February 25th, 2024
Home | Log in!

On Top Shelf
Jennifer EstepJennifer Estep
Fresh Pick
THE TEACHER
THE TEACHER

New Books This Week

Fresh Fiction Box

Video Book Club

Leap Year Giveaways


Sweet Reads in February

Slideshow image


Since your web browser does not support JavaScript, here is a non-JavaScript version of the image slideshow:

slideshow image
Rumors aren't the only thing that will stir when Abigail returns to Boone County, Texas.


slideshow image
From Loss to Love: A Pilot and an Artist's Colliding Worlds


slideshow image
Caffeine and Commitments: Stirring Up Love in San Francisco


slideshow image
"Her biggest fan �has a fatal obsession."


slideshow image
Bloodlines and Boardrooms: A Paranormal Romance of Power and Passion


slideshow image
A new, action-packed adventure that blends science-fiction technology and magical fantasy elements with a touch of historical romance.


Excerpt of Come Armageddon by Anne Perry

Purchase


Ace
December 2004
412 pages
ISBN: 0441012043
Paperback (reprint)
Add to Wish List

Fantasy

Also by Anne Perry:

A Christmas Vanishing, November 2023
Hardcover / e-Book
The Traitor Among Us, September 2023
Hardcover / e-Book
A Truth to Lie For, September 2023
Trade Paperback / e-Book
A Christmas Deliverance, November 2022
Hardcover / e-Book
A Darker Reality, September 2022
Trade Paperback / e-Book (reprint)
A Truth to Lie For, September 2022
Hardcover / e-Book
Three Debts Paid, April 2022
Hardcover / e-Book
A Darker Reality, September 2021
Hardcover / e-Book
Death with a Double Edge, April 2021
e-Book
A Christmas Resolution, October 2020
Paperback / e-Book (reprint)
A Question of Betrayal, September 2020
Hardcover / e-Book
One Fatal Flaw, April 2020
Hardcover / e-Book
A Christmas Gathering, November 2019
Hardcover / e-Book
Death in Focus, September 2019
Hardcover / e-Book
Triple Jeopardy, April 2019
e-Book
Death in Focus, April 2019
Trade Size / e-Book
Murder on the Serpentine, April 2018
Trade Size / e-Book (reprint)
Twenty-one Days, April 2018
Hardcover / e-Book
A Christmas Message, November 2016
Hardcover / e-Book
Treachery at Lancaster Gate, April 2016
Hardcover / e-Book
A Christmas Escape, November 2015
Paperback / e-Book
Corridors of the Night, September 2015
Hardcover / e-Book
The Angel Court Affair, April 2015
Hardcover / e-Book
Death on Blackheath, March 2015
Paperback / e-Book (reprint)
A New York Christmas, November 2014
Paperback / e-Book
Midnight at Marble Arch, April 2014
Paperback / e-Book (reprint)
Blind Justice, September 2013
Hardcover / e-Book
Dorchester Terrace, March 2013
Paperback / e-Book (reprint)
Treason at Lisson Grove, May 2012
Paperback / e-Book (reprint)
Silence in Hanover Close, October 2011
Paperback / e-Book (reprint)
Seven Dials, October 2011
Paperback / e-Book (reprint)
Cardington Crescent, October 2011
Paperback / e-Book (reprint)
Ashworth Hall, October 2011
Paperback / e-Book (reprint)
Pentecost Alley, October 2011
Paperback / e-Book (reprint)
The Hyde Park Headsman, October 2011
Paperback / e-Book (reprint)
Highgate Rise, October 2011
Paperback / e-Book
Bethlehem Road, October 2011
Paperback / e-Book (reprint)
Long Spoon Lane, October 2011
Paperback / e-Book (reprint)
Brunswick Gardens, August 2011
Paperback / e-Book (reprint)
Southampton Row, July 2011
Paperback / e-Book (reprint)
Belgrave Square, July 2011
Paperback / e-Book (reprint)
The Face of a Stranger, May 2011
e-Book
Half Moon Street, April 2011
Paperback / e-Book (reprint)
Farrier's Lane, April 2011
Paperback / e-Book (reprint)
A Christmas Odyssey, November 2010
Hardcover
The Whitechapel Conspiracy, October 2010
Paperback / e-Book (reprint)
Christmas at The Mysterious Bookshop, October 2010
Hardcover
Traitors Gate, October 2010
Paperback / e-Book (reprint)
The Sheen On The Silk, April 2010
Hardcover
Death in the Devil's Acre, February 2010
Paperback / e-Book (reprint)
Rutland Place, February 2010
Paperback / e-Book (reprint)
Bluegate Fields, October 2009
Paperback / e-Book (reprint)
Resurrection Row, October 2009
Paperback / e-Book (reprint)
Paragon Walk, June 2009
Paperback / e-Book (reprint)
Callander Square, June 2009
Paperback / e-Book (reprint)
The Cater Street Hangman, October 2008
Paperback / e-Book (reprint)
Buckingham Palace Gardens, April 2008
Hardcover / e-Book
A Christmas Beginning, November 2007
Hardcover
We Shall Not Sleep, April 2007
Hardcover
At Some Disputed Barricade, March 2007
Hardcover / e-Book
A Christmas Secret, November 2006
Hardcover
Transgressions, September 2006
Paperback (reprint)
Dark Assassin, March 2006
Hardcover
A Christmas Guest, November 2005
Hardcover
Angels in the Gloom, August 2005
Hardcover
Shifting Tide, March 2005
Paperback (reprint)
Come Armageddon, December 2004
Paperback (reprint)
A Christmas Visitor, October 2004
Hardcover
Powers of Detection, October 2004
Trade Size
Shoulder the Sky, September 2004
Hardcover
No Graves as Yet, August 2004
Paperback
Death By Dickens, March 2004
Hardcover
A Christmas Journey, November 2003
Hardcover
Death of a Stranger, August 2003
Paperback (reprint)
Naked Came the Phoenix, September 2002
Paperback
Twisted Root, September 2002
Paperback
Tathea, August 2002
Paperback
Funeral in Blue, August 2002
Paperback (reprint)
Slaves of Obsession, October 2001
Paperback (reprint)
A Dish Taken Cold, January 2001
Hardcover
Bedford Square, March 2000
Paperback / e-Book (reprint)

