Chapter 1: Death of A King

This is how it ended.

Madoc was dying.

He knew the difference between illness, fever, and death; the pressure crushing his chest, burning brightly in his veins, parching his mouth, was a conflagration that could not be quenched. Fever consumed him, and in a bemused detachment from the horror of his body’s pain, he grew calm, idly wondering how he had managed to live so long. How many years now? It was nearly an age now, six generations and five by the Gothic calendar, and five generations by the Roman – he was elderly by any reckoning. Would anyone suspect murder? No one, including his murderess-wife, knew his age to be greater than three generations four, for the races of the east did not age as the Gauls did. Nor could he, if he could find tongue to speak, confess to her his true age, or his title, or the name the world knew him by.

In the privacy of his silent torment, lying still in the bed they shared, he saw the light dim as the sun began to set, and he smiled to himself. Artesia was his 54th wife; and had she ever discovered in the ten years of his life with her that amazing fact, she would have fed him hemlock tea long since.

He was not an Arian, so he did not feel the need to be shriven; and he was not a Catholic, so he did not need the rites of death administered; he found this a comfort. Death should never be dealt by women, he reasoned, regretfully, and he found himself considering his mother, dead now four generations.

His mother – the princess Sahera Al-Alana, daughter of the Khan, was much like his Artesia, and he had long wondered whether, in age, he had found the soul of his mother once again clothed in young flesh and was compelled to cleave to her, however briefly. His passion for her had never waned, and even now, had she the courage to attend him in his death agony, he would have forgiven her raging temper. She was that kind of woman, full in flesh, brimming with uncontainable emotions that afflicted her sex and her people. He had won her in a skirmish with a Goth raiding party, and their marriage protected her from rape. If he would choose a way to die, he would prefer her short sword in his chest; but she abhorred blood and mess. Nor had she the courage to watch the grim result of this final rage. Yes, through the expanding vision of his final hour, Madoc grew convinced that Artesia was the soul of his dead mother, his beloved Sahera, the whore.

Beyond the window came the faint sounds of the sea, and unheeded, Aloyis his servant entered the room, treading quietly so as not to disturb him. Madoc was a notoriously light sleeper, made more alert with increasing age, and would far too often wake when Aloyis crept through on his evening rounds to light the lamps. It was Madoc’s usual time to rest, for an hour before the evening meal. He gasped as he tripped over the upended wine cup, which had fallen from his master’s numb hand. He cried out when he caught sight of the blood oozing from Madoc’s nostrils, even now drying to a brown crust on his still, unshaven lip. Steps began to quicken in the entryway, and a spate of Gallic rapidly shouted to Aloyis from beyond the door.

Madoc’s breath was a shallow fire, like a grate full of crumbling coals in his lungs; his moment had come. With his remaining strength he concentrated all of his attention upon his left hand, where lay a demi-coin with an Ugar symbol stamped unintelligibly on one side, and an obscure face of a forgotten Khan, his grandfather, stamped on the other. His youngest granddaughter Bel had placed that coin in that hand an hour before, as confirmation of the death of his brother Sahelis.

Aloyis, startled in his shock by the sudden movement of the dying man’s hand, moved toward him, and saw the coin. Madoc appeared to be offering it to him - he reached out and took it from the cold palm. Madoc did not move again.

Six weeks later, under cover of darkness, a small detachment of Ugar spies, dressed as Goth travelers, robbed the grave of Madoc Marcian, the Roman legionnaire, husband of Artesia the Gaul, and removed the body with its clothing and valuables. Among them was the Roman physician Darius Thespis, an expert in the detection of poisons and medicaments, personally trained by Heklitis, the physician of the old Khan. Before the moon rose the following night, the family and household retainers of Madoc Marcian disappeared without a trace. The city of Arles heard rumors of a skirmish near the Oc frontier in which a Roman and his wife and servants were killed. They paid little heed - the death of Roman soldiers was an everyday thing.

This was the death of Khan Saheris El Maduc, born with the Christian name of Saherius Primus Bellianus of the family of Priscus Attalus; the adopted son of the Khan El Maduc and the unacknowledged heir of the Western empire, direct descendant of the Emperor Diocletian. The Khan was said to have died 29 years before in Bithynia at his wedding feast, which death and funeral were witnessed by his entire family and household. His body, along with that of his wife, who was tried and executed in a remote wood overlooking the ocean, was burned, and the ashes returned in state to Maduc, in Bithynia, his imperial capital, now ruled by his grandson Taros, and interred, alongside those of his, grandfather, brother, and his wives. The ashes of his 54th wife were desecrated. The coin was not recovered. Though tortured to death, the Gaul never produced the coin, nor did she admit to ever seeing it.

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