Byzantium









1. The Royal Crown of Hungary

There are two interesting words in the English language. One is "byzantine" meaning something like "of labyrinthine complexity" and the other is "balkanised", meaning to split up into small antagonistic states. I was poring over a map of the Balkans trying to understand 11th century Byzantine history when Winston brought the post.

"Madam has started early today," he said, wrinkling his nose at the smoke from my Montechristo.

"I love the smell of cigar smoke in the morning," I said. "Especially a crisp spring morning like this one."

There was a letter from the Foreign Office. I ripped open the envelope.

"Ah ha!" I said..

"Miss?"

"If I'm not mistaken," I said, "all my travel problems are over."

"It's a passport, Miss."

"It's a diplomatic passport. Full diplomatic immunity. Now I can go where I like and bring whatever I like through customs in the diplomatic bag."

"Ingenious, Miss. How did you manage to engineer such good fortune?"

"Between you and I," I said, "when the Permanent Under-Secretary rang me up to have a conversation about the Masonic Temple at Aldwych, my travel difficulties crept onto the agenda."

"Is it wise to blackmail the Masons?"

"Oh - they know me. I'm blue blood. I'm not a Catholic, or Jewish. I have no interest in politics. The only reason I'm not a member is because I'm a girl."

"Very good, Miss. More coffee?"

I'd upset a lot of people and knew a lot of secrets. I sometimes wondered when the assassins were going to turn up. Still - live fast, die young. I'd rather have my throat slit as a cure for the menopause than have to resort to HRT and monkey glands.

The map spread out in front of me was part of my ongoing attempt to piece together the true history of the Royal Crown of Hungary. Today I was trying to trace the journey of the Greek half of the Crown from Constantinople to Budapest.

"The Crown arrived between 1071 and 1077," I said to Winston, sipping my Arabic cardamom coffee. "So - which route did it take?"

The area south of the Via Egnatia, which joined Constantinople, Thessaloniki and Durres, had been Byzantine territory in 1071. North of the line was Injun country. The problem was that every little state in the area - Montenegro and Macedonia, for example - had been embroiled in internal blood feuuds or schemes against the Emperors in Constantinople.

"You've asked me this before, Miss," said Winston. "If you recall I foolishly suggested sailing it up the Danube."

"I remember," I said. "They probably would rather have brought it around Greece by sea rather than taking it overland through Sofia or Thessaloniki. They probably wouldn't have landed it at Bar or Dubrovnik because of the rebellion of Michael of Montenegro. The only other logical port is Durres."

But then where? They wouldn't have taken the Via Egnatia to Lake Ohrid, because that was Macedonia. The road north from Durres led straight into Montenegro. The only route that avoided both of these rebellious states went over the mountains into Kosovo. It was impossible.

"It's a puzzle, isn't it?" I said to Winston. I noticed that his eye was twitching. "Were you just stifling a yawn?"

"I'm sorry, Madam," said Winston. "I rather overindulged in the Jerry Springer Show last night. I find Americans bizarrely amusing."

I took off my sunglasses and rubbed my eyes. The Royal Crown of Hungary had been bugging me for years. It was unfortunate that everybody else was bored rigid by my fascination.

The more I looked into it, the less I understood. Maybe if I started from Budapest and worked south, the solutions would occur to me. I looked at the diplomatic passport and decided that maybe it was time for a holiday.

*****


Bugger Paris, to paraphrase the Prince Regent. Budapest in the spring knocks spots off it.

At Ferihegy airport, the customs official looked at me, my new passport and my luggage.

"What is the purpose of your visit to Hungary?" he asked.

"Something hush-hush for the Foreign Office," I said.

"And what do you have in your bag?"

I counted off on my fingers. "A couple of guns, including a semi-automatic weapon. Some hand grenades. Ammo. A first-aid kit of alien manufacture. Some class A drugs. Cigars. Scotch. Books. Clean knickers. Tampons."

The official burst out laughing. "Welcome to Hungary, Miss Croft," he said.

I took a taxi to the Hilton on Castle Hill - it was as ugly as I remembered - and then went to a tourist cafe for lunch. Afterwards I sat outside with a glass of red Szekszed wine and my leather-bound research notebook, and watched the German tourists and Hungarian babes strolling past in the sunshine. If you're sick of London, you're just sick of London. If you're tired of Budapest, then you're tired of life.

I made a list.

(a) Look at Crown

(b) Have a Turkish bath

(c) Buy motorbike


There are two Royal Crowns of Hungary in Budapest, one in the National Museum and the other in the St. Matthias Church. I'm not sure which one is the copy - the one in the Museum looks older and dirtier - but the Matthias church has better close-up photos and is less crowded. I was the only one in the exhibit room except for an elderly female guard. The Royal Crown is an interesting object. The cross in the top of it is bent from the time when someone dropped it, and has since been fastened on with a large modern screw. The Crown spent some time in Fort Knox after WWII, and has been hidden or buried for most of its life. The Hungarians are very keen that the upper Latin crown is the original one that was used for the coronation of the Hungarian king St. Stephen in 1000. The Crown is "holy" and all Hungarian laws are made in its name. When it left the country in a oil drum, fleeing the advancing Red Army, they described it as "kidnapped".

I was more interested in the lower Greek crown. There are a number of cloisonne enamel panels, backed with gold, depicting various saints and rulers. The three panels that interested me had been added to the crown after it had been manufactured. They were the wrong size for the mounts and had buckled the frames when added to the crown. It was shoddy workmanship. The three characters that had been added were the Byzantine emperor Michael VII Ducas, his son, Constantine and the Hungarian king Geza I.

My questions for today were - when had the panels been added, by whom,, for what reason and what had they replaced? There were partial answers and theories in the literature, but collectively they didn't make sense to me.

According to my notes, the historical consensus was that the Greek crown had been a gift from Michel VII Ducas to Geza. "With the imperial workshops at his command, why would the Emperor have sent the king of Hungary a badly altered second-hand crown?" I said to the female guard, who was looking at the pictures in a Hello! type magazine.

"I'm sorry?" she said. "Is there a problem?"

"The Crown," I said. "It's very interesting, isn't it?"

"It is very interesting," she said, waiting for a polite moment before going back to her pictures of Mel B's wedding dress.

Logically, the original three lost panels would have to have been of saints or of rulers. Which saints, or which rulers? That was the question.

*****


I opted for the posh Thermal baths on Margit Island. I'd always wanted to go to the Rudas bath on Dobrentei Ut, which is the genuine Turkish article, but it was men only, and however tightly I wrapped myself in towels I didn't think that I get away with posing as a man. Margit Island is a haven for lovers - I'd even been a young lover there myself long ago - and it has the pleasant air of a 19th century seaside town. It was nice to stand for a moment at the "prow" of the island and watch the Duna sweeping by on each side, although by the time the river got to Budapest it was hardly the "beautiful blue Danube" that Strauss had lauded. The same fast food stalls were there that I remembered. I had a vision of my younger self giggling as she discovered that the Hungarian for cheeseburger was pronounced "shiteburger".

The Thermal baths hadn't changed much either, and I'd been frequenting them even since I discovered that they were the best cure for a hangover next to ice-cold Coca-Cola. The attendant locked my clothes into a locker and handed me a numbered tag to tie onto my swimming costume. As I swam a few lengths I wondered whether to go for a 15 minute or 30 minute massage. I'm not sure what to say about the 30 minute massages - if you've ever met a physiotherapist or an osteopath, you'll have some idea of what they are like.

"Hello, Lara," said an unfamiliar voice. It was an unfamiliar man with a beer gut. "Don't you remember me?"

I trod water. "No," I said. "Should I?"

The man laughed. "I'm wounded," he said, with a faint Armenian accent. "It's me, Slava."

I had to get out of the water quickly in case the shock made me drown. "Slava?" I said, when I was on dry land. "How ... lovely." We embraced.

If you've never experienced it then there is nothing more peculiar than meeting a man with whom you had a love affair when you were young but who has now gone to seed. I'd met Viacheslav Obolenski ten years earlier when he was a young captain stationed with the Soviet forces in Hungary. He'd looked so smart in his uniform. Now he was wearing flowery swimming trunks.

"You look fabulous," said Slava. "You still have your fantastic figure."

"You're very kind."

"Shall we go and have a beer at Anna's Cafe for old times?"

"If you can stand the tourists I'm sure that I can," I said, as cheerfully as I could.

Later we sat outside at a pavement table.

"So you don't drink beer any more?" said Slava as the waitress brought my gin and vermouth.

"I find spirits more efficient," I said. "Egeszsegedre."

Slava laughed. "You and your textbook Hungarian," he said. "Down the hatch."

We talked. It turned out that Slava had remembered me laughing at "shiteburger". He was married but separated, and was with the peacekeeping force in Bosnia. Business as usual then.

"What happened to the Earl of Farringdon?"

"He was a bit too much of a knob for my taste," I said.

