Book One of the Merlin’s Gambit Trilogy
Merlin Learns of a Secret Society …
“I know something else about Symmachus, too.” I do. It’s a quirky little detail that gives me greater understanding of just what it must have been like for a pope, the supreme head of the Roman Catholic Church, living in Rome, arguably the most important part of Christendom at that point, in the 500th Anno of our abundant Domini, while all the time completely surrounded by an Arian ruler and his Kingdom. It made him more than a little strange, with tendencies that my magic, or weirdly operating synapses, whichever you prefer to call it, tell me will one day be described as belonging to something called a Multiple Personality Disorder; looking backwards I can see the same tendencies in people being recounted as Possessed by Demons. Symmachus’ Personality Demons – and I’ll cease with the Capital Letters here on the grounds that the amount of Proper Nouns needed for The Sins of Symmachus would so outweigh their Literary Effect that it would be completely lost in them – found their outlet in the need for bribery and corruption, fraud and forgery, witness tampering, and the use of heavy enforcers in the shape of thugs willing to carry out those tasks a pope really should not dirty his hands with. “He was a crook, although the crimes of which he was guilty appeared to him to be merely the necessary expediencies of his work, that being his conducting of his Father’s business. He had a role model for that, however … role model and blueprint, it seems … an emperor, a fourth century emperor called–”
“Theodosius,” my old friend says, cutting me off, but quietly, thoughtfully.
“Yes, Theodosius! What is it about him that’s so big and black?” I ask him, rhetorically, and equally as quietly. “Oh, his father was a military commander … dismissed for high treason and … executed a year later. And he himself, also a military leader was forced into retirement by Valentinian I, for the loss of two of his own legions whilst fighting against the Sarmatians. These two events were close together, in 374, he was 27. He’s surrounded by the biggest, blackest cloud of … of … Yes, there it is … shame … and paranoia. He’s even created a personal bodyguard to surround himself with in the hope that it will protect him from … Oh, well that was never going to work, was it! It was himself he needed protecting from!” I pause for a moment, to pull my energy back from Theodosius’ late-fourth century nightmares, which are just too black to look into for a second longer, and examine his doomed protection mechanism. “Only it wasn’t the mechanism that was at fault, was it?” I must have been muttering as Francesco leans in close to me, his face contorted with what could be a look of concentrated study, or else prolonged constipation. I hope it’s the former as there are no latrines for miles and I do not wish to contemplate the alternatives. “But Symmachus doesn’t have that problem, does he?”
“You’re going to have to unwrap that particular parcel of intelligence for me, my boy. I’m not as far-sighted as you.” He smiled expectantly at me, bushy eyebrows raising for long enough to create an aperture between them. “What mechanism is this to which you refer?”
“It’s the bodyguard,” I reply, momentarily processing a simplification of what I’m seeing on my inner screen. “Theodosius’ bodyguard. The men he surrounded himself with for his personal protection, who were also his enforcers for the less savoury actions an Emperor undertakes of necessity. For the greater good, of course,” I add, sarcastically, as my heart does its best not to explode with the sorrow and pain the actions of this emperor have engendered in it already. “It was similar to the Praetorian Guard, which had been protecting Emperors in one form or another for centuries until Constantine dissolved it altogether in 312, only a good deal smaller. But there was a secret inner sanctum too, whose purpose it was to carry out the less wholesome of the tasks he assigned to them without drawing undue attention to themselves, and without the need of reporting their actions back up the chain of command as high as the imperial chamber, virtually autonomous, and there’s something about a secret never to be told, something that they guard, with their lives. It was made up of the Goths he had had so much trouble with over the period leading up to the Gothic War and after. If he couldn’t kill them, expel them, nor entirely subjugate them, in the tried and tested Roman way, what was he meant to do with them? Something new, it seems, as many were federated, permitted to live within the empire, and under their own laws and rulers, provided they sent farm-workers and soldiers to work for the Romans. An unprecedented solution! There were whole tribes of them too, not just the odd legion here and there. But there were still those who would not remain in their newly allotted homelands, which were in Thrace.” (You may know it as Bulgaria, Greece and the European bit of Turkey, if you’re wondering). “An area of considerable size and geographical diversity.
