The Varangians’ hair and beards were longer and wilder than those of the Immortals, whose tight black curls were kept neatly trimmed. Their locks also presented a mix of colours: red, blond and black and every shade in between, including the grey tresses of many gnarled veterans. Their shields came in all shapes and sizes and were decorated with a variety of creatures like an heraldic circus: eagles, boars, rams, bears, serpents and myriad mythical beasts. The royal household never ventured far without a bodyguard of Immortals and Varangians.

Way above Leo’s clearing, in an eyrie all of his own, the wizened face of the old man creased into a contemplative smile. He was recalling his own adventures. He too had been a warrior.

‘Father, we need your help.’ John Azoukh’s voice broke through the babble of a hundred men, now seriously engaged with their food, wine and conversation. ‘We are here on the Emperor’s business. There is an old man who lives in these hills and we need to find him. We mean him no harm; he is a friend of the great Alexius, who speaks very highly of him. He says that he has the wisdom of a man who has lived three lifetimes.’

‘I know no such man anywhere.’ Leo was startled to hear the description of a man of rare distinction and feared he had been too obvious in his denial.

To the locals the man was a hermit, rarely seen, a foreigner from a northern land. Nobody knew much about him, except that his unwelcoming manner and fearsome appearance led everyone to avoid him. He walked with the bowed back of an old age bedevilled by arthritis. Nevertheless, his frame was formidable, with broad shoulders and powerful arms and hands like those of a blacksmith. He had a shock of grey-blond hair that cascaded down his back and a snow-white beard that contrasted sharply with his deeply wrinkled face, burned chestnut-brown by the Mediterranean sun.

Leo had visited his reclusive parishioner just once and had spent only an hour with him. He had learned nothing of his past, but his manner and bearing gave strong hints of a turbulent life and of a man of rare gifts. He had longed to return and learn more but had promised not to; it seemed neither honourable nor wise to break a promise to such a man.

‘Are you sure, Father?’ There was a hint of impatience in John Azoukh’s question. ‘You must understand that all the great work of the Emperor Alexius must now be consolidated by the rightful succession of his beloved son, John.’

‘But, my noble Lord, what has that got to do with an old man in the hills of Elis?’ Leo responded meekly, but with a firm resolve not to place one of his flock in danger.

‘So you do know such a man?’

‘I didn’t say that, sire. I simply don’t understand what anyone from my humble parish could offer the heir to the throne of Constantinople.’

‘Wisdom, Father Leo,’ John Comnenus interrupted in a gentle tone, sensing his friend’s irritation and Leo’s discomfort. ‘My father says I have all the qualities to follow him, except wisdom. He isn’t much longer for this life and he grows anxious. My sister, Anna, is very shrewd; she plots against me and has powerful friends and an ambitious husband. My father doubts that I have the wisdom to deal with her. He has asked me to make this journey, to find this man and hear his story. He says that when I hear the account of his life, I will understand how men find the wisdom to know what they have to do and the courage to act on their judgement. So, Father, that is why we are here.’

Leo was overwhelmed by the Prince’s frankness. ‘My Prince, this is too much for me. I don’t know…’

‘Let me finish.’ John Comnenus understood the embarrassment felt by the priest. He smiled at him and continued his story. As he did so, he pulled an amulet from a pouch around his waist. ‘My father gave me this talisman, which he has worn throughout his reign. He said that if I give it to the man I seek, he will know that it comes from my father and represents a sacred trust. We have visited your superior, the Bishop of Corinth, and he told us that you are a good man, a fine priest, and that we could place our trust in you. But he also told us that you wouldn’t easily reveal the whereabouts of the man we hope to find. Years ago, my father asked the bishop to find a sanctuary for this man and ordered the local governor to have his garrison keep a discreet but watchful eye on the district.’

