Summer, AD 453
The king died too slowly atop his wedding bed.
The assassin knelt over him. The daughter of a Burgundy prince, she was the king’s seventh wife, newly wed the night prior, bound to this barbarian lord by force of marriage and intrigue. Her name, Ildiko, meant fierce warrior in her native tongue. But she did not feel fierce as she quailed beside the dying man, a bloody tyrant who had earned the name Flagellum Dei, the Scourge of God, a living legend who was said to wield the very sword borne by the Scythian god of war.
His name alone—Attila—could open city gates and break sieges, so mightily was he feared. But now, naked and dying, he seemed no more fearsome than any other man. He stood little taller than her, though he was weighted down with thick muscle and the heavy bones of his nomadic people. His eyes—wide parted and deep set—reminded her of a pig’s, especially as he had stared blearily upon her, rutting into her during the night, his eyes stitched red from the many cups of wine he had consumed at their wedding feast.
Now it was her turn to stare down upon him, measuring each gurgling gasp, trying to judge how long until death claimed him. She knew now she had been too sparing with the poison given to her by the bishop of Valence, passed through him by the archbishop of Vienne, all with the approval of King Gondioc de Burgondie. Fearing the tyrant might taste the bitterness of the poison in his bridal cup, she had been too timid.
She clutched the glass vial, half empty now, sensing other hands, higher even than King Gondioc, in this plot. She cursed that such a burden should come to rest in her small palms. How could the very fate of the world—both now and in the future—fall to her, a woman of only fourteen summers?
Still, she had been told of the necessity for this dark action by a cloaked figure who had appeared at her father’s door a half-moon ago. She had already been pledged to the barbarian king, but that night, she was brought before this stranger. She caught the glimpse of a cardinal’s gold ring on his left hand before it was hidden away. He had told her the story then—only a year past—of Attila’s barbarian horde routing the northern Italian cities of Padua and Milan, slaughtering all in their path. Men, women, children. Only those who fled into the mountains or coastal swamps survived to tell the tale of his brutality.
“Rome was doomed to fall under his ungodly sword,” the cardinal had explained to her beside her family’s cold hearth. “Knowing this sure fate as the barbarians approached, His Holiness Pope Leo rode out from his earthly throne to meet the tyrant on the banks of Lake Garda. And upon the strength of his ecclesiastical might, the pontiff drove the merciless Hun away.”
But Ildiko knew it wasn’t ecclesiastical might alone that had turned the barbarians aside—but also the superstitious terror of their king.
Full of fear herself now, she glanced over to the box resting atop a dais at the foot of the bed. The small chest was both a gift and a threat from the pontiff that day. It stretched no longer than her forearm and no higher, but she knew it held the fate of the world inside. She feared touching it, opening it—but she would, once her new husband was truly dead.
She could handle only one terror at a time.
Fearful, her gaze flickered over to the closed door to the royal wedding chamber. Through a window, the skies to the east paled with the promise of a new day. With dawn, his men would soon arrive at the bedchamber. Their king must be dead before then.
She watched the blood bubbling out of his nostrils with each labored breath. She listened to the harsh gurgle in his chest as he lay on his back. A weak cough brought more blood to his lips, where it flowed through his forked beard and pooled into the hollow of his throat. The beating of his heart could be seen there, shimmering that dark pool with each fading thud.
She prayed for him to die—and quickly.
Burn in the flames of hell where you belong . . .
As if heaven heard her plea, one last rough breath escaped the man’s flooded throat, pushing more blood to his lips—then his rib cage sagged a final time and rose no more.
Ildiko cried softly in relief, tears springing to her eyes. The deed was done. The Scourge of God was at last gone, unable to wreak more ruin upon the world. And not a moment too soon.
Back at her father’s house, the cardinal had related Attila’s plan to turn his forces once again toward Italy. She had heard similar rumblings at the wedding feast, raucous claims of the coming sack of Rome, of their plans to raze the city to the ground and slaughter all. The bright beacon of civilization risked going forever dark under the barbarians’ swords.
But with her one bloody act, the present was saved.
Still, she was not done.
The future remained at risk.
She shimmied on her bare knees off the bed and moved to its foot. She approached the small chest with more fear than she had when she slipped the poison into her husband’s drink.
The outer box was made of black iron, flat on all sides with a hinged top. It was unadorned, except for an inscribed pair of symbols on its surface. The writing was unknown to her, but the cardinal had told her what to expect. It was said to be the language of Attila’s distant ancestors, those nomadic tribes far to the east.
She touched one of the inscriptions, made of simple straight lines.
“Tree,” she whispered to herself, trying to gain strength. The symbol even looked somewhat like a tree. She touched its matching neighbor—a second tree—with great reverence.
Only then did she find the strength to bring her fingers to the chest’s lid and swing it open. Inside, she discovered a second box, this one of the brightest silver. The inscription on top was similarly crude, but clearly done with great purpose.
The simple strokes meant command or instruction.
Sensing the press of time, she steadied her shaking fingers and lifted the silver box’s lid to reveal a third coffer inside, this one of gold. Its surface shimmered, appearing fluid in the torchlight. The symbol carved here looked like a union of the earlier characters found inscribed in iron and silver, one stacked atop the other, forming a new word.
The cardinal had warned her of the meaning of this last mark.
“Forbidden,” she repeated breathlessly.
With great care, she opened the innermost box. She knew what she would find, but the sight still shivered the small hairs along her arms.
From the heart of the gold box, the yellowed bone of a skull glowed out at her. It was missing its lower jaw, its empty eye staring blindly upward, as if to heaven. But like the boxes themselves, the bone was also adorned with script. Lines of writing descended down from the crown of the skull in a tight spiral. The language was not the same as atop the triple boxes, but instead it was the ancient script of the Jews—or so the cardinal had told her. Likewise, he had instructed her on the purpose of such a relic.