Where had the old man gone now?
A storm was moving in from the Sea of Marmara and prudent men should long since have headed home. Irritated, John, Lord Chamberlain to Emperor Justinian, tossed aside the skewer with the charred remnants of his simple meal of grilled fish and scanned the small colonnaded forum again.
Looking around through a throng of hawkers, loiterers, roughly dressed laborers, and clusters of dusty pilgrims, John quickly located the missing man. He was possibly the only living person in the entire city wearing an elaborately folded himation although numerous antique statues within its confines displayed fine examples of the same outmoded style of clothing.
John sighed. While it was true that Philo had journeyed far beyond his native Athens, this was his first visit to Constantinople. Under John’s watchful eye he had spent the afternoon among the city’s wonders, gawking and dawdling through its busy streets like a white bearded child. Unfortunately, it seemed he was also as trusting as a child, for he had now fallen into conversation with three young ne’er- do-wells sporting beards and mustaches after the Persian style.
John strode quickly through the gang of gulls fighting raucously over the scraps of his discarded fish. At the sight of his lean, sumptuously-robed figure and unmistakable military bearing, the three young men sauntered away.
Philo, however, was not so impressed by his former student.
“I was just about to ask that pleasant gentleman if he had any news from Khosrow’s court. Word of my colleagues, perhaps,” he said peevishly.
“They wouldn’t know anything about the Persian court. They aren’t Persians,” John informed him. “They’re members of the Blue faction. That’s just the way they dress. They’d put a knife in your ribs as soon as look at you. This isn’t the Academy, Philo. You must always be on your guard here. Always.”
The crowd in the forum thinned rapidly as the storm neared land. Vendors complained loudly to each other as they doused their grills prior to setting them up again in some convenient portico offering shelter against the wavering curtain of rain advancing across the sullen swells. A freshening breeze dispersed the usual smells of commerce, a blend of fish and apples tinged by exotic spices mixed with the sour reek of spilled wine and sweat.
“We must go home now,” John told his charge, “unless you want to get soaked.”
“I’ve spent so many years in the desert, I wouldn’t mind a little rain. But that column over there, it’s home to another of your holy pillar sitters, isn’t it? Perhaps we can discover how long the demented creature has been up there.” Philo darted off again without waiting for John’s reply.
The rough granite pillar standing in the middle of the forum rose to the height of several men. The ladder propped against its side and the empty baskets at its base gave mute testimony to offerings recently sent up to the occupant of the platform.
When John reached him, Philo was examining what appeared to be a misshapen coin. “It was lying in the dirt,” he explained.
John nodded. “It’s a pilgrim token. Acolytes make them from the earth around the pillar. Tokens like that are said to have powerful curative powers, so the faithful buy them at quite high prices.”
“As high as these stylites sit, perhaps? They support quite a thriving industry, don’t they?” Philo took a step back and craned his neck to gaze upwards.
The tangled hair and beard of the skeletal man perched above were streaming in the wind. So slight was the stylite’s body that he looked as if he would be carried away by its force were it not for the heavy chains of penance weighing him down.
Two fat, cold raindrops broke against the back of John’s thin hand. Others quickly followed. As they hit the ground they stirred up dust to mix with the sharp smell of animal dung and the briny tang of the sea. From nearby came the odor of freshly baked bread.
“We can discuss stylites once we’re out of the storm,” John said. “We can’t linger here.”
With obvious reluctance, Philo left the foot of the pillar. Light faded from the suddenly chilly air. From a church nearby came the drifting ebb and flow of chanting—or perhaps it was just the sound of the wind groaning among the colonnades edging the forum. A loose shop awning whipped upwards by a stronger gust and the warning patter of rain on tiled roofs heralded the approaching downpour.
John glanced back and caught a glimpse of the stylite outlined against dark clouds. He would not care to be standing up there in such weather. As if in response to the thought, a sheet of wind-driven rain swept across the forum. John grabbed a loose fold of Philo’s voluminous clothing and hurried him faster across the rain-slick cobbles.
Philo’s outraged protest at being handled in such an undignified manner was drowned by a ground-shuddering thunderclap shockingly close by. The rain quickened to a choking deluge as if an angry deity had picked up the sea and emptied it out onto the city.
Through the roar of the storm and the ringing in his ears John heard shouting and screams. Someone’s been hit by lightning, he thought immediately. Then he realized he no longer grasped Philo’s robe.
