The Caspian Gates

Harry Sidebottom

Exile, it seems, is a gift. I thought it was a punishment.

- Seneca, Medea 492


The Caucasus, Autumn AD259

A family formed by crime must be broken by more crime.

-Seneca, Medea 55

He was wounded and unhorsed, but he was alive. At the top of the slope was a stand of mountain pines. In cover, back against a tree, the man tried to listen for the pursuit. He could hear nothing over his own agonized breathing.

The shaft of the arrow had snapped when he crashed from his mount. The arrowhead was embedded in his left bicep. The blood still ran hot down his arm. The pain came in sickening surges.

He was a fool to have agreed to hunt bear. Lonely wooded glens, many armed men; it was all too easy to become isolated, then all too easy for an accident to happen. He was a fool to have trusted his brother. There had always been something not right about the youngest of them. The presence of their sister and her retinue had lulled him. If only he had remained close to her. His brother and his followers would have attempted nothing then. The man knew he had been a fool, and now he would die. He despaired.

This was not right, not for a descendant of Prometheus. The man tried to control his sobbing. On the peaks above, Prometheus had been persecuted. Spiteful Zeus had hung him in chains. Every day, with the sun, the eagle had come, its cruel, sharp beak lunging into the soft flesh, tearing, slicing, gobbling down chunks of Prometheus’s delicate, dark liver. With the night, the eagle left. As the cold winds blew and the snow flurried, miraculously, the liver was healed. And then, with the dawn, the eagle returned. Thirty years of torment until Heracles had shot the eagle and freed the man’s ancestor.

Prometheus was a lesson in endurance, in suffering overcome, of ultimate redemption. Who should learn it better than his distant offspring? The man drew a slower, deeper breath; still ragged, but more in control. He forced the pain away and kept very still. He listened. All was quiet; so quiet you could follow a mosquito by its hum.

The hunters were out of earshot, at least temporarily off the trail. After the ambush, he had ridden some distance before the moment of pain-induced inattention and the low branch that had swept him off his horse. The horse had bolted. He was alone.

The man looked around. The copse was shot through with shafts of weak sunlight. It was quite considerable, and not of pine alone. Here and there blazed the autumnal reds and golds of beech, maple and birch. There was no undergrowth, but the trunks and low branches, the odd fallen tree, all gave some cover.

The man turned his attention to the arrow. Thinking of it brought back the pain. He forced it down again. His left arm was almost useless. Using his teeth and the dagger in his right hand, he cut the sleeves of his sheepskin coat and linen tunic away from the wound. He had to bite his lip hard when the material pulled clear. The blood started to flow fast again.

The man unstoppered his wine flask. Not pausing to dwell on it, not giving cowardice an opportunity to undermine his resolve, he poured the alcohol over the wound. The pain was searing. He drummed his heels, clenched the discarded sheepskin in his teeth. Not crying out, he cleaned the wound.

The pain, the stench of greasy sheepskin, its revolting lanolin taste – the man spat and then retched. The convulsive movement made the pain worse. He fought for control. He used the mental tools at his disposal. Imagine the pain as a red-hot ember, his arm as a fennel stalk. Force the ember down inside the stalk. Let it glow there in the dark, smoulder, do its worst; you can carry it for miles, the surface of the fennel barely warm to the touch.

The pain somewhat mastered, the man sniffed the wound. Nothing, just blood and wine; the homely waft of sacrifice. Relief ran through him. They had not used the most potent of local poisons, not the one whose mere scent could injure or blind. If they had employed another, it probably mattered little. Every morning, like all his family, he had climbed the ladder to the top room of the tower. There his father had unlocked the big, bound chest, had measured out the potions. Every morning the seven of them – father, mother, the four boys and their sister – had drunk down a little draft of every poison, all except one that was known in the region. It took a time: there were many poisons known in Suania. Endless innocent mornings vitiated by nausea and pain, but all worth it on a dreadful afternoon such as this one.

There was an inch or so of splintered shaft protruding. It was inscribed with strange markings. The arrowhead was barbed. It could not be pulled out. He could cut it out. But he would scream, and bring the hunters down on him. He sat and thought.

He unbuckled his bow case and quiver. They were useless to a one-armed man. He took two straps from them. One he tied tight above the wound. The flow of blood slowed almost instantly. The other he fashioned into a sling. He regarded the bow case for a time. He considered his weapons. On his belt a sword and dagger; another two daggers, one hidden in a boot, the other in the lining of his coat. He pulled a bowstring from the case and, gripping one end in his teeth, made it into a lariat.

Somewhere in the distance, a hound gave voice and a man called. The main body of the hunt, or the assassins? There was no way to tell. It was time to move, time to decide what to do.

Leaving the bow case and quiver, the torn scraps of clothing, the bloodied ground, the man moved off through the trees, away from the direction in which he had come. He tracked up the slope until he came to a small glade. Through the break in the foliage he could see the sky: a hard, distant blue. Darkness would fall within two hours. He looked north to the mountains. The Croucasis lived up to their Scythian name; in the cold sunshine their flanks were still ‘gleaming white with snow’. But the mountains were smoking. Wisps of vapour curled up towards the peaks, coalesced into a dark cloud at the very summit. The first snows would fall here in the upland valleys in an hour or so. Darkness would come early. Not long to stay alive.