"Knob," said Slava. "This is slang for a member of the aristocracy?"

"If you like," I said.

I decided to tell him about the Royal Crown of Hungary. To my surprise he looked genuinely interested.

"So ... where do you intend to go from here?" said Slava, with a look of expectant disbelief on his face.

"I thought I'd head south to Belgrade," I said.

Slava slapped his thigh. "You do know that there is a war?"

I shrugged. "It's the Balkans," I said. "There's always a war, even in peacetime."

*****


I spent the night with him for old time's sake. It was quite nice really.

The next morning I went to the Harley-Davidson shop off the Belgr�d Rakpart armed with my gold AmEx card and found myself comparing the virtues of a FLHRCI Road King Classic and a XLH Sportster 883 Hugger. I had a Norton C652 SuperMono on order back home to replace the Streetfighter that I had driven into the sea in pursuit of Natla, but I wouldn't have really have wanted to use a collector's bike on such a rough expedition.

The Classic had an extra half inch's ground clearance when compared to the Hugger, but did ten miles per gallon less on the open highway. However, it did have lovely laced wheels and a stylish windshield. The colour was two-tone diamond ice and Aztec gold.

"The Classic costs 17000 US dollars, but the Hugger only costs 6000," said the assistant.

That settled it. "I'll take the Classic," I said. "No need to wrap it."

I decided to break it in by driving to the City Park. A gaggle of Hungarian school children and their teacher were having their picture taken in front of the Millenary Monument.

I gazed up at the Monument. King Stephen, flanked on each side by various Arpad chieftains, was being offered the Hungarian crown by the Archangel Gabriel. I found myself examining the archangel at the top of the monument. The air had been still, but now a breeze had sprung up. The tips of Gabriel's wings seemed to quiver in the wind. It reminded me of a bird ruffling its feathers. Rubbish blew across the square as if a large flock of starlings had flown over.

A little girl shouted out, and pointed. The photographer slowly lowered his camera. I looked to where they were all looking and found that the statue of King Stephen had turned its head to gaze at me. The horses of the other six Arpad began to paw the ground, and the crowd of visitors started to scream and run away across the square. King Stephen drew a giant verdigrised broadsword. He made the motions of someone yelling "charge" but no sound came from his metal lips. The riders leapt from their plinth, landing with a earthshaking series of crashes on the cobbles, and rode straight for me.

2. Clan Arpad

I've had trouble with statues before. The green Chinese warriors guarding the parallel world within the Great Wall spring to mind. It had taken a great number of bullets to shatter them, and they'd been made of jade. The Arpad lads looked as if they were made of bronze. You can dent bronze and blow holes in it, but you can't shatter it. My only hope was that they were hollow, and thus structurally not very strong.

I roared off into the park in the Harley. I'd bought a silly Italian helmet with a brim rather than a full reinforced one, and I wasn't convinced that it would stop a couple of stone of bronze sword descending at eighty miles an hour. I pulled out my Desert Eagle from my pack, relieved that I'd left the Brownings at home.

I could see the horsemen had spread out behind me. They had adopted a hunt formation and a couple had produced nasty looking spears. I could have outrun them and escaped, but I had a nasty feeling that they wouldn't give up, and I didn't fancy being pursued across Eastern Europe by a bunch of bronze delinquents for the next few days. I had to deal with them now.

I stopped the bike with a skid turn, and took aim. One of the Arpad chiefs had a helmet topped by a cockerel's comb and was waving a weapon that resembled a piece of plumbing. I squeezed off six shots into his face. The first shot went through his nose and out the back of his head. The second smashed his jaw into a starburst of bright new metal. The third went wide and smashed his right shoulder. The fourth and fifth put a large U-shaped valley in the top of his head, knocking the cockscomb to one side. The sixth blew away his neck next to the shoulder wound. His head lurched sideways and sunk into his torso. He immediately broke formation and his horse rode into a tree with a large clang like a bell, wrapping both of them around the trunk like some weird piece of modern art. One down, six to go.

I should have been paying more attention. One of them had a bow, and an arrow, twice life size, was suddenly heading towards me. I batted it away from me with a tremendous swipe of the Desert Eagle but the weight of it unbalanced me. I lost my grip on the gun, which went skittering away across the grass. They were on me and there was no time to retrieve it. I did a wheelie to avoid the swing of a mace - the horse reared, its deadly metal hooves flashing past my face - and sped off.

I'd established that impact with a solid object didn',t really suit the Arpad statues. Having said that, the chances of getting one of them to ride into a tree again seemed slim.

The Harley weighed about 700 pounds and I added about 120 to that, so I decided to try an experiment.

I raced around so that I was approaching the pack from the side. They were riding past a grass rise and I gunned the bike to high speed so that it took off. I timed it perfectly. The rear wheel caught one of the chieftains on the side of the head. I landed with a bump and skidded to a halt, looking back at the results. I must have caught him a torsional blow, for the impact had twisted his head around so that it faced backwards. His horse slowed to a trot, confused, and blundered into the climbing frame on the children's playground. Soon they were both caught in the tangled metal. Two down, five to go.

I had a hunch that they wouldn't let me do the same trick twice. After all, all they had to do was duck, and I didn't fancy having my tyres swiped at in mid-air.

The guys had ridden straight through a metal fence in their pursuit. I dashed up and retrieved one of the metal palings, hefting it like a javelin. I turned about and drove straight for them. It is slightly unnerving playing chicken with five bronze horsemen riding close formation on ten foot high horses, but I didn't flinch. Two of the Arpads lowered their spears in classic jousting stance as they thundered towards me.

I reckon that their close formation was their undoing. That and the fact that one cannot turn a ten foot bronze horse in mid gallop. Too much inertia.

I rode between the two centre riders with no room to spare, hurling my javelin at the rider to my right whose spear, held in his right hand, posed the most threat to me. The javelin pierced his face - I guess iron is harder than bronze - and he lurched back in his saddle, raising the spear tip out of my way. The rider to my left tried to slice me with his sword as I roared past, but couldn't reach down far enough to get me because I was on his shield arm side. I suppose his down-swinging sword must have contacted the up-swinging spear of his companion. The two weapons clashed together and tangled. The horses swung together like two speedboats tethered together and both riders were thrown face first into each other. If you've ever seen that film of steam locomotives crashing you'll get the general idea. Four down, three to go.

For my next trick I decided to copy that scene in "The Empire Strikes Back" with the Imperial Icewalkers. For some reason you can always find a length of rusty cable or old rope in a city park. Perhaps they come there to die. My specimen of light telephone cable still on its cardboard reel. I grabbed the end and set off carefully, unreeling it behind me. I'd just got into position to do a slalom route between the legs of the bronze horses when "The Empire Strikes Back" turned into "Return of the Jedi". I got the cable wrapped around a tree and found myself doing an involuntary circle. I tried to ditch the cable but it caught on the handlebars. The Classic leaned onto its side, and slid away for a few yards as I threw myself clear to save my leg. I jumped up to retrieve it, but King Stephen was already standing guard. I turned tail and legged it.

I was quite near to end of the park where we'd started, near the Millennium Monument and the posh end of Andrassy Ut. I wondered how tenth century horsemen would mix with twentieth century traffic.

I could feel the crash of hooves at my heels and almost lost my footing as a bronze mace swept by my ear. I dashed into the road as there was a blare of horns as I leapt onto a bonnet of a Trabant and over the other side. Trabant bodywork is just strong enough to take my body weight, but it couldn't cope with a collision with a giant bronze horseman. The driver leapt clear as the horse's hooves went through the bonnet and windscreen. King Stephen was good - he kept to his mount as it tried to disentangle itself. There was a petrol explosion, and horse and rider were engulfed with flames. I didn't think petrol flames were hot enough to melt bronze, but one could always hope.

The remaining two horses were rearing and bucking, surrounded by hooting, panic-stricken cars. I dashed across the road and dived into the entrance of the Hosok Tere Metro station. As I ran down the stairs one of the Arpad horseman was right behind me.

The Andrassy Ut Metro line is the oldest in Budapest, and is not far under the surface. The Arpad horseman couldn't fit under the roof upright, so he'd slung himself alongside his horse like a Red Indian in a cowboy film. He obviously didn't have bronze for brains. The horse skidded down the stairs like a scree surfer and made it safely onto the platform.

There was a train coming in. I wouldn't have time for it to stop and open its doors, so I did the only logical thing and jumped in front of it. There was a screech of brakes as I dropped down between the rails and let the train pass over my head.

I heard the crash as the Arpad chieftain urged his horse down onto the tracks. I'm not sure if he stumbled or if the train hit him, but there was a blinding flash of light as the horse's hooves made contact with the live rail. The rider was thrown, and lay electrocuted on the track as one of the wheels of the train smoothed his head from its shoulders. The horse lay twitching and glowing, half crushed against the side of the platform, and then all the lights went off as the circuit breakers blew. Five down, two to go.