Excerpt of Come Armageddon by Anne Perry

Prologue

The staff was standing alone, upright on the forest floor. Tathea stared at it in wonder and then with a sharp prickle of excitement and awe. Even in the muted light through the canopy of trees she could see that it was carved down the shaft in tiny hieroglyphs.

On tiptoe she walked over to look more closely. They were in six separate groups. She tried to read the first, but it made no sense, nor did the second, nor the third. It was only when she came to the last one that the words were as clear as fire in the mind: "when the woman of love has kneeled in the ashes and taken up My burden, then shall I come and receive My own."

She reached out her hand to take the staff, and as she did so it leaned away from her, southwards, towards the edge of the forest where she had not been able to pass in five hundred years. Was this the time, now, at last?

She clutched it and started to walk, shivering a little. She had an appointment to keep, not just for herself but for every living thing, the present and the past. She stepped over the gnarled roots twisted into the ancient soil. Urgency impelled her. She started to run, climbing an incline and slithering down, splashing through a stream.

A fallow deer lifted its head at her approach and then sprang off into the shadows of hazel and birch.

Tathea's mind was filled with memory. She could see the place on the soul's journey where she and Ishrafeli had parted as if it were around her now, the dark slope down to the water's edge, the glimmer of starlight over the sea and Sardonaris on the horizon. The skiff had lain at its moorings ready. She had had the Book in her arms. She had expected Ishrafeli to return with her to carry its burden to the world, and instead he had told her the one truth she had never imagined. He was an angel. His time was not yet. But he had promised that one day he would come and take his mortal life, and together they would fight the last terrible war against Asmodeus, the Great Enemy. If they won, then the world would be resurrected into a glory and a joy beyond the heart to dream. It would become the habitation of God for time everlasting, and for all those who in their testing had loved Him with undivided heart.