The man felt sick again; sick and weak. He thought for a moment, then, taking a slightly different angle, stepped back into the trees the way he had come. He cast about for a place to lie up. A great fallen beech, its dying branches fanned upwards, abutted a standing evergreen. He settled himself into the space between the screen of dying deciduous leaves and the grey, lichened trunk of the pine.

The man was shaking slightly. He did not know if it was from the cold, or from fear and the shock of betrayal. Fumbling, he fed himself some cold pheasant and a little flat bread from the pouch on his belt. He had never trusted his youngest brother, not since childhood. Somehow, he had always known things would not go well for him if he fell into his hands. From the wine flask he poured libations to Prometheus, Heracles and Hecate, and prayed; especially to the dark goddess of revenge.

It was still dead calm in the wood. The storm would not get here very soon. He had to decide what to do. Hiding here did not seem good. He would get colder and weaker. He would be discovered and killed. He needed to be on the move. But where to?

Listening hard, he shut his eyes and thought once more. He could try to get back to the main body of the hunt. Among his own retainers and his sister’s men he would be safe. He would have to avoid the assassins. His brother would have them spread out, searching – maybe they were already following his trail. He did not know how many there were; he had seen only two. Had there been several more, unwounded, the man would have put money on ghosting past them. He had always been good on the hill and in the forest. But he was wounded; slowed down and in pain.

There were sledge tracks in the grass off to the left. The first snows next to never closed the nearest pass. Despite the lateness of the season, there would be Scythian nomads, Alani or, more likely, men from their subject tribes, still driving their herds back north over what they called the Croucasis.

If the man could fall in with a group of Scythians, he would be safe. Obviously, they were aware of his father. Last spring, they would have handed over to his father’s men fleeces, hides and slaves to be allowed to make the passage south. It might be that his own name was not unknown among the Scythians. The nomads would protect him. Of course, he would have to cross the mountains with them, spend the winter out on the plains. And come next spring, they would not need fleeces or slaves. His safe return would open their way. But the man cared nothing for that. He would be alive to be ransomed; alive to take revenge on his youngest brother.

A strange languor was creeping over him. The Scythians would be in a good mood, the bellies of their animals full of the sweet meadow grasses of Suania, their own saddlebags stuffed with apples and pears. They would be going home. A winter with the Scythians would not be so bad, a winter spent drifting after the flocks across the wide plains of the nomad sea. Their tents would be snug; braziers lit, a pleasant fug of conversation, food and drink. The women of the Alani were said to be tall, beautiful and wanton. Their men were complacent. All you had to do was hang your quiver outside her tent, and the husband would go off and leave you in peace until you had finished enjoying his wife.

The sharp ring of metal on metal snapped the man’s eyes open. He held his breath, listening. Nothing. Slowly, he turned his head from side to side, eyes wide. Nothing. He knew he had not imagined it. Up above, the top branches were stirring with sluggish menace. The storm would get here soon.

His arm hurt like a Christian on the pyre. He tried to push the red-hot ember back into the fennel stalk. Careful not to make a sound, he wriggled his toes, with his good hand massaged his thighs, tried to get feeling back into his legs.

Another sound. Off to his right, a careless footfall. In the gloom, the man grinned. He had always been good on the hill. Yet another sound. There was his brother’s creature, not above twenty paces away. Alternately, the hunter bent to peer at the ground, following the trail, and stood scanning ahead. He had a bow in his hands, arrow notched, half drawn. His jerky movements betrayed his nerves.

You are right to be nervous, thought the man. If I had two good arms and a bow, you would already be dead, shot as easily as a sitting pheasant. Even with one arm, I have marked you out for Hecate.

The hunter stopped at the edge of the glade, just as the man had hoped a pursuer would. The open ground was an obvious place for an ambush. Anyone would fear that, as you stepped into the clearing, an arrow might whistle out from the tree line ahead. Only the deepest thinking would suspect anything from behind.

The man eased himself to his feet. Oddly, his left arm, though still incapacitated, had ceased to hurt. He studied the way first he then the hunter had come. The wind hissed through the branches. Nothing else: no human movement or sound.

The man glided forward, feet placed carefully, the lariat in his right hand. The gathering storm covered his approach.

The hunter still hesitated. The man closed behind him. An innate intimation of danger; the hunter began to turn. Too late. With fluid movements, the man slipped the noose of bowstring over the hunter’s head, yanked the slip knot tight around his neck, pulled as hard as he could.

Instinctively, the hunter’s fingers scrabbled at the cord biting deep into his throat. There was no purchase to be had. Blood ran down his neck.

The man, left shoulder braced between the hunter’s shoulderblades, exerted all his strength. Boots slipped and stamped on the forest floor. The man’s breath came in harsh, animal pants. The hunter’s was a death rattle. Convulsions, then a heavy stillness. A foul smell of voided bladder and bowels. The man continued to choke the lifeless corpse.

‘Impressive, brother, you have killed him five times over.’

The man’s youngest brother emerged from the shadows of the wood. Above him, branches whipped this way and that. The tails of his long native coat were thrown back, the sleeves hung empty. In his unencumbered hands was a drawn bow.