The dawn of the 5th century AD, and the Roman Empire totters on the edge of the abyss. Already divided into two, the Imperium is looking dangerously vulnerable to her European rivals. The huge barbarian tribes of the Vandals and Visigoths sense that their time is upon them.
But, unbeknownst to all these great players, a new power is rising in the East. A strange nation of primitive horse-warriors has been striking terror on border peoples for fifty years. But few realise what is about to happen. For these so called 'Huns' now have a new leader. And his name is Attila - 'the Scourge of God.'
Thus begins a saga of warfare, lust and power which brought the whole of the Christian world to its knees - and ended in blood on the fields of France. It is a story of two men: Attila the Hun and Aetius the Roman. One who wanted to destroy the world, and one who fought one final battle to save it...
"If you think you don't like historical fiction, you haven't read William Napier."
--The Times (UK)
"William Napier has a genius for making the blood-dimmed chaos of ancient history into the very stuff of thrilling narrative."
--Tom Holland, author of Rubicon and Persian Fire
About the Author
William Napier is the pseudonym of a British author and journalist. As Napier, he is the author of the internationally bestselling Attila trilogy: Attila, Attila: The Gathering of the Storm, and Attila: The Judgment. He was born in 1965 and educated in Cheltenham, Oxford and London. He lives in Wiltshire and travels widely.
PART I. The Wolf in the Palace
1. STORM FROM THE EAST
Tuscany, early August 408
A bright dawn was breaking over the sun-baked plains beside the River Arno. Around the walls of the grim frontier town of Florentia, the exhausted remnants of Rhadagastus’s barbarian army were awakening, to find themselves no longer surrounded by the implacable legionaries of Rome. Slowly, uncertainly, and with a defeated air, they began to break camp and make for the hills to the north.
On another hill to the south, commanding a fine view of the retreat, and surveying the scene with some satisfaction, sat two Roman officers on horse back, resplendent in breastplates of bronze and plumes of scarlet.
"Shall I give the order, sir?" said the younger of the two.
General Stilicho kept his gaze on the unfolding scene below. "Thank you, Tribune, but I shall do it myself when good and ready." Impertinent puppy, he thought, with your bought commission and your unscarred limbs.
From far below arose clouds of dust, partially obscuring the sight of the barbarians’ great wooden wagons as they creaked and rolled out of the camp and made their way northward. The two Roman officers on the hill could hear the crack of bullwhips and the cries of men as this motley and vagabond army of Vandals and Sueves, renegade Goths, Lombards, and Franks, began its long retreat back beyond the Alpine passes to their tribal homelands.
Rome would survive their attentions a little longer yet.
Rhadagastus’s ferocious horde of Germanic warriors had been united only in their lust for gold, and their fierce delight in destruction. They had cut a crimson swathe across half of Europe, from their homelands on the cold Baltic shores, or out on the vast Scythian steppes, to the vineyards of Provence and the golden hills of Tuscany, until they eventually came to a halt at the city of Florentia. Once there, they besieged that sternly fortified colony of Rome on the banks of the Arno. But the great General Stilicho, as imperturbable as ever, rode north from Rome to meet them, with an army perhaps only a fifth the size of Rhadagastus’s—but an army trained in the arts of siege craft as well as war.
As is so often said, for every day that a Roman soldier wields a sword, he spends a hundred days wielding a shovel. No one digs a trench like a Roman soldier. And soon the besiegers of the city found themselves in turn besieged. The surrounding army, though fewer in number, had access to vital supplies from the nearby country, to food and water, fresh horses, and even new weaponry. The surrounded army, however, forcibly enclosed in its camp under the heat of the Tuscan August sun, was in no better circumstances than Florentia itself. The trapped barbarians had no resources they could draw on, and slowly began to expire.
In desperation, the frustrated and stricken Germans threw themselves against the barriers that surrounded them, but to no avail. Their horses shied and whinnied, hooves cruelly pierced by the iron caltrops the Romans had scattered across the hard-baked ground, throwing their furious riders beneath the unyielding entrenchments and ramparts, where they were soon despatched by archers up on the embankment. Those who tried to attack their besiegers on foot found themselves having to descend into a ditch six feet in depth, and then struggle out the far side, an equal climb, and up against three lines of wicked sharpened staves. Behind them were lined the Roman spearmen with their long, thrusting javelins. It was an impossible barrier. Those barbarians not slain on the barricades returned to their tents and lay down in exhaustion and despair.
When Stilicho reckoned Rhadagastus had lost as much as a third of his forces, he gave the order for the Romans to break camp in the night and withdraw into the surrounding hills. And so now, as dawn broke, the baffled and exhausted northern tribes found themselves free to move off as well—homeward.