And if they lost, then Asmodeus would make it the seat of dominion to rule and ruin all other worlds he could reach, spreading an ever--widening misery until the light faded across the universe and darkness owned them.

Tathea was running faster now, brushing past whipping branches and over stones and ruts, her feet soundless on the dark earth. Briars reached out and tore at her clothes and she ignored them. Old prophecies thundered through her mind. In her memory she was back in the desert of Shinabar again, the hot sand abrading her skin, the light dazzling, and Iszamber's voice telling her that in the final war, when nations plunged into violence and desolation, still the Island at the Edge of the World would stand, because here the light of faith would never be entirely quenched.

It was here that the warriors would be nurtured who would fight Armageddon. One king would unite the warring tribes long enough for the truth to be taught again. The Book would be unsealed and the old glories of the light of God would harrow men's souls, and fire such faith in them as would rekindle the stars.

And at the very last, Asmodeus would be able to walk the earth, and she must take the keys of the world from him before God could renew all things into eternity.

Another clearing opened in front of her, larger than the last, but here there was no sunlight on the grass. She hesitated and looked up. The sky was dark with scudding clouds, and a cold wind whipped the tops of the trees. She felt its breath on her skin like ice. She was glad to reach the far side where the stinging edge was broken.

Tathea was on a path now, and the trees were less dense. There were elders, white with flowers, dizzying scent; ash and wild cherry.

The first hailstones struck so viciously it seemed as if the pellets of ice must leave bruises on her flesh. Stumbling, teeth clenched, she ran on, half blinded. Whatever the storm, she must not stop. Everything depended upon her being there in time.

Thunder rumbled around the skirts of heaven, then, without warning, cracked above her with ear--shattering sound. Flights of birds shot out of the trees, whirling up against the sullen sky and small animals fled for cover, huddling under logs and stones in terror.

Lightning forked down. A tree exploded in a sheet of fire. It swayed for a breathless moment, then crashed down across the path in front of her, trailing gaudy ribbons of flame which caught other branches and blazed up, roaring, crackling, spreading wide.

She stopped abruptly, scrambling to keep her balance. She could not retrace her steps. She would have to force her way through the undergrowth to go round it.

The wind was harder, rising to a high, shrill whine in the upper branches, whipping them back and forth as it changed direction, snapping them off and catching them whirling up in the air.

Tathea wanted to find any lee side of a bank where she could crouch down and protect herself. There were plenty of places. She knew the forest, its heart and its nature. She loved its great trees, its slender saplings, and every creature in it. It had fed and sheltered her for five centuries. If she turned back, maybe this terrible destruction would end. Perhaps there was another way? She stood motionless, her hand clenched on the staff.

When she tried to pull it back, it would not move. It would yield only southward, drawing her on.

She stumbled over fallen branches across the path. Ahead of her the trees thinned, white wood showing in great wounds where the storm had ripped branches away.

Now she was at the path's end. Beyond was open land. She hesitated, afraid. The moment had come. If she could walk beyond the last tree, then the forest no longer held her. It truly was the beginning.

The sky was purple--dark, heavy--bellied with hail. Behind her she heard the scream of the wind and the crash as another tree was rent from the earth. Lightning flared, and ahead she saw the figure of a woman coming towards her, floundering as if heavy--laden and near exhaustion.

The moment of indecision passed. The woman was in need. Tathea went towards her swiftly, away from the forest edge, free from its hold. There was no sense of surprise, no barrier. The storm, the piercing cold, the rage in the sky, told her that the earth itself knew the waiting was ended.

She reached the woman and in the livid, fading light saw why she had moved so awkwardly. She was heavy with child, and close to the time of birth. Her clothes were torn, stained with mud and blood and the dark smears of burning. Smoke streaked her face, and her eyes were grief-hollowed.

Tathea clasped her, taking some of her weight. The woman was shuddering with exhaustion. Her clothes wrapped around her thighs, the long, wet skirts tangling every movement.

"Gently! Gently!" Tathea urged her. "There's no one behind you."

But the woman struggled on towards the outlying trees. "I must reach Hirioth," she gasped, fighting to keep her balance as pain shot through her and she stumbled, almost dragging Tathea down with her.