“Philo!” He turned back, convinced for an irrational instant that his companion had been struck. But Philo was a few paces away, staring up, shielding his eyes from the rain.
Others, heedless of the downpour, also looked toward the heavens, pointing. As his hearing recovered from the thunderclap, John could discern, amid the onlookers’ curses and cries of terror, a frenzied, metallic clanking.
Atop the pillar, the stylite flailed his arms wildly, their motion whipping his chains against the platform’s railing. The man’s arms were on fire.
Even as John grasped the fact, rivulets of flame ran greedily across the stylite’s robe. Glowing patches blossomed and spread in the man’s straggling beard. A small dark shape—a rat—scuttled to the platform’s edge and fell over.
The burning man tried to dowse the blaze, slapping at his chest. He began screaming only when his matted hair burst into an incandescent halo around his head.
The onlookers fell silent, horror etched on their faces.
The stylite’s shrieks did not diminish as he careened around the platform, trying to escape the engulfing flames. Now he was a ghastly silhouette in a fiery nimbus. Sparks swirled away in the wind each time he struck the railing.
At last his legs gave way and he crumpled. His shrieks ended abruptly, leaving only a faint sound, a hissing and popping akin to the noise made by damp wood burning, discernible under the onslaught of the downpour. Mercifully, wind-swirled smoke obscured the platform.
John shivered as a sudden freezing gust of wind carried a familiar smell to him. For an instant, it made him think of street vendors. Then he realized why. It was the unmistakable odor of roasting flesh.
# # #
“Master! Thank the Lord you’re home safe!”
Peter, John’s elderly servant, stepped shakily away from the heavy nail-studded door. John entered, stamping soaked boots on the hall’s tiled floor, closely followed by a grumbling Philo.
In the trembling light of Peter’s oil lamp, the servant’s lined face resembled those of mummies John had seen in Alexandria, their huge eyes blank rather than serene, as if terrified at the prospect of entering the afterworld.
Something was troubling Peter. “Ah, master,” he lamented, “I fear I have just witnessed the beginning.”
Philo closed the heavy door, abruptly muffling the rush of rain.
“The beginning? Of what, Peter?” John asked. “Of the passing away of the world,” was the cryptic reply.
“I shall be passing away myself if I don’t get dry,” complained Philo. Indeed, his garment was so sodden that he seemed barely able to drag himself up the narrow wooden stairs under its weight.
The air of the kitchen, warmed by a glowing brazier, carried a comfortingly familiar faint odor of onions and boiled poultry—and before long the dog-like smell of wet wool.
John hung his dripping cloak near the brazier. He glanced at the two aging men, Philo trembling from the chill, Peter obviously terrified, and he felt that stabbing awareness of mortality that more commonly beset him when he lay awake in the middle of the night. “What precisely was it that you saw, Peter?” John went on more for Philo’s benefit than to cheer Peter, “It must have been truly terrifying to upset a tough old camp cook like yourself.”
“Please do try to be brief, if you would be so kind.” Philo warmed his hands. “We’ve just had quite a shock ourselves.”
John had tactfully left room near the brazier, but Peter evidently preferred to remain by the doorway. His gaze seemed inexorably drawn to the fogged rectangular panes of the kitchen window.
“It was this way, master. I had retired to my room,” Peter finally began, “for I like to perform my devotions there. You can see all the crosses on the rooftops and the dome of the Great Church catches the light of the setting sun. A glorious sight it is too. But today the window panes were streaked with rain and darkness seemed to arrive earlier than usual.”
He paused briefly to collect his thoughts.
“I had just began to sing a hymn,” he went on. “It’s a particular favorite of mine for it was written by the emperor himself. Then I heard a cry, a wailing that turned to a terrible keening as if some mighty hand had torn open the doorway to Hell and the lamentations of the damned were issuing forth.”
“It’s very windy,” muttered Philo.
Peter appeared not to hear. “I peered out of my window,” he continued. “What with it getting so dark and rainy, at first all I could see was the light shining from the dome of the Great Church. Then I began to pick out other bright flickerings here and there around the city. They were much brighter than torches, more like bonfires.
