the old man had fallen asleep. He now woke with a jolt, his body aching in parts, numb in others. He managed to pull himself upright and slowly made his way to his humble shelter. He was soon asleep again, but not before his thoughts had once more returned to the turbulent events that long ago engulfed his life.

Early the next morning, the Captain of the Guard and a dozen men took Leo to the beginning of the steep path into the hills before turning back to let him make his long journey alone.

The sun had already started its late afternoon decline as Leo reached the high pastures where he knew the man he sought had his simple home. He approached a crescent of open ground fringed by trees with, at its centre, a small wooden hut set hard against the rocks that rose sharply to the crest of a hill behind. It was an idyllic spot from where, on a clear day, it was possible to see the distant shimmer of the Mediterranean, a full two days’ walk away to the west. The basic wooden shelter was a lean-to jutting from the rocks, its roof covered with animal skins weighted down by large stones. The roof extended a little to cover the doorway where a simple frame of interwoven reeds acted as a door. At the back of the hut a dry-stone chimney and hearth had been built.

It was a harsh world in the depths of winter, but today, warmed by summer’s heat and surrounded by meadows bristling with life, it seemed perfect. Two goats were tethered in the open pasture, poultry ran around in aimless circles, neat rows of vegetables and herbs grew against the edge of the rocky backdrop and, over to the east, a small lake was home to a plentiful supply of fish. The surrounding hills, which seemed to stretch endlessly into the distance, offered good hunting, with boar, deer and rabbit. As Leo surveyed the scene, he could see several animal skins stretched out to dry in the sun and piles of freshly cut firewood.

It was the distant screech of a hawk that made Leo turn round. As he did so, he saw his quarry silhouetted on a large rock no more than ten steps from him. Leo shuddered at the sudden apparition; the man’s large frame obscured the sun, the rays of which burst around him.

‘This is a surprise visit, Father. You have had a long walk.’

The dark presence spoke firmly and deliberately. Leo averted his eyes as the figure moved away from the line of the sun, allowing its glare to fall on his face.

‘Come to my hearth, we’ll eat. You must be hungry.’

The voice was deep in tone with the croak of age and, although his Greek was good, it had the harsh edge of a foreign accent. Leo decided he should explain himself straight away.

‘I come with a reques-’

Leo was interrupted before he could explain.

‘I know.’

There was almost a sigh of resignation in his host’s voice as he led the priest towards his simple shelter. Leo felt even more ill at ease. How could the Northerner know he was coming? In what mysteries had he become embroiled?

For a while they drank and ate, exchanging simple pleasantries, before Leo again decided to come to the point.

‘I have been given an amulet to return to you. It has been carried here by Prince John Comnenus, the son of Alexius I, and his friend, Prince John Azoukh. They travel with a column of Imperial Guards. It pains me to carry the ungodly thing but it apparently has great meaning — ’

Leo was halted in full flow.

‘Are there Varangians among them?’

‘Yes, and Immortals.’

The man’s face creased into a warm smile as Leo handed over the amulet. A large hand clasped it and a pair of deep-blue eyes fixed it in their gaze. The priest noticed the arthritic knuckles, the two broken fingers and the patchwork of scars that disappeared beyond the man’s forearm under the sleeve of his smock. The biggest of them was the width of a finger — a pale, jagged gash across a skin wrinkled by age and desiccated by the sun. Even more striking were the scars on his face. His left cheek was sliced from under his eye to the corner of his mouth, and there were several more souvenirs from a long life of mortal combat. Nevertheless, his face retained a rugged dignity which the sun seemed to have cast in bronze. The scars were like illustrations in a manuscript: what stories could they tell? Who had inflicted them?

‘I wondered if I would ever see this again.’

Leo’s host became quiet as he thought of home, an island kingdom many miles away to the north-west. He could see the chalk cliffs of its south coast. He imagined the verdant swathes of its forests and heathlands and the myriad wildflowers in its glades and clearings. He remembered its pungent odours of burnt ash and fresh manure and the sweet smells of mown hay and woodsmoke. He heard the blether and rush of its brooks and rivers and the din of birdsong and insect life. It had been a much-troubled land but, in his mind’s eye, it seemed timelessly peaceful.

‘What does the amulet mean?’

Leo’s question broke the spell of the old man’s reminiscences of home.

‘It’s called the Talisman of Truth and is said to be as old as time. I first saw it nearly three score years ago. It seems to follow me around.’

‘You make it sound like a curse.’

‘Maybe it is. Some say it is a guiding light, meant for kings, to allow them to see the wisdom of ages.’

‘A prince who will soon be an emperor has travelled here with this Talisman. He asks to speak with you.’

As the Northerner got to his feet, Leo noticed the pain on his face.

‘I sensed that if I lived for another summer, this prince would come.’

The old man paused. Leo noticed that his hand was shaking and that he was wincing from the effort of movement.

‘May I ask how many summers have come and gone in your life?’

‘Eighty-two, Father.’

Leo looked at the man in amazement, not doubting for a moment the truth of the answer, but wondering how a man could live so long, especially a man so heavily scarred by battle. Leo had heard that some men had lived beyond their eightieth year, but he had never met one.

‘You had better make your way home now, Father. Let me fill your flagon and pack some bread and cheese for you.’ The ancient warrior spoke warmly, concerned for a man who had a difficult descent ahead, especially as the last part would have to be negotiated long after nightfall.

‘What will I tell Prince John?’ asked Leo.

‘Tell him that I am honoured to be asked to speak with him. I will be with him as soon as I can.’

‘Will you not travel with me?’

‘No, I have much to do here. It will take me some time to make my way down the mountain. Go to the Prince and ask for his patience.’

As Leo prepared to leave, he could not resist a parting question. ‘You are obviously a man of some repute. May I ask why you are here, on the top of a remote mountain with only goats and wolves for company?’

The old man stared long and hard towards the distant sea before he answered. ‘Father, I have lived a full life and done many things. I have seen most of our world, met all varieties of its feeble humanity and come to understand how weak and inadequate we are. But from here, when I stare into the distance, I am reminded of the strength, wisdom and courage that many people are capable of, especially the most humble. That gives me hope, it keeps me alive. Perhaps it’s kept me alive for this day.’

Leo did not respond, but simply followed the old man’s gaze towards the western horizon.

After a while, the Northerner continued. ‘I came here with the Emperor Alexius many years ago, when he was raising one of the Greek themes for the Imperial Army. Many good men came from these hills and valleys. The old sages told us stories of how the ancients had a sacred temple near here, at a place called Olympia, built in honour of their God, Zeus, where great warriors from the Greek world would compete in contests of war and physical skill. When I retired from the Emperor’s service, I could think of no better place to find solace in my old age.’

‘I know nothing of such a place and I’m not sure it’s part of our Christian tradition.’

‘It isn’t, Father. Many generations ago, Olympia was destroyed in an earthquake, its location forgotten, and in all my years here, I’ve never been able to find it.’

‘Can you not find our Christian God in these mountains to bring you solace?’

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