"You can't," Tathea told her more clearly, forcing her to stop. "Your time is come. I'll look after you. I know a little of birth." She remembered, with the old, heart-- consuming ache, her own child, and the moment of drenching horror when she had discovered his small, blood--soaked body, the night of the coup in Shinabar. The tightening of the throat, the pain through the body was always the same.

But there was no time for the past.

The woman had a strange and subtle face with a beauty unlike any other.

"Who are you?" she said in little more than a whisper as another spasm grasped her.

"Tathea," she answered. "But you must rest. The rain has stopped, and you will be dry under the trees here."

The woman stared at her, her eyes wide with wonder.

"Come!" Tathea urged, pulling at her arm.

"Tathea?" The word was spoken with awe, as if there were magic in the sound of it.

"Yes. Please come! You have not long."

The woman's eyes clouded. "I know," she said softly. "I shall not live to raise my child, not even to hold him in my arms." Again the spasm took her and she sank to her knees, holding herself, rocking back and forth.

"Yes, you will!" Tathea kneeled beside her, clasping her as she fought to control herself. "It will seem terrible, but it will pass."

"No . . ." The word came between clenched teeth. "I have come too far, my strength is gone. But I had to . . . to reach Hirioth. Now I know why." She let out a cry and gripped Tathea's hand so hard it was as if she could transfer her own pain.

Tathea held on to her. A great feeling flooded through her that the woman was right and a stupid and futile denial would comfort no one.

"Sardo..." The woman continued after a moment. "Sardo gave his life to help me escape the city. He loved me, and he knew the child . . ." Again she had to stop to give herself over to the pain. "Will you tell him about us?" she asked after a few more moments. "My name is Mairin. I am sister to Aelfrith, Earl of the Eastern Shore. My husband was Sardo . . ." She gulped and her eyes filled with tears. Perhaps it was only hours since he had died.

Tathea held her closer, feeling the pain reach through her, aware of Mairin's failing strength, the violent beating of her heart. She ached for her that she would hold her child for no more than a few moments before she would have to trust him to a stranger to guard and protect his life, to nurture him, teach him, and above all to love him as she would have.

Tathea knew that this child was to be the king who would unite the Island, so no more women would have to flee ruined cities because of war with neighbouring tribes or pirate raids from the Sea Isles. He was the one who would create a golden age before the great and final war. The violence in the shattered forest had told her that, and her freedom at last to leave its bounds, to walk beyond its keeping and into the world.

Though her strength was ebbing fast, Mairin spoke of her youth, and how she had met Sardo, and how they had loved each other. Then her body convulsed and the moment of birth came. There was no more time left.

An hour later Tathea stood in the fading glory of the evening light with the baby in her arms, wrapped in pieces of Mairin's robe.

Mairin had held him herself for a few moments, touched his face, and named him Sadokhar. Now she lay in her final peace, her blood--stained gown her winding sheet, and Tathea could do nothing for her but pull some of the broken branches to cover her, and think how she would care for her son.

She had only just taken the first steps towards the distant village, when she saw the man coming up the rise, his black hair blown by the wind. He was slender, strong, and he moved with unusual grace as though his feet barely touched the ground.

For a moment Tathea's heart knocked with a familiarity so sharp it pierced her with a physical pain.

He was close to her now and she could see his face, the broad brow and chiselled features, the blazing blue eyes.

Of course she knew him. Her soul had known him since before the creation of the world. He was the Great Enemy, Asmodeus himself, walking the earth like a man.

He stopped in front of her and looked at the child in her arms.

"Sadokhar," he said softly, as if he knew him already.

Tathea held the baby so closely he seemed almost part of her. Asmodeus could not harm him physically, and yet she could smell her own fear. Why had he torn up the forest, breaking and wounding it, if not to prevent her reaching Mairin in time, and saving the child?

Asmodeus was smiling. "Sadokhar," he repeated with infinite satisfaction. He held up his left hand and in it was a bunch of keys, heavy and dull--gleaming black.

She stared at them, transfixed.

