Authors: Valerio Massimo Manfredi
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Action & Adventure, #Historical
is the professor of classical archaeology at the Luigi Bocconi University in Milan. He has carried out a number of expeditions to and excavations in many sites throughout the Mediterranean, and has taught in Italian and international universities. He has published numerous articles and academic books, mainly on military and trade routes and exploration in the ancient world.
He has published ten works of fiction, including the Alexander trilogy, which has been translated into twenty-four languages in thirty-eight countries, and
The Last Legion
, recently released as a major motion picture.
He has written and hosted documentaries on the ancient world, which have been transmitted by the main television networks, and has written fiction for cinema and television as well.
He lives with his family in the countryside near Bologna.
Also by Valerio Massimo Manfredi
HILD OF A
NDS OF THE
The Talisman of Troy)
Translated from the Italian by Christine Feddersen-Manfredi
First published 2003 by Macmillan
First published in paperback 2003 by Pan Books
This electronic edition published 2009 by Pan Books
an imprint of Pan Macmillan Ltd
Pan Macmillan, 20 New Wharf Rd, London N1 9RR
Basingstoke and Oxford
Associated companies throughout the world
ISBN 978-0-330-51560-3 in Adobe Reader format
ISBN 978-0-330-51559-7 in Adobe Digital Editions format
ISBN 978-0-330-51561-0 in Mobipocket format
Copyright © Valerio Massimo Manfredi 2002
Translation c opyright © Macmillan 2003
First Published in Italian 2002 as
by Arnoldo Mondadori Editore S.p.A, Milano
The right of Valerio Massimo Manfredi to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
You may not copy, store, distribute, transmit, reproduce or otherwise make available this publication (or any part of it) in any form, or by any means (electronic, digital, optical, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise), without the prior written permission of the publisher. Any person who does any unauthorized act in relation to this publication may be liable to criminal prosecution and civil claims for damages.
A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.
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I would like to thank Carlo Carlei and Peter Rader, who helped me to develop the idea for this novel in view of a cinematic adaption: their contributions significantly enriched this story.
These are the memories of Myrdin Emreis, Druid of the sacred wood of Gleva, who the Romans called Meridius Ambrosinus. I have taken upon myself the task of writing them down so that those who shall come after me will not forget the events which I have been the last to witness.
I have long crossed the threshold of extreme age and I cannot explain why my life continues to go on, so far beyond the limits which nature usually assigns humankind. Perhaps the angel of death has forgotten about me, or perhaps he wants to leave me this last bit of time so that I may repent of my many sins, of no small consequence. Presumption, foremost. I have been guilty of great pride in the intelligence gifted me by God, and I have allowed, out of pure vanity, legends about my clairvoyance – even about supposed powers that can only be attributed to our Supreme Creator and the intercession of His saints! – to take root amongst the people. Oh, yes, I have even devoted myself to the forbidden arts, to the writings of the ancient pagan priests of these lands on the trunks of trees. Yet I believe I have done no evil. What evil can come of listening to the voices of our Ancient Mother, of Sovereign Nature, the voices of the wind amidst the leafy boughs, the song of the nightingales to the moon, the gurgling of the spring waters and the rustling of the dry leaves, when the hills and the plains are cloaked with the gleaming colours of autumn in those quiet sunsets that hint at the winter.
It is snowing. Big white flakes dance in the still air and a candid mantle covers the hills that crown this silent valley, this lonely tower. Will the land of Eternal Peace be like this? Is this the image that we shall see forever with the eyes of our souls? If it were such, death would be sweet, soft the passage to our final rest.
How much time has passed! How long since those bloody, tumultuous days of hate and war, of the convulsions of a dying world which I had believed immortal and eternal, and which I saw collapse. Now, as I prepare myself to take my last step, I feel the need to hand down the story of that failing world, and to tell how the last bloom of that parched tree was carried by fate to this remote land, where it took root and gave origin to a new era.
I don’t know whether the angel of death will leave me the time, nor whether this old heart will hold up to reliving the emotions that nearly broke it asunder when I was so much younger, but I will not let the immensity of my endeavour discourage me. I feel the wave of memories rising like the tide among the cliffs of Carvetia. I have once more seen distant visions that I had thought forever vanished, like an ancient fresco faded by time.
I had thought that taking up my quill and touching it to this fresh parchment would have been sufficient to recreate the story, setting it free to flow like a river through a field when the snow melts in the spring, but I was wrong. Memories throng and press, a knot fills my throat and my hand falls impotent on the white page. I must first evoke the images, restore the strength of those colours, of the lives and the voices enfeebled by the years and the distance. I must even recreate what I have not seen with my own eyes, as the dramatist plays out scenes on his stage which he has never experienced.
It is snowing on the hills of Carvetia. All is white and silent as the last light of the day is slowly extinguished.
From nations far apart you have made a single fatherland
– Rutilius Namatianus, De Reditu suo, 63
Dertona, fieldcamp of the Nova Invicta Legion,
Anno Domini 476, 1229 years after the foundation of Rome
HE LIGHT PIERCED
through the clouds covering the valley, and the cypresses straightened up suddenly like guards, alert on the ridge of the hills. A shadow bending over a bundle of twigs appeared at the edge of a stubble field and vanished at once, as if in a dream. A cock’s crow rose from a distant farmhouse, announcing another grey, leaden day, only to be swallowed up instantly by the fog. Nothing penetrated the mist, save the voices of the men.
‘It’s this damp that gets into your bones.’
‘It’s the fog. I’ve never seen such thick fog in all my life.’
‘Nor have I. And not a sign of our rations.’
‘Perhaps there’s nothing left to eat.’
‘Not even a little wine to warm us up.’
‘And we haven’t been paid for three months.’
‘I can’t take it any longer, I’ve had it with this whole thing. A new emperor practically every year, barbarians controlling all the main posts, and now, to top it all off: a snotty-nosed kid on the throne of the Caesars! A thirteen-year-old brat who hasn’t even got the strength to hold up the sceptre is supposed to be running the world – the West, at least. No, this is it for me, I’m getting out. As soon as I can I’m leaving the army and going my own way. I’ll find myself a little island where I can put goats out to pasture and make cheese. I don’t know about the rest of you, but my mind is made up.’
A light breeze opened a breach in the mist and revealed a group of soldiers huddled around a brazier. They were waiting to go off the last shift of guard duty. Rufius Vatrenus, a Spaniard from Saguntum and a veteran of many battles, commander of the guard corps, turned to his comrade, the only one who hadn’t yet said a word or sounded a complaint: ‘What do you say, Aurelius, are you with me?’
Aurelius poked the tip of his sword into the brazier, rekindling a flame that crackled into life and set a swirl of sparks dancing in the milky mist.
‘I’ve always served Rome. What else could I do?’
A long silence fell. The men looked at each other, gripped by a feeling of dismay and restless unease.
‘He’ll never hang up his sword,’ said Antoninus, a senior officer. ‘He’s always been in the army. He doesn’t even remember what he used to do before he joined up. He simply doesn’t remember ever being anywhere else. Isn’t that true, Aurelius?’