It seemed I wasn't taking the tube. I edged out from under the train in the confusion and, crossing the opposite track, vaulted onto the platform and took the stairs back up to the street.

Getting rid of number six was a pure fluke. There was a bunch of workmen digging up the road on the side street opposite. They had dug a deep hole with metal pilings shoring up the sides, and were having workmen-type fun next to it with a pneumatic drill. I noticed the telephone wire above the hole as I was formulating a plan.

"Get out of here!" I yelled to the workmen, pointing at the Arpad horseman who had spotted me and was making a beeline. They didn't argue.

"Here boy!" I yelled, waving my arms and standing on the far side of the hole. He did a lovely fox-hunting jump over it and caught his chin on the telephone wires. I leapt to one side to avoid the riderless horse and he did a perfect loop-the-loop and crashed down onto the hole.

Immediately two huge bronze hands appeared at the hole edge as he tried to climb out. His expressionless moustachioed face appeared, and stared at me. I grabbed the pneumatic drill and sliding it along the ground inserted the tip into his eyesocket and pushed. The drill drilled for a second and then the metal palings at the edge of the hole gave way so that he fell, the drill still embedded in his face. The earth walls collapsed, burying him. Six down, one to go.

The last one was King Stephen, and his horse was limping. Either the heat of the petrol burning or the collision with the Trabant had damaged its fetlock, and as I watched the leg folded with a screech of metal and the horse went down on one knee. King Stephen dismounted with dignity and with a ringing of bronze on concrete continued the pursuit on foot.

I could run as fast as him, for a while, but then I realised that I'd tire and he wouldn't. I decided that it was time to give public transport another go. There was a bus just pulling away from the kerb and I ran alongside banging on the doors next to the driver. To my amazement he braked and let me on. It was one of those buses whose doors all open simultaneously, and as I boarded at the front, King Stephen attempted to board at the back. The bus crashed down on its back suspension and swerved to a halt.

There were only ten passengers on the bus. Five rushed past me and the rest squeezed out of the windows. The driver leapt for it. King Stephen had what looked like a large carving knife adorning the top of his helmet and he'd got it embedded in the roof.

I jumped into the driver's seat and floored the accelerator.

I watched as King Stephen extricated himself from the ceiling and started to make unsteady progress up the bus, crouched at an awkward angle. I flung the bus suddenly to the right and he fell into the seats, smashing them to shrapnel. We shot part the Oktogon metro stop at over eighty kilometres per hour. It was a devil of a job to weave through the traffic, light as it was, and I didn't really have a plan.

King Stephen had regained his feet and was inching towards me like a giant bronze spider. I turned the wheel to the left and this time his head smashed through a window. I steered close to a lamppost and there was a satisfying clang from behind me, but when I looked in the mirror I found that he'd pulled in his head at the last moment. The knife thing on his helmet had been ironed flat by the lamppost.

We'd reached the end of Andrassy Ut quicker than I thought and the bus skidded, almost ram-raiding the front of the Inca car hire shop.

King Stephen had finally made it up to the front. He unwisely decided to try a sword swipe but the bus interior was too small and the blade crashed into the ticket dispenser, showing me with fragments. We were bombing down Jazsef Attila utca and at the end was the river. I was running out of time.

King Stephen put his hand over my entire head and began to squeeze. I had nothing to stop him with. I hammered his fingers with my fists. I was blinded and my head was being crushed. I think my skull was just about to crack when the bus slammed to a halt.

His time had run out. Bronze is heavy and so he shot out of the front of the bus like the bullet from a Martini rifle. We had crashed into the parapet of the Duna. King Stephen flew out over the water, arms windmilling. He skipped the surface twice and then sank without a ripple.

*****


I was fairly confident that any witnesses to the wrecking of a large chunk of Budapest would have been too busy looking at the Arpad posse to remember me. I had one hairy moment when I went to retrieve the Classic and the Desert Eagle, since the police had already put up screens around the Millenium Monument with "Closed for renovation" signs, but they luckily didn't see me as I sneaked out of the back of the park.

As I sat in the restaurant at the Hilton picking at my food, I had a lot to think about. How had the statues come to life, and was the fact that the Arpad dynasty been chosen significant?

Some sort of magic had been used, obviously. Unfortunately I neither like nor understand magic. My previous experience suggested that when there was that sort of nonsense about, there was also some sort of artifact bursting with occult power. What that "artifact" could be and who was using it was beyond my powers of deduction.

I thumbed through my notebook looking for facts about the Arpads. The two halves of the Royal Crown had been sent to two Arpads, King Stephen and King Geza. One very tenuous link was that Stephen's daughter had married a Bulgarian nobleman called Gabriel Radomir whose grandniece had married Romanus Diogenes, future Byzantine emperor. It was Romanus Diogenes who was betrayed at the battle of Manzikert by Andronikos Ducas, whose brother succeeded Romanus as emperor. This brother, Emperor Michael VII Ducas, was the chap whose picture was on the Greek crown along with that of King Geza.

These facts had made my head hurt before and they were making my head hurt again. If I'd been reading an Agatha Christie novel, it might have been easier. I went to bed.

*****


I was heading south to Szekszard and the Hungarian border. The only suspect that I had for the Arpad incident was Slava. As far as I knew he was the only person that had known that I was in Budapest. How he'd done it, and why, was a complete mystery to me. Maybe the way that I had sneaked out of his bed without saying goodbye had upset him. I could have gone and confronted him about it, but I had other fish to fry.

The Yugoslavian border guard gave me the strangest of strange looks as he examined my diplomatic passport.

"Wait here, please," he said, and went to fetch a superior.

Captain Raznjatovic interviewed me in his office, after a long wait. "Most diplomatic staff fly into Belgrade or come in some sort of official vehicle," he observed. "We've run a check on you, and your passport is genuine."

"Naturally," I said.

"We cannot guarantee your safety."

"There's a war on."

"So you heard about that at the Foreign Office?" He laughed drily. "Any evidence of spying activity or attempts to spread Western propaganda will not be acceptable. You must report into the central police station wherever you are staying."

"If I can find one still standing," I said.

"That's the sort of observation that it is probably best kept to yourself." His English was rather excellent.

"May I ask you a personal question?"

"Certainly," he said, sitting back in his chair and making an expansive gesture with his hands.

"Are you any relation to Arkan?"

His smile changed very subtly. "No," he said. "I don't have that honour."

*****


About ten years before the Hungarian Crown had begun its journey, the ArpAd King Salamon had taken Belgrade from the Byzantines. The White City had been in trouble ever since. I had one hairy moment on the 120 mile journey from the border to Belgrade. Most obstacles on the road are no problem with a motorcycle but at Novi Sad, where most of the routes south cross the Danube, NATO had thoughtfully destroyed all the bridges.

I sat astride the Classic contemplating the ruins. It resembled the sort of bridge that you might make with paperbacks when you were a child. The supports and the platforms were made up of identical slabs of reinforced concrete. One of the platforms had been blown off its support at one end and was sloping up from the river. If it had been sloping down on my side, I'd never had made it. I rode the bike out over the gap and landed just above the water. There was some applause.

I was relieved to leave the Danube. I had a vision of King Stephen striding along the muddy riverbed in the gloom, swinging his sword.

I'd never been to Belgrade before. I'd thought that I'd be unable to cross the rivers, but if the BBC news had been accurate the Belgraders had managed to save their bridges by pinning paper targets to the front of their T-shirts. I'd heard that there were continual power cuts, so it seemed possible that I'd be able to avoid open-air rock concerts full of biker chicks singing smaltzy songs about Serbian history.

I had been expecting the city to look like London after the blitz, with acres of bombed civilian dwellings, but it looked more like London during the 1970's Miners Strike. I didn't stumble over any dead bodies in the streets. Neither Jamie Shea nor Belgrade state television ever seemed to agree about the scale of civilian fatalities, and the Times newspaper wasn't for sale for some reason. Not that I'd bothered to read it back home.

The Belgrade Hilton was still standing, which - given that NATO would have made a deliberate effort to miss it - was somewhat of a miracle. Prices seemed a trifle high, but the hotel had its own electricity generators so I wasn't about to complain. There was an Internet terminal in one of the lounges which seemed to be working, which - given that NATO had been targeting communications - wasn't too much of a surprise. After a shower and a sandwich, I settled down with a glass of vinjak and escaped into Byzantium.

Romanus Diogenes wasn't the only emperor to marry a foreigner. There were Hungarian and Armenian brides in the Imperial families as well. The entire Macedonian dynasty, which ruled Byzantium from 627 to 1056, had been Armenian in origin. Similarly one of the Royal Families of Bulgaria, the so-called Cometopuli, had originally been the family of a local Byzantine admistrator. Even King Geza's queen, Synadele, had been the Emperor's sister. If I was looking for an explanation as to who had had a hand in the fortunes of the Hungarian Crown, it wasn't going to be able to disentangle the threads on purely nationalistic grounds.