"The keys of this world," he told her. "The power and the dominion of it." He leaned a little forward. "It is mine! And neither you nor that child will take it from me--nor Ishrafeli, when he comes."

Her lips were dry, her heart pounding. "If God wills it, we can do anything," she said huskily.

"'Can't?" The word was a challenge, a cry of derision. "Maybe you can . . . but you won't!" He looked at the child again. "He won't! You remember nothing, but I have known each of you since the foundation of heaven." He held up the keys again. "The earth is mine!" Then he turned on his heel and strode away.

She heard his laughter, thin and hard like a knife blade into the flesh, and a moment later she was alone in the wind and the sunset, and the child began to cry.

Legs shaking, Tathea walked away from the vast prison and shelter that was Hirioth, and into the world.

Chapter I

Tathea looked at Sadokhar beside her, then at Sardriel and Ardesir opposite. All the tables in the Great Hall were crowded with the scores of warriors and advisers who served the castle and city. The torches in the hall burned low, casting shadows on the coffered ceiling and sending a golden glow on to the bronze of half--empty bowls of fruit and the curves of wine glasses. The sounds of laughter and conversation filled the air. The embers of the fire faded and the dogs stirred hopefully, looking for scraps.

It had been twenty--eight years since Tathea had left Hirioth, bringing with her only the staff and the golden Book of the word of God. Sadokhar was a grown man and he had accomplished all that she had promised Mairin he would, and all that she had dreamed for him herself. Some of it had been savage--war and reprisal. She still shivered at the memory of Cunaglass's rebellion and how Sadokhar had hunted him down and, in his rage at the needless ruin and death he had caused, the betrayal of those who had trusted him, had slashed off his head with a sword, and painted his name across the fortress walls with his hair dipped in his own blood. If Sadokhar regretted it he had never said so.

But the Island at the Edge of the World was united at last after two centuries of strife. For nearly ten years there had been peace. The old and the young walked in the open without fear. No one was hungry or sick and went uncared for. Justice was swift, but anyone might plead their cause before the King and be heard.

This beautiful city of Tyrn Vawr had been built, and artists and poets, philosophers and dreamers, architects and musicians lived here, dined and talked far into the night in Sadokhar's hall. The learning and the wit of the world found their way here at one time or another.

Four years ago had come Sardriel, Lord of the Lost Lands, to pledge peace with the King of the Island. Sadokhar had liked him immediately, drawn to the love of truth in him. Tathea had watched his quiet face, with its high cheekbones and cool, intelligent eyes, and seen the passion in the curve of his mouth. She felt in him a strength of the spirit and a fire in the mind, and she grew increasingly sure that he was one of the warriors foretold in the dim days of her waiting, who would come in the evening of time to fight the last great war.

Sadokhar had read the first hieroglyph on the staff when they were still in Hirioth, as she had known he would-- "when the man of courage enters and leaves where I am not." He had looked at her, his grey eyes puzzled, aware only of mystery. Many times since he had asked her to explain, but finally he had understood that it was something that could be grasped only when the knowledge was already in the heart.

One quiet evening a year after Sardriel had come, when Tathea had glimpsed the patience in him and the swift, secret moments of loneliness as well as the brilliance of mind, she had shown the staff to him. He had taken it in his hands, turning it over, marvelling at the workmanship of it, and he had read the third inscription--"when the man of truth hungers for a lie, and casts it to the deep."

He had said nothing. He was older than Sadokhar had been, less impetuous, and she did not need to tell him that only time and battle could teach him to understand it. Now that battle was already darkening the horizon.

From that time onward he had returned to Tyrn Vawr every few months, leaving the stewardship of the Lost Lands with his cousin and ally.

A year after Sardriel had read the inscription, Ardesir had come from Shinabar, and before that from the southern deserts of Pera. When Sadokhar, in his wilder youth, had for a space rejected the high calling he felt Tathea had placed upon him, they had quarrelled, and she had left him on the Eastern Shore with his mother's people. She had gone back to the centre of the world alone, and then on to Shinabar. It was then she had met the younger Ardesir, still afire with ideas, a man of laughter and imagination, an architect who held visions of building palaces, arches and towers of the mind as well as of stone. He sought in the perfection of form and purpose a meaning that could be held in a single grasp. They had been friends, savouring together the subtlety and laughter of Shinabari art, the long desert evenings, the smell of the night wind off the endless sands, sweet wine and bitter herbs, the intricacy of the old ways.