Nevertheless, once they were rolling and in thorough disorder, it would be good to send in the new auxiliaries and see what they could do. Stilicho took no fine pleasure in seeing men cut down on a battlefield—unlike some generals he could mention. But the vast and undisciplined rabble below, which that troublesome warlord Rhadagastus had pulled together for the summer campaigning season, remained a threat to Rome’s northern borders, even in defeat. A final harrying attack from these new mounted troops, however lightweight, would certainly do no harm.
At last, with the barbarian army chaotically strung out across the plain, and its vanguard nudging into the foothills to the north, General Stilicho gave the nod.
"Send them in," he said.
His tribune relayed the signal down the line, and only moments later Stilicho saw with some surprise that the auxiliaries had already started their gallop.
Not that he expected much from them. They were small men, these new warriors from the east, and lightly armed. They favored their neat bows and arrows over all other weapons, and even rode into battle with lassos—as if about to ride down a bunch of sleepy-eyed heifers! Who ever won a battle with mere rope? And Rhadagastus’s warriors, even in defeat, were no sleepy-eyed heifers.
As well as being small and lightly armed, these horse men fought without armor, naked to the waist, with only a fine coating of dust over their coppery, leathery skins for protection. They would do little damage to the retreating army, it was clear, but it would be interesting to see them in action, all the same. No Roman had yet seen them fight, although many had heard vainglorious and unlikely reports of their prowess at arms. They were said to move fast on their shaggy little steppe ponies, so perhaps some use could be found for them in future in the imperial courier ser vice . . . With luck, they might even manage to ride down Rhadagastus himself, and bring him in as a captive. It was a long bow shot, but worth a try.
Well, reports of their impressive turn of speed, at any rate, had not been exaggerated.
The horsemen came thundering out from a shallow valley to the east, and made straight for the stricken column of retreating barbarians. Good enough tactics: the sun behind them, and straight in their enemies’ eyes. Stilicho was too far away to see the expressions on the faces of Rhadagastus’s men, of course, but the way the column slowed, and jostled, and the air filled with panicked cries, and then the heavy wagons lurched desperately forward again, trying to make for the safety of the rough ground and the hills before the furious charge of the eastern horse men could hit them—such things told him Rhadagastus’s warriors weren’t smiling.
The horsemen’s thunderous charge drummed up a fine dust from the sun-baked late-summer plains, and Stilicho and his tribune strained to see. Then something darkened the air between them. At first they could barely comprehend.
"Is that . . . Is that what I think it is, sir?"
Stilicho was dumbfounded. It was indeed what it seemed. The very air was dark with them. An unimaginable storm of arrows.
He had heard that these people were good on horseback; and he had heard good things of their unprepossessing little bows. But nothing had prepared him for this.
The arrows fell in an endless rain, like murderous stinging insects, upon Rhadagastus’s outflanked column, and the stricken Germans began to grind to a halt, their path blocked by the piled-up corpses of their own men. Then the horsemen, the fury of their charge undiminished even after covering a mile or more of hard, sunbaked ground—long after a troop of Roman cavalry would have begun to slacken and tire—scythed into the aghast and petrified column.
Both Stilicho and his tribune had their fists bunched up on the pommels of their saddles, pushing themselves up and straining to see.
"In the Name of Light," murmured the general.
"Have you ever seen anything like it, sir?" said the tribune.
The horsemen cut through the column in seconds, then, with unbelievable dexterity, wheeled round and cut in again from the other side. Rhadagastus’s warriors, even after their weeks of starvation and sickness under the walls of Florentia, were now trying to establish some kind of formation and repel the attack. These tall, blond spearmen, these fierce and skilful swordsmen, fought back with the ferocity of the doomed. But the ferocity of their attackers was greater. Nearer to where they sat their horses, the two Roman officers could see breakaway groups of mounted auxiliaries wheeling and turning about as if with pure delight, effortlessly slaughtering the helpless, milling Germans. And they also saw the deadly effect of the easterners’ lassos. Any barbarian who tried to mount up and ride was instantly brought down again by the whistle and lash of the cruel noose, cast with terrible, casual accuracy. The victim fell in a tangle of reins and limbs, and was quickly despatched where he lay.
Stilicho watched with amazement as the horsemen, even up close, long after Roman cavalry would have drawn their longswords, continued to use their short bows and arrows. He could now see, as the fighting spread out in disorder below them, why their fighting skill was so renowned. He watched a single horseman notch an arrow to his bow, fire it into the back of a fleeing German, and snatch another arrow from his quiver as he swung round on his horse’s bare back. He notched it, leaned down at an incredible angle to take cover alongside the body of his mount, holding on with his thigh muscles alone, then sprang back up and loosed another arrow almost into the face of a German running at him with ax swinging. The arrow punched straight through and came out of the back of the axman’s head in a spew of blood and brain. The horse man had notched another arrow to his bow and galloped on before the warrior hit the ground.
Galloped! The en...