I did find one new piece of information that surprised me slightly. On the Royal Crown, King Geza of Hungary was referred to as "King of Turkia". Given that at Manzikert the Eastern Byzantine army had been wiped out by a bunch of what I would have called "Turks", under Alp Arslan ... I decided that the Byzantines must have called everyone foreign a "Turk". Given the multinational nature of the Emperor's descendants and relatives, this seemed a bit rich. It didn't make the Royal Crown seem like a very diplomatic present, especially to a brother-in-law.

For some reason I found myself wondering there was any connection between the between the Andronikos Ducas who had betrayed the Byzantine army and Alp Arslan, but at that moment the Net went down and the nightly NATO air-raids began.

I sat on the balcony, smoking a cigar to muffle the smell of burning petrol, and looking at the fires on the horizon. Before I retired I realised that my period was a day late.

*****


The next day I bought some Levi jeans, some Adidas trainers and a Gap T-shirt in order to be able to wander around the city disguised as a native. I was after hard facts, so I gave the Serbian National Museum a miss and headed instead for the Gallery of Frescoes which contained full-sized replicas of paintings from remote churches in Serbia and Macedonia. I was worried that it might be closed due to the war, but the staff seemed to have mastered their trauma and it was business as usual. Luckily NATO hadn't mistaken the building for some barracks and as a result it looked totally unscathed.

Two things caught my attention. One was the religious power of the church paintings and the other was the number of representations of St. George. I hadn't really considered St. George in my investigations. True, he was on a panel of the Hungarian Crown but apart from that the only contact I'd had with him was the red crosses painted on the face of England football supporters and the Queen's Birthday Honours list. One life-sized photograph showed him with an Afro hairstyle and a shifty look on his face. He was wearing a cloak with what looked like upside-down hearts embroidered on it, and was holding a crucifix in one hand whilst doing a Royal wave with the other. He appeared to have a large flowery dinner plate stuck to the back of his head.

I looked closely at a crowd of archangels in one of the pictures, floating in the sky with their toes pointed earthwards, casting sideways glances of adoration at the enthroned Christ. A breeze rattled the panes of glass in the gallery, and the surface of the photo shimmered in the moving air, as if the archangels were quivering their wings prior to a massed lift-off. A shadow blotted out the sun in the garden outside for a second, as if a plane had swept past.

I was somewhat taken aback when the photos of the St. Georges started to look at me. I took a step backwards. There seemed to be movement in the other exhibits in the gallery. The large St. George began to peel himself from the wall, leaving an outline in the photographic paper.

I looked around quickly. I had to discover who was doing this - they had to be nearby - but the only other person there was a rather terrified looking guard who was getting to his feet. "Upomoc!" he said softly and then repeated it in a shout.

St. George peeled the halo from his head with a ripping sound and flung it like a frizbee. The edge of the paper caught the guard under his chin and sliced at his throat. He fainted, falling to the floor, and tiny photographic images of St. George on horseback galloped over his fallen body.

I was unarmed and I realised that if I didn't act quickly I was in for some pretty nasty paper cuts.

3. The St. Georges

My holiday was taking a turn for the ridiculous, as do so many of my holidays. Only I could visit Egypt and get attacked by mummies, or visit India and have to avoid being sliced up by statues of Shiva. However, not even I'd been attacked by fragments of photograph before.

My first thought was that I might have brought my Zippo, but the previous night's cigar had left me with a sore throat and I'd left it behind. Also Adidas trainers do not have the same utility in a scrap as a good pair of twelve-hole Doc Martins.

I jumped towards the large St. George and attempted to hit him on the jaw. At the last second he turned his head sideways and I cut my knuckles on the paper edge. At the same time I felt a sharp pain in my ankle. A tiny St. George had stabbed me with his paper sword. I stamped him into the floor, but I was surrounded by a crowd of them. A medium size St. George head butted me in the side and put a rip in my T-shirt. It was then that I realised that this particular brand of photographic paper possessed an unnatural strength. It appeared that I was in trouble.

I ran over to the museum guard hoping that he would be armed, but he was no more armed than a guard in the British Museum would have been. However he did have a chair. I picked it up and turned to face them.

It was impossible of course. They came in too many sizes. I swiped at big George with the chair and he absorbed the blow, folding around the legs like a rolled up poster. Whilst I was doing that a small army was hacking at my jeans. I didn't notice until one on my thigh pierced my skin and I yelped. A medium George swiped at my arm with his flat hand, karate style, and drew blood.

I tried to think. There was a fire extinguisher on the wall. I brushed the photographs from me, yelling, and grabbed it up. Pulling the hose out, I sprayed myself with the water, washing the tiny figures from me. Then I gave big George a blast straight in the face.

I been hoping that they'd go all soggy, but although the edges of their hands and swords didn't seem as sharp as before, the photos must have been laminated in some way. I could see a water stain seeping into big George's hair and tunic from the edges, but he remained as intact as before.

I ran for the ladies toilet. The water had slowed them down enough for me to pull the door of the bathroom closed, but I realised that it would only be a matter of seconds before they got in. The door began to rattle like a tent in a rain storm.

I turned on the taps in the sink. hoping for hot water to soften them further, but it was stone cold. There was a rustling and big George's head appeared under the bathroom door. He raised his head so that his neck had a ninety degrees fold in it and looked at me. He blinked once, twice. Then he resumed his wriggling, slowed slightly by the damp floor.

I spotted a bottle of toilet bleach on the window ledge. It was worth a try. I poured a generous dollop over big George before he'd quite made it to his feet. His front was laminated, but his back wasn't. The bleach began to soak in quite nicely.

He got to his feet and drew his sword. I tried to avoid the lunge but he managed to embed the point in my shoulder. The cut was minor, but the bleach wasn't. I screamed at the stinging, and lashed out with my foot, temporarily creasing him. He tried another swipe and caught my cheek. I had a smell of chlorine in my nose and my eyes filled with tears, blinding me. I wondered if the bleach had been such a good idea after all. I reached behind me into the sink and splashed a hand full of tepid water into my face.

I leapt for him, hoping to bring him to the ground with my body weight. He turned sideways so that his torso cut the skin on my shoulder but my momentum carried him down. It was like holding down a flapping fish.

I put a knee on each shoulder and tried to grab the edge of his head, hoping to rip it in two. The material was too tough and I couldn't tear it. Normally if your are kneeling on a person's arms they can't use their hands. George was massively double-jointed, being flat, and so he got me a good jab in the back of my head. I could feel him sawing at my ankles with his impossibly sharp knees.

There was a sign of movement under the bathroom door. The rest of the Georges were about to join us.

I had resigned myself to a farcical death by a thousand cuts, when big George stopped struggling. He raised his finely plucked eyebrows and his cherub mouth formed a perfect O. He looked like a bad French mime doing "surprise". Then he began to fade.

I got bleach over the rest of the Georges. It worked a treat. Soon there was nothing left but stained pieces of paper.

Afterwards I treated the guard with the first aid kit, dressing his neck wound. Taking his jacket to cover the embarrassment of my shredded clothes, I sneaked away before someone called the police and I had to make a statement explaining what had happened.

*****


I wasn't feeling too hot by the time that I got back to the Hilton. I wasn't amused by the attempt on my life. I stripped off my ruined disguise and binned it. I examined my body. The bleach cuts looked rather nasty and inflamed, and the wound on my cheek made me look ugly. It was like having acne all over again. I was bloated and my stomach seemed slightly distended. I felt clumsy and sweaty and I wished that my period would start. I had a shower in cold water and then collapsed on the bed.

*****


I woke up feeling depressed. I ordered some food and a pot of tea and whilst I was waiting attempted to do some exercises to get my heart rate going. It just made me tired and hot.

I went out onto the balcony but the smell of petrol which had seemed vaguely romantic the night before only made me feel sick.

The tea when it arrived was good - I drank it black and stewed - but I couldn't eat the sandwich. The bread seemed to be the wrong texture and it scraped in my mouth. I looked at the cigars in the humidor but decided that my mouth was too sensitive to smoke one. I examined the drugs that I had with me but felt too fragile to attempt a pharmaceutical treatment of my mood.

Why was my period late, I wondered? I was hardly ever late. Maybe it was an early menopause. Maybe that bastard Slava had knocked me up. Fucking ace.

I got dressed and went downstairs to play on the Internet terminal. Fortunately I was attended by an old waiter of the old school.

"Is Madam injured?" he said, gesturing at my face. He had a faint eastern European accent but his English was BBC perfect.

"I cut myself shaving," I said, accepting a gin and tonic.

"How unfortunate for Madam," he said, reminding me of Winston. "I may have some ointment or an aspirin back in the kitchen."

I smiled for the first time in hours. "Aspirin would be good. There's nothing like a mixture of gin and aspirin to put the world to rights."