Then she had returned to the Island, knowing that she must try again with Sadokhar. The lesser part would never be enough for the hunger in his soul, no matter how it glittered before him now.

He had stood before her a little abashed, uncertain how to acknowledge the change in himself, and yet his eyes were shining with joy to see her. He had asked softly for another chance, but she knew that he would have wrested it from her had she not given it willingly. They knew each other so well!

Then years later, when the Island was at peace and its fame spread wide, Ardesir had come to Tyrn Vawr and found the perfect field for the arts he had perfected since.

It was Sadokhar who insisted Tathea show Ardesir the staff.

"I can't read it!" he had said with confusion. "Can anyone?"

Tathea had felt a plunge of disappointment. But before she could answer, he had looked at it again. "Except this one!" he went on. "When the man of faith embraces terror to himself'! What does that mean?" Then his face had paled and his voice dropped to a whisper. "Why can I read that, and not the others?"

"Because that one is for you," Sadokhar had answered. "As the first is for me, the third for Sardriel, and the last for Tathea."

"And the others?" Ardesir had asked.

"We don't know . . . not yet, but we will."

"When?"

"Before the final war with the Great Adversary."

"Before its beginning?" he had asked. "Or before its end?"

"I don't know," Tathea had said, barely above a whisper.

Now they were still waiting for the last two warriors, but Tathea felt the urgency grow within her that time was brief.

She looked from one to the other of them as they sat talking now, Sadokhar telling a story, his face animated, on the edge of laughter, Sardriel listening, his lips curved in a slow smile. He knew he was being teased and the acceptance in it, the knowledge of his rational scepticism was part of the joke.

"I feel we have little time left," Tathea said aloud.

Sadokhar stopped his tale and looked at her with sudden gravity.

"We have two of the inscriptions still unread," Ardesir reminded, but apologetically, his face tender. "And Ishrafeli has not yet come."

It was the one thing Tathea could not ignore or reason away. It was the single, bright certainty she had clung to all the long centuries. Awake or asleep she had waited for him.

"He has not come to us," she said quietly, "but we don't know that he is not alive somewhere."

"There are other things," Sardriel said reasonably, his voice soft so that those at the further end of the great table would not hear him. "It grows dark, certainly. Every new word from the east brings more news of the barbarians attacking, but the great empires still stand. Asmodeus does not yet walk the earth again, and most of all, we cannot open the Book." His eyes were steady, not wavering from hers.

"I know, but it will be soon. We must prepare." She turned to Sadokhar. "You said Kor--Assh of the River covenanted with you to come to Tyrn Vawr. When?"

"Lantrif is not an easy land," he answered, his eyes careful and bright. "He cannot leave until he has made all provision for its peace in his absence. But we have yet to speak with Ulfin of Kharkheryll also. Knowing all you have taught me of the Flamen belief, I am sure he will be with us. They above all others love the earth. How could they not join in the last war to save it from Asmodeus?"

"If he comes then we will be five, and if Kor--Assh does also, then all six," Ardesir agreed, turning a little in his chair towards Tathea. "But that is not Ishrafeli, nor does it open the Book. Without that we don't have the knowledge of God; we understand only a shadow of the truth and it won't be enough! We dare not start until we have every weapon and every shield!"

He leaned across the table, his elbow against the empty pewter bowl where the sweetmeats had been. His face was pale. "We fight not only envy, ignorance and evil in the world, but the forces of hell and beyond from places unimaginable. We will be tested to the end of all we have." He looked at each of them. "Don't go into the last conflict as if it were something we cannot lose. We can! All eternity depends upon us. Every step must be with prayer, and certainty that we are obeying God, not our own impulse."

What he said was true, and yet it did not dispel the conviction inside her that the Enemy was closer. It was not faith like Ardesir's, reason like Sardriel's, nor courage like Sadokhar's, it was memory in the soul of wars lost in the distance of time, the touch of darkness closer than the skin.