Several things suddenly began to make sense to Leo: the bishop’s long lectures about the sanctity of the confessional, no matter how disturbing the revelations of a man racked by sin might be; the reminders about the necessity to protect every member of the parish from prying questions, even if one of his flock was a stranger from afar; and the frequent visits from the governor’s men-at-arms, asking about the welfare of the locals and whether any armed men had been sighted in the vicinity. All this just to protect a hermit?

John Comnenus continued. ‘I know you want to do your duty as a good priest; I don’t ask you to do otherwise. Please take this amulet and carry it to the man we seek. You are only the third man to touch it since it was placed around my father’s neck thirty years ago.’

Leo looked down at the amulet. Hanging from a heavy silver chain was a translucent stone the size of a quail’s egg. It was set in scrolls of silver, each of which was a filigree snake, so finely worked that the oval eyes and forked tongues of the serpents could be seen in detail. The stone itself was yellow in colour and, at first glance, apart from its size and smoothness, seemed unremarkable. But then Leo held it to the light of the campfire and grimaced in horror at the image he saw. Silhouetted in the baleful yellow glow of the stone was the face of Satan, the horned beast that had haunted men from the beginning of time. Close to the hideous face, trapped in the stone like the devil’s familiars, were a tiny spider and a group of small winged insects.

‘It’s an abomination. God help us. Surely all who see it are cursed.’

The young Prince of Byzantium tried to reassure the man of God. ‘It is what it is, but it is not to be feared.’

‘Sire, I don’t understand, it is Lucifer himself.’ Leo held it as far away as he could without dropping it.

‘Look again, Father.’

With a squint of revulsion, Leo examined the amulet again. As he twisted it in the light he saw something else. Cutting through the stone was a streak of red, like a splash of blood, which, at a certain angle, obscured the face of the Devil.

‘My father told me it carries five messages of abiding truth. The first message of the stone is courage: that we must face up to our fears and anxieties. The second message is discipline: it tells us that only through discipline and strength of will are we able to control the darkness within us. The third message is humility: we are reminded that only God can work the miracles that make the world what it is. The fourth message is sacrifice: just as the sacrifice of the Blood of Christ saved our mortal souls, so we should be prepared to sacrifice ourselves for God and for one another. Finally, the fifth message is wisdom: the wisdom not to be afraid of the stone, but to gain truth from it. The amulet reveals the face of the Devil surrounded by his acolytes, but they are trapped — entombed by the Blood of Christ. It is a sacred amulet and the man we seek has been its guardian nearly all his life. Now I am returning it to him, in the hope that he will feel that I am also worthy of it, thus anointing me as a true sovereign, just as he endorsed my father many years ago.’

As Leo clenched his fist around the amulet and thrust it deep into the pocket of his cassock, the Prince could sense his inner turmoil.

Leo turned to the Prince. ‘Sire, does this man have a name?’

‘My father didn’t give me his name.’

Leo suddenly realized that although he had met the man, he too had no idea what his name might be. He referred to him simply as the ‘Old Man of the Mountain’.

John Comnenus interrupted his train of thought. ‘Go to your altar and pray for us and then get some rest. Rise early and go to this man. You will not be followed, you have my word. Give him the amulet and ask him if he’ll see me.’

Leo responded with relief. ‘Thank you, sire, for understanding my hardship in not immediately doing your bidding. I do know a man who lives high in the mountains. He may be the one you seek but he has asked me to respect his solitude. I will go to him; it will take a day to get there and to return.’

The Prince smiled at the priest. ‘Only a truly honourable man would protect a stranger in such circumstances. The bishop was right: you are a good shepherd to your flock. Come, I will walk with you to your chapel.’

As the pair walked across the clearing, Leo felt uplifted by the Prince’s words and honoured to be entrusted with an object so close to the Emperor’s heart.

John Azoukh began to play his flute. It was a balmy night in a perfect setting, a rare opportunity for the warriors of Byzantium to enjoy a few moments of quiet reflection and to dream of home and their loved ones.

Several hundred feet above them in his high pasture, with his own vivid reminiscences fresh in his memory,

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