"Indeed, Madam. The favoured cure-all for the seasoned traveller," he said, bowing slightly. God knows where they'd found him. Maybe he was a relic of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

My brain wasn't working. There were so many St. Georges. The famous one had been disowned by the Catholic church for not existing very much. Another one, St. George of Iberia - which turned out to be an old name for Armenia - had come to Bulgaria to convert "a tribe of Slavs" who had been ethnically cleansed from their home land by emperor Basil II Bulgarslayer. Just which brand of Christianity this St. George had brought from Armenia it didn't say. I wondered if it had anything to do with the Bogomils.

Then I looked up the South Park scripts instead and had a laugh until the Net link went down at lunchtime.

"What is there to see in Belgrade?" I asked the waiter.

"What sort of thing did Madam have in mind?"

"I need cheering up."

"Belgrade is a city full of life and laughter," he said. It appeared that Yugoslavians appreciated irony.

"Where can I buy some cannabis?"

"I can have some brought in, or you can approach nearly any group of young Belgraders. The war is quite boring, so I'm informed. Life without MTV and the Playstation lacks a certain sparkle."

"What about cigarettes?"

"Now Madam is presenting me with a slight problem. Since NATO bombed the tobacco factory there has been a shortage."

"I can pay whatever you like. Rolling tobacco and papers would be sufficient."

"Very good Madam."

I decided to go for a walk. I was a Westerner, but what the hell. At least I was a European.

For a while I had the spookiest feeling. MacDonalds was wrecked and sprayed with Serbian crosses, and the British Council Library had been burnt. In the city centre at the crossing of two main roads an enormous building had been gutted by precision bombing. Either that or someone had left the gas on. It was reminiscent of the centre of Manchester after the I.R.A. "redeveloped" it in the name of nationalism. There were a fair amount of dirt and smuts, and the sunlight seemed hyper-real. One of the buildings had an amusing graffito showing Tony Blair giving Bill Clinton a blow job. It was all very "last days of Pompeii".

Like Pompeii, people were sitting around in the ruins. Unlike Pompeii, it seemed unlikely that a cloud of superheated air would roll down from the nearest volcano and carbonise the lot of them. Not unless NATO really rolled out the bloodstained carpet.

"Do you speak English?" I asked two boys and two girls who were spliffing up in a park.

"We wouldn't want to miss Jamie Shea on C.N.N.," said one of the youths laconically. The girls giggled. They were extremely pretty and made me feel even worse than before.

"Are you from the B.B.C?" asked one girl.

"No," I said.

"You know Kate Adie?" said the second boy. "She smokes weed and fucks young soldiers."

"I don't believe you," I said. "Ms. Adie probably doesn't smoke anything stronger than cigarettes. She is the consummate professional."

"And Jaime Shea fucks goats."

"Apparently he's a Cockney, so anything is possible," I said.

This endeared me to them enough for them to offer me a toke. Their names were Mickey Mouse, Goofy, Princess Leia and Snoopy. Apparently.

"Are you having a good war?" asked Mickey Mouse.

"Tolerable," I said, "but I try to avoid it whenever possible."

"So do we," said Snoopy. "It's a drag."

"Why is NATO trying to destroy us with this criminal aggression?" asked Goofy.

"Either it's Kosovo and Milosevic, or else they felt the need to test out some of their arsenal I suppose," I said.

This brought a momentary lull in the conversation.

"A friend of mine saw some Albanians on a bus the other day," said Princess Leia. "Nobody knows what they were doing here in Belgrade."

"Maybe they work for Milosevic," I said.

"They didn't look like any of my usual dealers," said Mickey Mouse in a sardonic tone. Snoopy shushed him.

"They blew up the Hotel Jugoslavia and the television centre. They've killed civilians on a train, in buses, in refugee convoys. They attacked the Chinese and Swiss embassies," said Goofy.

"I'll do you a deal," I said. "I'll apologise for NATO if you apologise for Kosovo."

"Kosovo is nothing to do with us," said Mickey Mouse.

"Nor me," I said.

"But you are bombing us," said Snoopy.

"I'll get on the phone to Clinton and get him to call off the airforce at once."

They smiled, slowly.

"If I may make a prediction," I said. "If you think this war is a drag, just wait for the peace."

Goofy snorted derisively. "That's true," he said. "We do so enjoy watching the fireworks on the horizon and trying to guess what was hit and what sort of bomb was used."

I looked him in the eye. I would have explained how much of a curse "normal life" was to me but he must have read my mind. I glanced meaningfully at the opiate of the people that he held in his hand and raised my eyebrows. Goofy nodded sadly.

"When you burn the candle at both ends," I said, "it produces no light and is soon gone."

*****


I had to make a decision. I could call the expedition off and return to Hungary or I could pursue my hunches and head south. A feeling of disorientation had come over me. I couldn't really decide what I expected to find in the south of Yugoslavia, but I felt that being on the ground would give me an insight into the relationship of Byzantium with its neighbours. Archaeology is field work - whatever anybody says - and so is "tomb raiding". How can you understand a battle without visiting the battlefield? How could I retract the steps of the Byzantines bearing the Greek Crown without seeing some of the obstacles for myself?

I tried to tell myself that the thought of seeing the death and destruction of a modern war first hand didn't excite me and that my interest was purely academic. I see my life as a story starring me, and going home seemed like too much of an anticlimax.

On my last night at the Hilton I woke up screaming. They'd thrown the large St. George onto a municipal tip where the sun had dried him out. His cupid face had reappeared and he was soon joined by a muddy King Stephen. They were still on my trail. I awoke, drenched. For a moment I was joyful at the feel of the soaked sheets but when I switched on the light it was sweat and not menstrual blood.

My best guess for the route involved following the E763 to Kraljevo, and then taking either the road to Kosovska Mitrovica or to Novi Pazar. Geography dictated that any itinerary from Macedonia would include Kosovo Polje and the Drenica valley, but I wanted to check out Ras, the ancient capital, and the area between Kukes and Pristina. I still thought that the Byzantine ambassadors might have sneaked over the mountains from Albania, somehow. What I needed was a monastery or a fort or a town that might have sheltered them in the middle of the rebellions. A place that also contained craftsmen capable of doing an alteration job on a Byzantine crown.

The Classic was running nicely, but it was a strain looking ahead for convoys or road blocks. Every moment I was expecting to be stopped and asked for my papers but nobody seemed to have organised anything. Maybe any police vehicle would be bombed if seen on the open road. I hoped that my khaki trousers and beaten up leather jacket didn't make me look like a member of the Yugoslav military. I didn't fancy an Apache up me jacksee.

Just north of Raske I came across the remains of a convoy. There were sad and abandoned tractors, studded with machine gun fire. There was a scattering of junk - a suitcase, a mackintosh, a shoe, a doll, a yellowed local paper, a hat. The flowers had already begun to grow up around the tyres and it reminded me of a beach on the South Coast, complete with rusty WW2 relics and the detritus of the last holiday season. There was no sign of humans, just a buzzing of insects and the cheerful sun. I expect it had been different on the day when the vehicles had first pulled off the road. I parked the Classic beside a ruined old farm trailer and smoked a cigar, head supported by a tuft of hay. Nothing passed on the main road.

I had assumed that Ras was near to Raske or Novi Pazar. For some reason there were no "ancient monument" signposts and I was having difficulty telling one pile of rubble from another. I decided that Ras was irrelevant as far as the Greek Crown was concerned and looked for a barn.

The one I found has some dead cows in it. One of these was still on its feet, leaning against the wall, staring at me with empty eye-sockets. I guessed that they had been dead for some months. They were skeletal and mummified, dry and odourless. Luckily their trough worked on a ballcock system and there was the mains water was still on. I washed my hair in the icy water and made a bed of straw. It had been just out of their reach.

I sat staring at the postcard of the Crown that I had bought in Budapest, Desert Eagle on my lap, sipping Scotch from my hip flask and chewing some stale bread. Something about the appearance of the Crown was bothering me, something to do with the mosaics of the Emperor Constantine IX and his empress, Zoe, in the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. They had been wearing Byzantine crowns, but only Zoe had pendant jewels hanging down on each side of her head. I suddenly realised that the Greek Crown was the crown of a woman, a female crown. It can't have been a present for the Hungary king. It must have been for his Byzantine queen.

Wih this thought I lapsed into a catnap, one finger on the trigger.

*****


I can't remember anything about the next day, or the day after that. I must have skirted the outskirts of Pristina. I must have seen the cemetery and the monument to Prince Lazar at Kosovo Polje. Why I can't remember I do not know. Maybe I need hypotherapy. Maybe I cannot be bothered to remember. All that I do remember is that my period didn't start. And I remember my first sight of the town of Torbeshi.

I'd only chosen it because it had an airport and the ruins of a monstery of St.George.It wasn't special - just another Kosovan town. I suppose it depends if you believe in coincidence or not. Maybe Satanael himself led me there, to enlighten me.