Sadokhar leaned back in his seat, resting his elbows on the arms of his chair, watching Tathea. "We need more news of Camassia, and of Shinabar. Are they preparing for war? Are they even aware that the threat is real? Or do they imagine it is no more than the sporadic troubles they have had for centuries, and it will all die down again as it has in the past? There are travellers among us, especially one old man who has recently come from the City in the Centre of the World. Shall I send for him?" It was a courtesy that he asked; he needed permission of no one.

"Yes," Tathea said immediately, not certain what she expected to hear. She had loved the City long ago. Its golden stones, its teeming streets and cypress--crowned hills had been her home in the days of the height of the Empire. It had sheltered her when her own land had cast her out. "Yes, send for him."

"Bring the traveller Eudoxius," Sadokhar ordered.

The page he had addressed bowed and went to obey.

Within minutes an old man walked the length of the hall from the bottom table. His head was high but his body gaunt and round--shouldered, his features battered by wind and sun. Only as he was feet away was the humour clear in his faded eyes, and the bitterness about his lips.

"Sit with us and take wine," Sadokhar directed him, indicating one of the vacant high--backed chairs opposite.

"Sire . . ." The old man obeyed, but he did not incline his head. He was a citizen of the world and he was bowing to no Island king.

"Tell us of your travels," Sadokhar continued. "What news do you bring of the world?" He was courteous, but there was no mistaking the command in his voice.

"You have fed me well," Eudoxius replied. "And given me shelter. What would you hear?"

"The truth!" Sadokhar snapped. "When I want tales I will send for a bard and have them to music!"

Eudoxius' weary eyes opened a little wider, there was an instant's black laughter in his face, and then it was gone again.

"Shinabar is rotten to the core," he said very quietly. "They deal in bribery and lies as other men deal in bread. No man knows what another is doing. Camassia still has a coating of civilisation, and a kind of spurious vitality that is thin as the colour wash on the walls of a tomb." He glanced at Ardesir's dark, desert face. "Painted scenes of the dead, for the comfort of the living, who know as surely as sunrise tomorrow that they too will one day inhabit those same mansions of oblivion. The barbarians of the flesh are at the borders, pressing closer with every season, but the barbarians of the heart are already there."

Tathea looked at Sadokhar and saw the shadow cross his features, the merest tightening of the lips as if the words had touched an old understanding inside him, memories of things she had taught him long ago. It was another shard of prophecy fallen into place.

"Is that new, sir?" Sardriel asked Eudoxius gravely. His courtesy never wavered--he would have considered that a gross weakness, a betrayal of the inner self--but neither did he stay his hand in pursuing reason to the end. To have done that would be to insult both speaker and listener. "Or are you merely referring to the nature of mankind, perhaps darkened by your own exile?" he pressed. "Forgive me, but I perceive that you are much travelled, and yet you bear no embassy nor do you carry the goods of trade. You are past the years of being a soldier and your bearing suggests you serve no master, and yet you have the marks of both hunger and ill--use."

"You observe well," Eudoxius said without self--pity, but there was a bitterness in him. "But my path is self-- chosen. I have no desire to live in Camassia any longer." He looked beyond the few dark plums left in the burnished dish in front of him. His voice lowered a little. "What I saw in Camassia was not honest greed, as in the long past, it was evil pretending to be good." He twisted the stem of the glass goblet in his fingers, the light red through the wine. "The Emperor is weak. He loves the glory and the praise of men, and in his eagerness to satisfy the crowds he has forgotten any beliefs of his own. He appoints his friends to power, and accounts it loyalty to protect them at any cost."

"In what way?" Sadokhar asked sharply.

Eudoxius shrugged. "He does not stop corruption or incompetence if the perpetrators are his friends," he replied. "No one admits fault any more. There is little honour left." He looked from one to the other of them, his expression suddenly darker and openly edged with fear. "Irria--Kand lies directly on our northern borders right from the far east across to the forests of the west. It is not a united empire but a series of city fortresses, and already half of it has fallen to the barbarians sweeping in from the lands on the rim beyond."

