Priscus’s manservant had pulled him from his bed, certain that they were about to lose their lives in the sudden commotion in the barbarian horde. Priscus hurried along over the uneven soil, trying not to turn an ankle in a wagon rut or step in a hole. He followed Ellak, trying in vain to keep up with him in a pair of light sandals made for walking on the smooth pavements of Constantinople. Ellak was a fighter, a man descended from famous warriors, who had lived to adulthood by the strength and speed of his limbs.
As Priscus caught sight of the huge animal-skin tent of the High King, its center pole as tall as a villa and its floor wide enough to hold hundreds, he could hear wailing and shouting and knew what must have happened in the night. He slowed enough to remain upright and maintain his Roman dignity. He was a diplomat, and, by default, the man who must write the history of this momentous day. Ellak, the High King’s son, had come for him because Priscus was the most learned man for many leagues and might know of a way to save the High King’s life. But the wailing might mean they were arriving too late.
Priscus hid his feeling of fear. The barbarians were in his way, running about, whipping one another into a fury. They could smell fear like dogs. They were trained and experienced killers from birth who had conquered their way from remotest Asia to Europe by sheer ferocity. When they’d heard shouting, they’d rushed outside, and would no more have come without their swords and daggers than without their hands and feet. Today, if any of them sensed fear in him—a foreigner—they would tear him apart without warning.
Ellak led him into the High King’s vast tent. Priscus was nearly a head taller than most of the barbarians, who were from the distant east, short and broad, with wide shoulders and thick arms and legs, their faces like tanned leather. Priscus could see over the heads of some of the men who were blocking the inner chamber. That was where the King must be. The warriors standing nearest to the chamber were already pulling out their short daggers and cutting their cheekbones with deep slashes so the blood would run down in streaks like tears.
Priscus made his way by stepping sideways and slipping between the half-mad guards. Now he could see the High King’s young bride, Ildico, crouching on the pile of rich carpets in the corner as far away from her husband as she could get. She was weeping, but nobody was comforting her. Priscus couldn’t see anyone who even seemed to notice her.
As one of the guards turned to face his friends to let them watch as he mutilated his face with a short sword, Priscus slipped behind him into the chamber. He looked down at the body of the High King and could see why the young bride looked so shocked. The great barbarian, the
Priscus stepped to the corner and lifted the girl Ildico from where she cowered. He pushed aside the long blond hair from her ear and whispered, “It’s all right. He’s gone now, and there’s nothing more you can do here. Come.” It was all just soothing talk, just a human voice to comfort her without saying anything. Ildico was the High King’s seventh wife, and in spite of her beauty she was barely more than a child, brought from her Germanic tribe to marry the conqueror. She understood Priscus’s Latin as well as her own Gothic, but he wasn’t sure which languages the guards spoke so said little. He helped her out into the light of the rising sun and the fresh air. She looked pale and weak like a ghost. He was hoping to get her away from the crowd before some warrior suspected the King’s death was her fault. The ignorant were often suspicious, and even if a person died of a lightning strike, someone might have conjured it.