I remember a house on the outskirts. There were at least two bodies inside the burnt ruins. On the floor, amongst the burnt rafters and rooftiles, was an object that resembled a large flatfish or manta ray. I eventually worked out that it was the spine and ribcage of a burnt skeleton. It didn't resemble anything human. I guess that was how the people who had shot it and burnt it had seen it. Then, in another room, was a shawled mummy with two wooden walking sticks. It was wearing an embroidered skirt. Maybe she had been too old and weak to go for water. At least she had managed to stay seated in her favourite rocking chair, next to a scorched sepia photograph of a bearded 19th century beau.

There was a small Serbian Church next to a small Albanian mosque. I wondered if the same explosion had wrecked them both. Inside the church was a worried looking icon of Mary and the stubs of candles. Inside the mosque were blue tiles and a circular shield with a wise word from Allah painted onto it. The two pulpits had been of the same height before the storm.

Then there were the family pets. A mixed mob of dogs and cats attacked me as I drove down main street. I fired the Desert Eagle in the air, but I guess that they'd heard it all before. So I shot an Alsation and a sheepdog, and the rest feasted, even the cats. Catastrophe makes strange bed-fellows except amongst humans.

Torbeshi had had a mine and a factory for processing the mined metal. That lay to the west, near to the airfield. Far above the oil-stained river and the untended fields lay the ruins of the Monastery of St. George. The monastery had been pulled down and burnt at intervals of roughly once a century by the Muslim authorities, but always some nutty Orthodox Serbian monks with a martyrdom complex had turned up to keep it going. Now, thanks to NATO, the infidel had won. After a thousand years, a form of peace.

The mine seemed the most obvious place for me to start. I'd had a certain amount of success with Natla's Mine and the RX-Tech Mines. Maybe I'd lost it. What possible light could be shed on the Hungarian crown down a Kosovan mine picked at random?

There was a cage. like a South Wales coalfield cage, but no power. I tied a rope to it and pulled it out of the shaft using the Classic. That left a rusty lift cable descending into the darkness. I took it, my Maglite clenched in my teeth. It was a long climb down.

I was aware of things glinting below me before I reached the bottom. Instead of a flat earth floor, as I'd expected, there was a mound of bodies. There was no discrimination. The youngest was about five and the oldest was about a hundred. They were dressed for a day out in the country, like little peasant dolls, with broken faces of china. There was a smell - a pestilence - and my eyes watered. I hate bad smells. The pile wasn't firm and my boots slipped, but I made it down to the bare earth.

Once I visited the underground cities in Cappodocia. The Christians had dug out a giant honeycomb in the soft stone, the entrance blocked by man-sized rolling stones to keep out the Turkish intruders. Byzantium underground. Now they had been replaced by Muslim catacombs, filled with the peaceful dead.

There was no historical reason for me to shut my eyes.

The mine tunnel looked like all tunnels, with metal props and fallen stones. There were rails for a mine cart and a conveyor belt, no longer working. Perhaps in happier days the ores of gold and silver and copper had drifted along it in a fruitful stream. Maybe the very metals for the Hungarian Crown had come from here. The distinction between Byxantine and non-Byzantine, ancient and modern, had begun to evade me.

I suppose I wasn't really paying attention when the floor gave way beneath me and I fell into a deep dark shaft.

4. The Dualists

He was exactly as Anna Comnena has described him - tall and wizened.

"Hello," he said, helping me to my feet. We seemed to be in a marble corridor decorated with golden mosaics and tapestries. "I'm Basil. Known to history as Basil the Bogomil."

"Nice to meet you," I said, shaking his hand. "I'm Lara Croft from Britain. It's off the French coast."

"I knew of it even when I was alive," said Basil. "We used to do business with a family that ran mines in Cornwall."

"So where are we now?" I asked.

"You're in a spirit place. That fall has practically killed you. Don't worry - I'll help you - but first I thought that you might like to hear the true story behind Queen Synadele's Crown."

"If I'm in a coma," I said, "how can I find out what my brain doesn't know?"

"You have all the information," said Basil, "but you haven't assembled it correctly."

"OK."

He gestured me into a dining room with antique Roman coaches and we reclined whilst servants brought us food and drink.

"We're in the Emperor Michael Ducas' palace at Constantinople," said Basil, "in about 1077 AD. I'll take you for a glimpse into the throne room when we've eaten."

"This wine is good," I said. "I really needed that."

"So," said Basil, steepling his fingers, "to the story. Unknown to everybody, the Empress Maria and I are half brother and sister, children of King Bagrat of ... well let's just call it Georgia."

"You're kidding ..."

"We have been Dualists ... what the propagandists might call Bogomils or Paulicians ... since childhood. We believe that God created the spirit world of the soul, but that the material world - including mankind - is the work of God's eldest son, Satanael."

"So your Holy Trinity consists of God the Father, Satanael the Eldest Son and Jesus the Younger Son. You reject most of the saints, most of the Old Testament, eating meat, and sex."

Basil laughed. "What you have to realise is that since Dualism has come to court it has become slightly more sophisticated than the hard-line monasticism practised by the peasants in Bulgaria. We are civilised men and women. My position in court is not dissimilar to that of Rasputin in the Russian court. Everybody knows I'm a heretic but the Imperial Family likes me and so there is no problem. Dualism been in favour for years, even back to the time of Constantine Monomachus. It was because the old boy was such a strange chap that he allowed the schism between the Eastern and Western churches to happen."

"I see," I said. "So what has all this to do with Hungary?"

"Before the present King of Hungary, Geza, could come to power, he needed to get rid of his brother King Salamon. Salamon had got the support of a bunch of mercenaries from the part of the world where Maria and I grew up, mercenaries known as the Pechenegs. We know them quite well. Salamon was a very xenophobic chap and we were really quite annoyed when he took Belgrade away from us. Therefore whilst he was still on the throne we started to woo Geza. We sent an ambassador to him - which nearly backfired when Salamon got wind of it - and we arranged a marriage between Emperor Michael's sister, Anna Synadele and Geza. When the time was right we got the Pechenegs to accept Geza instead of Salamon, and the Hungarian throne passed to Geza. Fait d'accompli. At any rate, Maria did something foolish. She doesn't realise that dodgy religious practices might be amusing in the corrupt atmosphere of the Imperial Court, but that they don't necessarily go down well elsewhere. We hadn't heard much from Queen Synadele for a while - we were worried that the Hungarians were going over to the Pope and the Germans - and so Maria sent Synadele, her daughter-in-law, a Byzantine crown. This is normal practice when we are trying to flatter our provincial allies, but Maria had designed a crown that was flagrantly blasphemous."

"In what way?"

"I'll show you," said Basil, reaching down for a decorated box. "Here it is."

I picked up the crown. It was very beautiful and was obviously the lower crown from the Royal Crown of Hungary. I turned it to look at the place where the three enamel panels has been replaced, and smiled. The first panel had an icon of Bogomil, the third an icon of St. Paul and the central a representation of Satanael. Satanael was dressed very similarly to Christ Pantocrator, but he had a red face and no beard.

"The reason nobody would have believed this," I said, "is because the Bogomils and the Paulicians are famous as iconoclasts. It would never have occurred to any historian that a naive Empress would dare to portray Satanael in a diametrically opposite position to Jesus on a royal crown, of all things."

"In our religion the two Sons of God are equal but opposite. What seems blasphemous to the orthodox seems reasonable to us. Constantine Monomachus once tried a similar thing. The pieces of his crown were found buried in a field in Hungary at the start of the 20th century. All the damning panels had been destroyed, leaving only the acceptable ones. "

"Well I'll be damned," I said. I felt as if a great weight had been lifted from me. So many years wondering and now I finally knew. Basil took me back into the darkness. My Maglite was still lit and I could see my broken body lying on a mound of soaking rubble. He crouched down and pointed at my bloodstained fingers.

"If you could just move this hand into your backpack and touch one of your pieces of blue soap," he said.

The "blue soap" was an alien artefact that I had picked up on an earlier adventure. It had the ability to restore full health like a sort of magical first aid fit.

"Let us both concentrate on moving your hand."

I felt a tingling in my own hand the fingers of the other Lara twitched. We managed to inch it over my shoulder and under the flap of the backpack.

"One thing before you go,"said Basil.

A cold sweat had broken out on my forehead and my body felt as if it was coming out of general anaesthetic. I could feel the outlines of pain and my breathing was becoming stifled. "What?" I said.

"Just as God is omniscient, so are both his Sons," said Basil.

I shoved my fingers into the tube containing the "blue soap". "I don't believe in either of them," I said, "and even if I did, a pox on both their houses."

Basil smiled as he faded. "Just ask yourself who has been trying to kill you ..." he said.

The effect of the "blue soap" is hard to describe but if I could bottle it it would be the club drug for the next millennium. I came to slowly, little more than wet and uncomfortable. My breathing was steady and my sight, as far as I could tell, was normal. My feeling of bloatedness seemed to have disappeared as well.

