moat, filled with the debris of a year-long siege, no longer offered any hindrance to the assault.

The gate itself held firm. Gradually, the increasing numbers of defenders gained the upper hand. They hurled many of the attackers—living or dead—over the parapets. The tumbling bodies dislodged those still clambering upward, sending a human cascade into the abyss. Those below hesitated. The city might once more be saved; the end might yet be postponed.

But as the battle continued on the southern wall, disaster struck on the other side of the city. Although it seemed impossible, contingents of heavily armed men had dragged themselves, their weapons, and their scaling ladders through the marsh and mud and salt ponds that protected the city’s inland flanks. Unnoticed in the general tumult, they had scaled the wall at its lowest and least defended point. Already they leapt from house-top to house-top, and from there down to the narrow streets. Some stopped to light torches, using them to fire the wooden upper stories of the buildings they passed. Others overpowered the few defenders left at Hadrian’s gate, and threw it open.

“To the palace!” was the cry, “To the palace!” But where was the palace? In this maze of streets it could be anywhere. Women, hurrying their children to the uncertain safety of the Basilica of St. Vitalis, shrieked and shrank back into the brickwork as the armed invaders loomed up in the darkness. It took only a moment’s wave of a sword under a neck to get the answer: “That way, that way, but spare my children, in the name of the Mother of God!” The men raced eastward.

Six months ago, this assault could have been repelled with ease. But since then the granaries had emptied, what with all the hungry peasants and refugees who had crowded into the city. The last lines of supply, from Rimini and from the sea, were cut off in the spring. The animals—scrawny sheep and goats and chickens, dogs and cats—had been slaughtered, and even the rats had been trapped and eaten. The stores of cheese and wine and oil had been emptied. Then there remained only the few miserable tubers and herbs that could be grown within the walls, and now there was just grass and weeds.

Many had died already, of hunger or the plague, and the living were so weak that they could barely raise a sword or stretch a bow. The rocks that once lay in piles on the parapets, ready to hurl down on the heads of attackers—those now filled the moat, and no one had the strength to replenish them. Of the soldiers, many had died in combat. Eighty brave men were lost in just one sortie—a quickly-hatched plan at a moment when the besieging forces seemed to have let down their guard. They had not.

Now hundreds of attackers roamed the city, striking down whoever blocked their way. The screams of the dying fueled their fury, and soldiering yielded to savagery. Murder, rape, looting, and arson—the routine accompaniments of a siege successfully concluded—replaced ordered discipline. These acts compensated the men for the months of hardship they had endured, for they had suffered almost as much as the defenders.

Still, the palace was the goal, and the men who made it there, more disciplined than the rest, engaged the guards in the toughest fighting of the night. But at last the guards were forced back and the men surged into the palace, while another group waited impatiently outside.

Twenty men returned, dragging a struggling prisoner with them. He was as gaunt as any of the city’s inhabitants, but he wore a robe that betrayed his office, and his swarthy complexion marked him as a foreigner.

“Your name?” asked the tallest of the attackers, whose armor, though soiled with soot and blood, still flashed in the light of the torches and the blazing buildings.

“My name?” the man prevaricated.

“Your name, or your life!”

“Eu—Eutychius.”

“Eutychius—governor of Ravenna?”

“Yes, by—by the Emperor’s favor.”

“The Emperor’s favor?” The soldier laughed. “What kind of favor, leaving you to die in this rat’s-hole?”

Yes, what kind of favor, Eutychius thought. Leo, His Most Christian Majesty, bestowed a great honor on him, or so he had imagined. Take care of Ravenna, my dear Eutychius, he murmured, as he sipped the pressings of the autumn’s earliest pomegranates. Take care of the Exarchate. Remind the Italians of their duty to us—to Constantinople. Collect taxes. Get rid of those blasphemous images. It all seemed so easy.

But that was two dozen years ago, and a thousand sea-miles away. Leo died. His son cared only for Asia. Then the enemy came, and the Emperor did nothing, month after desperate month, plea after desperate plea. So many dead, and now the survivors were being cut to pieces.

What kind of favor? the soldier insisted, gesticulating in the governor’s face.

 Eutychius could hear the screams and smell the stench of death through the smoky darkness. A mindless rage got the better of his fear. “A great and noble favor,” he replied. “And I’m ordering you in his name—leave Ravenna!” The men who were holding him tightened their grip, twisting his arms painfully behind his back, but he was working himself into a reckless passion. “Get out of Ravenna,” he yelled. “Get out of the Five Cities, get out of Pavia!”

The tall soldier laughed again. “Really? Out of my capital? And where to then, may I ask?”

“Out of Italy. To wherever your people came from—across the mountains.”

“Across the mountains?”

“To Francia—Germany—who cares?” Eutychius tried to raise himself to the same height as his questioner. “I’m Eutychius—imperial governor of the Exarchate of Ravenna! The Emperor orders you to leave. And take your filthy barbarians with you.”

The soldier’s amusement gave way to annoyance. “And I’m Aistulf, king of the Lombards,” he says. “The Christian Lombards, whose home is Italy—now and forever.” He drew his sword. “Tell your Emperor—I obey his orders like this! and this!

[End of excerpt. But you can read a lot more for free on Amazon, here.]