No one interrupted him. Sardriel sat motionless. Ardesir was tight--lipped. Sadokhar leaned a little further forward, his attention total. This was military news of the gravest kind, and he had been too long a soldier, left too many good men on bloody fields, to weigh lightly a word of it.

"The Emperor has been told," Eudoxius continued, watching Sadokhar's face. "Word comes almost weekly, but he chooses to disbelieve it. He says our armies have never been beaten and it is treason even to think they could be now. But they are untrained for anything but garrison duty, and parades. They have never seen war. If Irria--Kand falls and the barbarians reach the great forests of Caeva to the west, they will find nothing there for them, and they will turn south into Camassia. Who wouldn't? The whole land lies in front of them, all but unprotected! Hundreds of miles of wheat and vines, orchards and woodlands there for the taking, all the way to the City in the Centre of the World, and the sea."

No one had interrupted him. One of the dogs stirred briefly by the embers of the fire.

"Leadership requires that your first debt is to the demands of honour," Eudoxius continued. "If you are not prepared to do that, if you must be praised at all costs, then step back and leave the crown to someone who will."

His eyes did not leave Sadokhar's. He did not see the sorrow in Ardesir's eyes, nor the flash of pity in Sardriel's. "We overlook faults we should not, because we are too afraid of invasion to admit that it could happen." He waved away a servant with a bowl of honey cakes. His voice was thick with anger he no longer tried to conceal. "The barbarians will cross the borders one day. We shall be conquered and all the beauty and sophistication, the buildings, the art and the inventions of a thousand years will be lost under the tide. But perhaps we will drown ourselves in our own filth before that, and when the savages come they will find only more savages, no better than themselves . . . merely different." Then he smiled suddenly, but there were tears swimming in his eyes. "Only I will not live to see it."

A coldness filled Tathea, as if she had swallowed ice. Could that be what Armageddon was--not consuming war at all, but the corrupted heart eaten away, until when the barbarians came in the end, there was nothing for them to conquer but decay? Was the end not violence at all, but a living rot?

Then what were all their preparations of wisdom, self-- discipline and the arts of strategy worth? The Book of God could not be opened, but Tathea remembered much of it and had written it out again, disconnected, precept by precept, but still a light to the soul. At every step they had prayed in humility, and retraced each mistake and sought to mend it.

For a decade Sadokhar had ruled so that there was a surplus of food, and safety from violence or need. There had been space for thought and to learn, to take months apart from daily tasks in order to enrich the soul. He, Sardriel and Ardesir had argued and discussed, explored the natures of good and evil. They had ridden together, built, known failure and success, quarrelled, tested each other and forgiven. There had been experiences which had winnowed the wheat from the chaff, refined the compassion and the integrity. Each had in one manner or another walked an inner path which had learned his courage of the soul, and found it enough.

They knew who they were, not only in this mortal life, but from eternity to eternity, children of God on the wild and dangerous journey home. Each had committed himself irrevocably to the conflict and forged his covenants with heaven.

The servants moved around Tathea, fetching and carrying. Light winked on polished metal and glass. The sound of chatter came dimly and she barely heard it.

Where was the war? What weapon was there to strike an enemy which was a nameless horde a thousand miles away?

She looked at Eudoxius sitting opposite her, and saw the torchlight shine through his thin hair, and the marks of age on his skin. Once he had been as young as Sadokhar, in the prime of his strength. Now he was already too tired to fight.

For all their passion and courage, even purity of mind so they could face any evil, Asmodeus had the ultimate weapon against which there was no defense--time. He needed only to wait.

The room swam around Tathea in a haze of flame and shadow, golden reflections on pewter and shining wood. The familiar faces blurred. Voices were a sea of sound like waves on a shingle beach, and over them all she heard laughter, cruel and soft, not in the ears but in the heart. She knew his voice. He had cursed her before, and promised he would never forget the injury she had inflicted on him, once, long ago, nor forgive it.

Excerpt from Come Armageddon by Anne Perry
All rights reserved by publisher and author

© 2003-2024 off-the-edge.net  all rights reserved Privacy Policy