I picked up the Maglite and shone it above me. It would have been possible to climb back up the shaft, but I could feel a breeze coming from the tunnel in front of me. Maybe this led out to the base of the mountain, I thought.

I picked my way along the tunnel. It didn't look like a mining tunnel. There were no props or rails and it appeared to be carved from solid rock. Maybe the miners had broken through to it before the war had started overhead.

The tunnel widened to a cavern and then I was faced by a large door. I marvelled. Yet again my sixth sense had led me straight to a tomb.

I shone my torch up at the lintel to an inscription. My Greek is very poor, but I translated it as something like "Come to an agreement with your enemy as quickly as possible".

The door had a Roman key hanging next to it, made of iron. I inserted it through the keyhole and by a process of turning and pulling managed to unlock the door. Rock door frames tend not to sag, even over centuries, and the door opened easily.

There was no light except for my torch, but I could sense that I was stepping into an area as large as a church. There was no sound of water or air moving, and dust motes danced in the beam of the torch. I drew my Desert Eagle and walked forward cautiously.

Although there are Imperial mausolea in Rome, there are no earthly remains left of the Roman Emperors. If they'd had the sense to be buried in Egypt then their mummified remains might have been piled up in a cave by grave robbers. I was therefore quite surprised when I found a roughly-hewn sarcophagus bearing the name of Constantine X Ducas.

I drew in breath. This was the archaeological find of the millennium. I walked cautiously around the tomb. It was obviously not Constantine's original burial place - the workmanship was too humble and shoddy. Was it possible that his body had been moved from the environs of Constantinople at some time before the fall of the city?

Other members of the Ducas family were there, including two Johns, two Michaels, four Constantines, two Annas, two Zoes, two Theodoras and three Andronikoses. Constantine, the fiance of Anna Comnena was there, as well as the famous Empress Eudokia Makrembolitissa. Last but not least I found the tombs of Michael VII and Maria of Alania Wherever they'd died, at court, or in a distant monastery, someone had brought them back together. It had to be something to do with the monastery of St. George, high above on the mountain top.

If only I'd taken a camera.

At the far end of the cavern there was an enormous wall painting. At the base of the picture was the Ducas family, paying homage. Above them was a crowd of angels. Seated above them all, in a glorious triptych, was God the Father, Christ Pantocrator at his right hand, and Satanael at his left. Whether the presence of the Ducas family was wishful thinking on the part of whatever Dualist sect had built the tomb, or whether members of the family had secretly acknowledged Satanael as lord of the material world, as Basil had suggested, I couldn't tell. Amazing.

I tiptoed out of that place and locked the door behind me, returning the key to its hook. It was refreshing to be able to leave a tomb without being pursued by some unearthly monster or bringing the place down around my ears.

I could still feel the breeze that I had noticed earlier and found the beginnings of a staircase leading up into the mountain. I started to climb.

*****


I was tired by the time that I reached the ruins of the monastery crypt on the flank of the mountain. The way out was barred by a locked metal gate and I had to shoot off the lock. I stumbled out into the bright sunshine. The air was crisp and cold, and I took a deep lungful. The sandstone blocks of the monastery walls were glowing in the sun, but the only buildings left intact was a small circular church and a hut. I called, but there was no answer.

I espied a small flock of sheep. There was a mixture of breeds and types; some had black fleeces and some had white. There was a lone collie dog guarding them. He looked emaciated, and growled as I approached. I was looking around for the shepherd, when I spotted his remains in a small tree. He had died some time ago. His naked body had been tied up to the branches, arms outstretched. He looked as if he had been whipped and he had head injuries.

I felt a pain in my stomach that momentarily doubled me in two. I gasped and tears came to my eyes. My period had finally started. I don't know if I was ever pregnant. If I was, then maybe the "blue soap" had interpreted it as the start of a tumour. Either that or my body had seen enough not to want to bring a new child into the world.

I made camp for the night in the ruins of the monastery. I was woken the next morning by the distant rumbling of tanks and the screech of low flying aircraft.

5. Diplomacy by other means

Above the monastery towered the 6,000 foot Mount Torbeshi, part of the border between Yugoslavia and Albania. I climbed up onto the roof of the old church to try and identify the sounds of military vehicles. Dug out on the slope of the mountain below me was what I later found out was a division of the Yugoslav 3rd Army, the VJ. There were several Soviet-made T-54 and T-55 tanks coming up from the town below. An anti-aircraft battery was being uncovered and groups of VJ soldiers were running to their positions in bunkers and trenches. It seemed that they were preparing for battle.

I could see a commander at the top of a watchtower. He was gazing up at the mountain through his binoculars. I squinted in the morning sun and saw what he was looking at. Armed men coming slowly down from a high corner of the mountain. They'd obviously crossed over from Albania. Members of the Kosovo Liberation Army. I looked in all directions, trying to find a way of escape, but I was sandwiched between the two armies. Then I saw the VJ soldiers outside the monastery. They were fanning out, having identified it as a forward position.

I scrambled down from the church roof, and made a dash for the entrance of the crypt.

There was a cry of "halt!" in Serbian and a burst of machine gun fire into the air.

I could have started a fire-fight then and there. There was plenty of cover and I wasn't short of ammunition. I had a vision of myself pinned down, with the forces closing in on either side. The burst of gunfire would have already attracted the attention of the KLA above. I slowly raised my hands.

Five of them were pointing rifles at me. One of them called out, and an officer appeared, one eye open for snipers.

"I'm a British tourist," I said, loudly.

One of the soldiers took my backpack and tipped it out on the ground. He pushed a grenade and my Desert Eagle with the toe of his boot.

"Who are you," said the officer, "and what are you doing here?"

"I'm a British tourist," I repeated. "There is my passport. I was looking at the ruins of the monastery."

The officer was haggard, with a thousand yard stare. His face twitched in the memory of a laugh, but he didn't laugh. "That is ridiculous," he said. "This is a battle zone."

"I am nothing to do with this war," I said. "I'm an archaeologist."

They hussled me around the back of the church, out of direct sight of the advancing KLA. More VJ soldiers were arriving, taking up defensive positions.

I found myself crouching down with the officer. He offered me a cigarette with shaking fingers.

"I do not have time to deal with you now," he said. "The Albanians are invading, as you can see. Any second now your countrymen are going to start bombing the shit out of the Federal Army."

"I see," I said.

"I'm going to send you down to the town under arrest until the authorities decide what to do with you. God knows I cannot spare a guard for you, but there is no choice."

One of the soldiers nearby made a sound of disgust and spat into the grass. There was a muttered conversation between the VJ troop around us. I didn't know what to say. I had already antagonised the situation by being there, but I felt that I needed reassurance. The VJ officer was obviously a civilised man, but I wasn't sure about some of his lads.

"Will I be safe?"

The officer laughed sourly. "Safe on a battlefield?" he said, removing a shred of tobacco from the corner of his mouth.

"Will I be safe with your men?" I trembled, but I wasn't sure whether it was because of the temerity of the question, or because of my more generalised fear.

The officer looked at me for a long minute. His face was bitter. "I know that NATO and Jamie Shea have been accusing my men of rape. As if any Serbian man would dirty himself with some filthy Shiptar whore. They are all animals. They do not wash properly, they have AIDS and they are all as ugly as sin."

I looked at him with as much sang froid as I could muster. "I see," I said. "Then I should be perfectly safe then, even though I am not an Albanian."

The officer gestured for his men to march me away. "We are losing our civilisation to a bunch of barbarians," he said. "Maybe when you are safe back at home writing your archaeology papers, you might care to reflect on the irony."

*****


We were a thousand yards below the monastery of St. George, just above the VJ front lines, when the NATO A-10 Warthogs began to drop marker flares all around. The VJ troops flung themselves flat, pulling me to the ground with them. One of them started to weep quietly, whilst another was unable to stop himself urinating into his combat trousers. There was a moment of unearthly quietness. Not a bird sang, and even the sound of the approaching aircraft was muffled.

Then cylinders on parachutes appeared, floating quietly down from the heavens. There was several innocent sounding bangs and a cloud of objects like tennis balls where flung out in all directions above us. And then, all of a sudden, armageddon hit us.

The cluster bombs began to explode all around us, each tennis ball spraying a whizzing cloud of shrapnel in all directions. Before the entire area was covered with thick black smoke I could see the effect on the men all around me and below me.

One man, half standing, was shredded. It was like watching a special effect. The top of his head, an ear, an eye and cheek, a shoulder, some fingers, his guts, his genitals, his foot. All battered - or sliced away - by a swarm of hot metal. He made a bizarre jerking flight through the air, his gun firing as he went. The air was filled with vapourised blood and the smell of cheeseburgers. He was trying still to crawl when the fog closed in.

I was unscathed. I ripped the lining from my coat and tied it over my mouth and nose, and half belly-crawled, half rolled in the general direction of downhill.