“There were Goths everywhere after that. Even a garrison of them at Thessalonica. The people of Thessalonica did not like that. Being pushed around in their own homeland by Romans was one thing, but being pushed around by Romans who are Goths, and at games in their own circus? Not on! So they rioted. Right there in the circus, killing the Gothic-Roman garrison commander in the process. Oh! … And here’s biggest of the blacknesses.” I stop for a moment as I begin to shake. Talking slowly, because getting the words out is causing me physical pain in my chest, I continue, awkwardly. “He ordered … that they all … be put to death! All of them … men … women … and children … at the hands of the same Gothic barbarians they hated so much.” I feel a hand on my arm, another on my shoulder, but my eyes are closed against the pain, and in the hope that if I keep them closed I won’t see the terror, the horror, the death that lies everywhere in that terrible arena as each Goth slices through Greek, a slick red carpet of fallen bodies left behind them in testimony to the evil power of anger and the possibilities it can manifest in the heart of an emperor defied. The hands remain, gripping me firmly, yet with a gentleness that soothes, urging me to continue, as if to do so were the only way back out of Theodosius’ nightmare with a true and objective understanding of both consequences and actions. Duly fortified, I continue. “And when they all returned from Thessalonica to Constantinople in 390, he selected the best of his Gothic warriors – or the worst, depending on which way you’re viewing it – the ones who had not flinched that day in grisly execution of their duties, and put them to work in this new secret unit. It’s still in existence, even now. Not the doomed bodyguard. That died with Theodosius. Just the inner sanctum, still guarding their secret, unto death.” My thoughts are still reeling, and I’m trying desperately to make it all stay still without vomiting violently in the process. I have a template in my mind’s eye for similar massacre, that of the Druids on Mona, as I have already mentioned, but having one does not preclude the shock of seeing such an event elsewhere, nor does it make the emotions born of each any easier to withstand.
“Drink some more of your mother’s fine mead, Myrddin. You are in need, and it will hold you fast.”
I drink. It’s tempting to lose myself at the bottom of the flask, but, although ample, this flask is not bottomless and the effect would not be sufficient to do more than inflame those passions already excited in me by this seeing, and I hand it back after only one good glug. Another scene, one of similar magnitude to both the Druids of Mona and the people of Thessalonica, this one born of fire, is trying to push itself into view as Francesco reaches to take the flask from my hand, but before I’m given the opportunity to see it clearly it disappears, leaving me with the ghost of an impression from which I cannot even be sure if it’s from the past or the future. I shake my head, to loosen the cold granite feel of the rocks that seem to have filled it. “Thank you,” I respond to the kindness of his gesture, as this latest conundrum fades into forgotten mist and wisps of smoke, and continue with my observations.
“There was something very significant about the timing of this new order, secret society, or whatever the blazes one ought to call it, coming just after this most heinous act in Thessalonica as it did, and at just the time when his paranoia and the blackness of his soul were bothering him so much. The shame of his father’s disgrace and subsequent execution the next year, then his own forced retirement only months later by Valentinian and the paranoia it awoke in him. He felt the sharp steel of it like a stiletto in his back. Hah, the bastard died the very next year, shouted himself to death in Brigetio whilst dealing with a deputation of querulous Quadi so irksome to him that he burst a blood vessel. Knowing this didn’t stop the bitterness, nor take away the shame. Then, his own extinguishing of that last flicker of honour … such a hasty command … the chill and spite of that anger turned on all those people … in cold blood. Then the screaming, and the panic. He still heard it in quiet moments. He had needed them, those Goths, the ones who had carried out that order, the ones who were complicit in his crime. They could be put to perfect use. There was a task so perfect that perhaps it could restore his honour, extirpate his self-loathing, in performance of a service so vital to the empire’s new identity.”