“And that seemed to me to be very strange, because the rain was still pouring down. It’s such weather as Noah must have seen.” The elderly man drew a deep breath. “It’s buildings set on fire by lightning, I thought. Nothing unusual in that. But several at once? I feared that the whole city would be going up in flames, and my master and his guest out in the streets. But then the rain shifted and I could see the nearest fire more clearly. And I saw…”
The old man’s gaze flickered up to the kitchen ceiling as his voice faded. His hand traced the sign of his religion.
“What was it you saw, Peter?” John persisted gently. “The fire…it wasn’t a burning building. It was hanging above the rooftops, up in the sky. And in the middle of the flames I could see the dark figure of a man.”
Peter swayed and his legs seemed to give way. John leapt forward and caught his servant’s shoulders, but as he lowered the limp body gently to the kitchen tiles Peter’s haggard face turned ashen and his eyes closed.
“Mithra!” John muttered.
As he bent over the unconscious man it occurred to him that Peter must have seen the stylite he and Philo had observed. Burning like a torch, distorted by the rain-streaked window of his room, the sight must have been enough to frighten him almost to death.
“I’m going for a physician,” John told Philo.
# # #
Outside, the rain was slackening. John did not waste time seeking help at the barracks across the square from his house. Gaius, the palace physician, lived some distance across the grounds but would arrive quickly if John personally summoned aid.
When John attended the Academy, Philo had constantly chided him about preferring its running paths to the sheltered walkways where students and teachers strolled serenely while engaged in leisurely debates.
“Perhaps you should leave us for a while, John,” Philo had once counseled him. “Go out into the world. Run until you have tired your body. Then you will be more prepared to use your mind.”
The words echoed in John’s memory as he loped rapidly along meandering paths through the earthy smell of rain-soaked shrubbery.
Hair hanging in dripping rat tails and soaked to the skin, he presented a startling sight to the dark-haired servant girl who answered his frantic pounding on the physician’s door.
She peeked out in terror. “He cannot assist you, excellency,” she quavered, “He is engaged. That is to say, he is not here. He was summoned to see the emperor.”
The distressed girl glanced over her shoulder into the murky depths of the house. John had noted the fresh bruise under one eye. It did not surprise him. Gaius was surly when intoxicated.
“Engaged in entertaining Bacchus, you mean!” John snapped, cursing that it would be this of all nights the otherwise competent physician had chosen to drink himself into a stupor. He was certain Gaius was lying in an addled heap inside, but even if he had hauled the physician out bodily, in such a condition he would be of no value to any patient.
Reining in his temper, John apologized to the girl for his abruptness and prepared to depart. “If you are able to tear your master away from his goblet,” he said as he turned to go, “and get him back on his feet, be so kind as to impress upon him that there is a dying man who needs his assistance. At the Lord Chamberlain’s house.”
“The Lord Chamberlain…oh…” The girl gave a stricken moan.
# # #
John was not a man who believed in oracles or prophecies, but, as he rapped on his house door, he experienced a chill as if a cold draught had found a crack in his mental armor and penetrated to his soul. He abruptly knew, with an absolute and terrible certainty, that Peter was dead. So he was surprised to find his servant sitting at the kitchen table, drinking a cup of watered wine.
“Master,” Peter reproached him, his voice weak but steady. “You should not have gone for help. You must have forgotten that I am the servant.”
John looked at Philo.
“Remarkable, isn’t it?” smiled his erstwhile tutor jovially. “When you insisted on running heedlessly off as usual, I gave the matter some consideration. Then I recalled that curious token I found beside the stylite’s pillar. You’d mentioned it was of the sort used by the faithful as a medicinal remedy. I wasn’t certain how to administer it, so I crumbled some of it into a cup of wine.”
He paused, enjoying the telling of his story. “I managed to get Peter to take a few swallows of the mixture. You see the result.”
It was indeed a remarkable transformation. Peter was still pale, but he was perfectly lucid and his hand barely shook as he lifted his cup.
“Thank Mithra,” breathed John.
Peter’s lips tightened. “Master, I would not call on that deity of yours,” he frowned, “and especially not on this night, not now. Not after what I witnessed.”
John sat down on a stool beside the servant. “What do you mean, Peter? And what exactly did you see? Was it a man on fire? There is doubtless a commonplace explanation for that unfortunate incident. We saw it ourselves.”
Peter set down his cup on the scarred table top and looked at John, absolute certainty in his eyes.
“There is no need to seek an explanation, master, no. For what else could it have been but an archangel in his fiery chariot, returning to judge this sinful world?”