There was a whistling sound. I only half heard the explosion as a armoured personnel carrier exploded to my right. You might have thought that the people inside wouldn't have had the reflexes to scream in time, but they did. It was like the sound of a shot rabbit. There was the clattering of 30mm gunfire from a low flying aircraft of some sort. I remembered what I read about the depleted uranium casing on the NATO bullets. Excellent for penetrating armour, but probably also excellent for Gulf War Syndrome. I tightened the material around my mouth and kept going.

The ground was shaking, and it was hard to keep going. I felt as if I was alone, despite being surrounded by the VJ army. I found that I couldn't move forward anymore. It was difficult to avoid being thrown around like a pea in a tin. I found myself hugging the ground with out-stretched arms as if I was in danger of falling into the sky. The tremors grew worse.

It began to dawn on me that this couldn't be a result of the bombing. It was an earthquake. I must have blacked out for a few seconds. It was either a few seconds or a few days.

When I was aware again, the dust was blowing away along the ground as if a helicopter was landing on me. All around me broken bodies and shredded limbs were jerked by flapping garments. I reached out and pulled a semi-automatic weapon from dead young fingers. Rolling onto my back, I looked up into the sky.

The sky was filled with angels.

*****


They were stopping anything that looked like it had a fight left in it. I saw men from both side aiming at them with their rifles. Moments later they were consumed in pillars of blue flames. A 122mm howitzer was cranked up to maximum elevation and fired. The shell evaporated with a flash and a second later the gun and the gun crew did the same. Three tanks glittered in the blue flames, their munitions exploding inside them as they evaporated. Shadows where soldiers had once crouched were seared into the walls of the trenches. A jet flew overhead and burnt away like a cigarette paper, leaving no debris. The angels were hovering between ten and a hundred feet above the battlefield, slowly flapping their wings. They had the same expressionless faces as my St. George and they were dressed as Byzantine courtiers. The Janassaries of Heaven and Hell.

I threw away the gun and stood up slowly.

Three of the angels descended. One of them was bearing a giant golden trumpet.

"Lara Croft?" said the first angel.

I nodded dumbly.

"I am Azrael, the Angel of Death."

I clasped my hands firmly behind my back to stop them shaking.

"This is Azrafil, the Angel that Sounds the Trumpet at the Last Judgement and this is Azdemoneus, a Angel of the Fallen Host."

"Pleased to meet you," said Azrafil.

"It seems that my best attempts to stop you coming here failed," said Azdemoneus.

I found my voice. "You sent the �rp�ds and the others?"

"Indeed," said Azdemoneus.

"Nothing to do with us," said Azrael, with a sideways glance.

"I was only following orders," said Azdemoneus.

"So ... you're the Angel of Death," I said to Azrael.

Azrael looked at me expressionlessly.

"Have you come for me?" I said.

"We're here to stop the war," said Azrafil, polishing his trumpet with an ornate sleeve.

"Oh," I said. My knees buckled.

"You cannot reveal the location of the tomb," said Azdemoneus.

"And you cannot say what you have seen here today," said Azrael.

"What have I seen today?" I said, weakly. "A mixture of angels from the Heavenly and Satanic Hosts cooperating to stop a battle. Who would possibly believe me?"

Azrafil helped me to my feet. His touch brought strength back into my body. "We're like the UN," he said.

"There are various places that fall under our direct protection," said Azdemoneus.

"But also it seemed unreasonable to expect peace on earth when there was a war in heaven," said Azrael.

"So this isn't Judgement Day?" I said.

Azrafil looked down at the trumpet in his hands. "Oh, that! I like to keep an eye on it. It's nice, isn't it? But a bit dangerous. If the wrong person were to try and play it ..."

"How do you practice?"

Azrafil laughed. "I don't," he said. "But I guarantee you that when I finally get to blow it the musical quality will be the last thing on people's minds as they clamber from their graves."

I didn't laugh. I felt sick. Then I fainted away.

*****


When I came to I was lying in a Russian medical tent. I lay there for a long time and then clambered off the bunk, wheeling the intravenous drip along beside me. Peering out of the flap of the tent I could see that I was in an army encampment on the edge of the runway at Torbeshi airport. A young Russian soldier was sitting on his kit, playing a guitar. "How many years can a mountain exist before it is washed to the sea?" he sang. "How many years can a people exist before they are allowed to be free?" It never ceased to amaze me that it was always the children of the powerful rather than those of the powerless that liked singing Dylan. I wondered how for long the Russians would continue to be able to defend their empire from the encroaching infidels, and how long it would be before there were Taliban in the Kremlin.

Then I shielded my eyes from the sun, unsure of what I was seeing. There appeared to be Russian soldiers unloading a life-sized model tank from the back of a transporter.

"Hey!" said a nurse's voice. "You shouldn't be up. Major Obolenski - she's awake."

After I was returned to bed, Slava came in, in full dress uniform. He took off his peaked cap and, sitting down, took my hand. "Lara. How are you feeling?"

"What's happening?"

"We found you a few hours ago, wandering around the base of the mountain. You looked as if you'd been outside for quite some time and you were incoherent."

"I thought you were in Bosnia."

Slava laughed. "When we heard that the peace deal had been agreed we nipped down here as quickly as possible."

"Where are the British?"

"Oh," said Slava, with a wide gesture. "Around. We had a few words about the control of the airport and the monastery, but it's all arranged now. We're here to help protect the Serbian religious sites from any Albanian reprisals."

"So there are some Albanians left?"

Slava laughed again. "Don't be so melodramatic," he said. "There are thousands of women and children just over the border in Kukes. They'll be back any day now."

I lay back and closed my eyes. "Slava?" I said.

"What is it darling?"

"What is that little medal that you have on your uniform? The one with the knight on horseback holding a lance."

"Oh that," said Slava. "It's the Russian Order of the Knights of Saint George. We have so many medals, you know. It's traditional."

A little later the Permanent Under Secretary from the Foreign Office turned up. I shouldn't have been surprised.

"How are we doing?" he enquired, fingering the cuff of his tropical suit. "I'm afraid that we made a bit of a boo-boo issuing you with a diplomatic passport. No harm done however. We'll issue you with a conventional one instead. I afraid it's one of those ghastly purple EEC things. No hard feelings, eh?"

"What about the Temple at Aldwych?"

"Ah that. Well, you see the thing about the Masons is that they were a secret organisation. Now you can find out whatever you like just by picking up a book. I should think that the last time Aldwych was used was around the time of Gladstone," said the Permanent Under Secretary.

"You hoped that I would come here, didn't you?" I said. "You must have quite an extensive dossier on me. How did you know about my interest in the Hungarian Crown?"

"Oh, you know," said the Permanent Under Secretary. "Lots of our chaps know you and your family. You're quite well known."

"How did you know that I'd attract the attention of the powers that be, as it were? How did you manage to get the idea into my head to come right here, right now?"

"I've absolutely no idea what you are talking about dear girl."

"I was your secret weapon to end the war, wasn't I? I attracted Satanael's attention."

"Don't be silly," said the Permanent Under Secretary. "In order to execute such a devious plan, we'd have to be omnipotent. I think that bump on the head - or whatever happened - has made you feel a bit got at. As for Satanael, from what I can remember from my medieval studies at Oxbridge, he ceased to be important at about the time that the Cathars were wiped out."

Of course I couldn't mention the angels or the Ducas tomb. Nobody wants the Angel of Death on their back.

*****


A few weeks later I was reading an article in Newsweek. "It appears that NATO bombers, flying at 15,000 feet above Mount Torbeshi, were often fooled by decoy tanks made from milk-carton material, or wood-burning stoves with the chimneys angled to make them look like guns," it said. "Therefore although initial eye-witness reports talked of hundreds of Yugoslav casualties, this does not seem to have been borne out by investigators on the ground. However the raid on the mountain was said to be the final blow to the tottering Serb tyrant; two days later he directed his generals to comply with a Serbian withdrawal."

I found myself doodling on an A4 pad. On it was a quote that I had copied down from Brewster's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. "According to the Koran," it said, "there are four archangels; Michael, Gabriel, Azrael and Azrafil." On the television a NATO forensic team was digging up the ruins of an Yugoslavian house apparently filled with the remains of shot and burnt Muslims. I switched it off.

I walked out into the grounds with a cigar and a glass of gin. Next to the shooting range I had dug a square of bare earth. Into it I had put a packet of African Violet seeds that I had bought at the local garden centre. I crouched down next to my only ever effort at gardening.

The seeds had failed to germinate. Maybe I had over-watered them. Maybe I had planted them at the wrong time of year. Maybe the soil of the Croft Mansion was unsuitable for new life.

Business as usual then.





The End




The great picture at the beginning of the story is the work of Agnes Margrethe Heyer. It is an original work by her and she owns any copyright.


NOTICE: This story is a work of fiction. Lara Croft, her likeness, and the Tomb Raider games are all copyright of Core Design and EIDOS Interactive. There is no challenge to these copyrights intended by this story, as it is a non-sanctioned, unofficial work of my own.