Before I continue with his attempts to slake his shame as this last little piece of the Theodosian puzzle fits itself into place, there’s the matter of the complicated pattern of power-hungry betrayal unravelling in front of my eyes in the House of the Valentinians. I hope you’ll forgive me the footnote, but it does indeed carry an undeniable significance. In death Valentinian I left his four year old son Valentinian II and his teenage half-brother Gratian to rule the Western Empire between them, while his brother Valens took care of the Eastern Empire all by himself. It was in 378, after the disastrous defeat of Valens’ army at Adrianople by the Goths, that Theodosius had acceded to Gratian’s invitation to come out of retirement. The 19 year old asked him to take charge of the Illyrian army, or what was left of it once Valens had thrown it away so misguidedly. Valens, Emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire, killed so ignominiously in a battle that could have waited a day for the reinforcements that would have won it! Or had he been denied those reinforcements by the delay tactics of his nephew and fellow-emperor, Gratian? Yes, if that was what the youngster wanted, Theodosius had considered, then so be it. And as these boys who were somehow related to him by marriage got themselves killed – first Gratian, just 24, betrayed to the usurper Magnus Maximus’ rebel general Andragathius and assassinated in Lyon in 383, whilst fleeing their reach; then Valentinian II, only 17 years old and found hanged at his residence in Vienne in 392, after falling very foul of his guardian, Theodosius’ trusted Frankish general, Arbogast – Theodosius took over all the imperial duties himself, finally reuniting both halves of the Roman Empire once more, at least until his own death in 395.
I’m only seeing these internecine patterns because I’m now on the look out for Arianism, though whatever it is in it that causes men to kill each other for these differences in creeds so slender as to pivot on one tiny point of almost non-existent theology, in itself a thing made by man for man and no other, I have no clearer idea than that I see it. For an instance, Valentinian I and Gratian were Nicene Christians, Valens of the Arian variety, while Valentinian II seems to have tried very hard to please the likes of both the Roman Catholic Bishop Ambrose of Milan in his Nicene ministrations, as well as his mother, the Empress Justina, in her Arian protestations. Of what I’ve observed so far, make of it what you will, yet it seems to me that making a political state vehicle out of this Christianity, divesting it of all its original potencies in the process and shaping it to fit the will of Emperors and their flunkeys, has caused more strife and conflict, bloodshed and bloodymindedness, than any other religion since the beginning of them all. Is this humanity at its best that I am experiencing? But the worst is yet to come, and here, you will be pleased to know, I come right back to my own mission in recounting my story. For this new secret society of Theodosius’, created, as we have already seen, at the psychological nadir of the man’s life, when he would if he could disown his very person for the dishonour he has done himself, and for the blood he must be at pains to wash away each night as he gives his conscience over to his own God, who is of the Nicene persuasion, was created with one specific task in mind, that of the extirpation of the Arian heresy. There, I’ve said the word! That is the first time I have used the barbaric utterance, having tried assiduously to steer as well clear of it as I can, as to use it were to call all thoughts other than one’s own a nonsense, for to believe otherwise is to deny the validity and process of freethinking altogether.
“To kill Arians!” I say through teeth gritted so hard I have to spit the words through the tiny gap in my front incisors. “That’s what he wanted to create it for.” I sag with these words, all the air gone out of me as I see the devastation to human life that goes with that sentence. All my visions, thoughts and words have brought me to my own nadir and I’m finding it hard to keep my free thoughts happy ones.
“But was that all it was for, Myrddin? Surely there was some other reason greater than an Emperor’s paranoia, or all of the emperors would have had them, no? Did you not mention something about a secret? A secret never to be told, I think you said.”
Not for the first time since he’d arrived at my tree on the Ostian Way did I feel that my friend Francesco knew a whole lot more than he was saying, but I saw no harm in taking the bait. Oftentimes the gods see fit to enlighten me through the medium of others, and they seem to have been doing a grand job so far tonight. “Quite so, old friend, quite so. And there’s something more to this tale yet.” I paused to have another mouthful of mead from the half empty flask.
And now for the normal bit of post-scene chat:
All comments in the form of constructive criticism or mistakes you’ve noticed that I might not have noticed yet, whether typos, spelling or grammar, will be very gratefully received and appreciated – although I think spelling and grammar ones are most unlikely, but you never know, I might have done it all juuuuust a little too quickly and boobed … I’ll post the next scene in a week, and thank you very much for reading.
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