The Write Stuff: Master of Shadows by Neil Oliver

IN Master of Shadows by Neil Oliver, a man navigates the darkness beneath a besieged Constantinople and an orphan falls to earth
Illustration: Grant PatersonIllustration: Grant Paterson
Illustration: Grant Paterson

For more than eleven hundred years the Byzantine Empire controlled much of Europe, as well as that part of Asia known once as Anatolia.

Its capital city was Constantinople, founded by and named after the Roman Emperor Constantine in AD 330. In the centuries that followed it became a centre of Christian learning, art and theology as well as an architectural wonder – a man-made heaven on earth.

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During its long life Constantinople was besieged more than twenty times – by Arabs and Avars; Bulgarians and Persians; Slavs and Vikings and more besides. In 1204 the city fell to the Christian soldiers of the Fourth Crusade. The city was raped, sacked and torn to pieces – left in tatters until 1261, when the Byzantines took it back.

Then in 1453 the twenty-one-year-old Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II brought a truly massive army before the ancient walls of the place they called the Great City.

Standing in defiance of the young sultan’s ambitions was Emperor Constantine XI. He was more than twice the age of the sultan and had inherited an empire that was unravelling and failing before his eyes.

In the years and months before the siege began, he had asked for help from throughout Christendom. But the four-centuries-old Great Schism – between the Catholic Church of Rome and the Orthodox Church of Constantinople – meant that even the Pope turned his back on the Christians of the East, and they were left alone, to stand or fall.

When the Ottomans arrived outside his gates, Emperor Constantine had no more than eight thousand soldiers at his command, ranged against a force of perhaps a quarter of a million men.

Among the city’s defenders was a man cloaked in shadow. He is mentioned in accounts of the siege, but only in a few lines here and there.

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Some writers described him as a German, but in fact he was a Scot, and his name was John Grant.

Like a loved one, the darkness took him in her arms. The ghost of the torch flame, extinguished moments before, drifted in front of him, fading to yellow and then blue. He waited until there was nothing before his eyes but steady blackness.

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It was the silence that sometimes felt overwhelming underground. He held his breath, straining with the effort of listening. The silence pressed against him from all sides and leaned down from above. He was a threat to its dominion – likely to make a sound and tear apart the quiet. Only the darkness held him safe.

He reached out to the side with his right hand until his fingertips brushed against the cool wall of the tunnel. Crouching, bent over like a half-shut knife, he took a step forward into the cramped space, then another and another, and then stopped.

Instead of rock, his fingers felt empty space. He had reached a corner – a twist away towards the right. He moved sideways again until his fingers regained contact with the wall and began inching silently forward once more. Sometimes his hair brushed the roughly hewn roof of the tunnel and he flinched from it like a child ducking a blow.

In his left hand, his good hand, he clutched a knife, its blade curved like a tiger’s claw. Experience had taught him that a sword was unwieldy in the tunnels, an encumbrance. He made no noise as he drifted into the darkness, all but floating over the ground as he felt for each step. His breath trailed noiselessly from his open mouth. With his eyes closed he summoned his consciousness and sent it out ahead of him, further into the void.

He had covered a dozen yards beyond the corner when, on an impulse, he stopped. He trusted his impulses, however slight. The texture of the darkness had altered. Where before it had been smooth and still, now it was disturbed, ruffled. Ripples, like waves from a pebble dropped into water, pulsed against his face and chest. Beats from an anxious heart.

There was someone else there, someone else trying to be silent but disturbing the peace just the same by being alive. He smiled. With his knife held low he reached out swiftly with his right hand, straight in front. He touched a man’s face, felt stubble on the chin, and cold sweat. A gasp broke the silence – split it in two.

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He stepped forward into the space created there, smelt the sour gust of the exhaled breath. His knife hand moved of its own accord.

A lammergeier draws lazy shapes in the sky above the city of Constantinople. Columns of warm air rise from white limestone buildings seared by summer heat, and the bird rides the updraughts in ever-widening loops. Always watchful of movement below, he tracks his shadow, a tiny black cross, as it flickers across the rooftops.

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A thousand feet beneath his breast lies the Church of St Sophia, like a mother hen surrounded by needy chicks.

Seemingly attracted by the shape of the dome, he begins a spiralling descent, and as he comes closer to the church, so do we.

Beneath the dome, inside the church, a broken-hearted girl climbs over the balustrade surrounding the first-floor gallery. Fingers of sunlight through tall windows illuminate her slight form so that she seems to glow. A shadow – her own, and twice her size – rises on the wall behind her. Her long brown hair gleams like the kernel of a horse chestnut, and two tears trace shining paths over high cheekbones.

Her name is Yaminah – meaning suitable, proper – and she is twelve years old. Beyond the plinth are two stone steps, leading downwards. On the lower step is a second balustrade, this one of carved wood and four feet high. Carefully, slowly she climbs up on to its top rail, only four inches wide. With both arms spread for balance, she straightens until she is looking out across the void beneath her feet. While she steadies herself she lets her gaze drift down to the bowed heads of the mourners gathered a hundred feet below for the funeral of her mother.

Unaware that she is doing so, she smoothes the heavy material of her dress with both hands. After all, a princess has to look her best.

Yaminah is an orphan, but soon – in just a few moments, in fact – she will be reunited with the person she loves more than anyone else in the world. One brave step will be all that is required to bring them together again.

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Well schooled in the Christian faith though she is, suicide seems like no sin at all to a girl wishing only to be with her mother once more, to hear her voice and smell the clean scent of her long fair hair…

But when it came to it – when Yaminah focused properly upon the reality of the long fall towards the floor below – she changed her mind. Her heart and head were still filled with a smothering fog of sadness, but a pinprick of light had appeared amid the gloom. She could not – did not – identify it in that moment, but it was a flicker of understanding. Yaminah had realised that while she wanted her mother to be alive once more, truly she herself did not want to die – no more than her mother had wanted to die and leave her only child alone in the world.

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All at once she knew that although her grief had near overwhelmed her, the need to avoid a long drop towards the flagstones so many tens of feet beneath her was stronger still. With her gaze fixed on the gallery directly opposite, she let out a long, slow whistling breath.

And so, as it happened, it was the scream of a woman that stole Yaminah’s balance away and had her topple from her perch. The sound of that one relieved exhalation from high above – so out of place – had caught the ear of a lady mourner. Looking up, she saw the child balanced precariously in all her finery – and yelped, hand to mouth.

Snapped back from their thoughts by the unexpected sound, the faithful looked around at the lady who had made it, then up towards the point where she was staring. Thus when Yaminah fell out into space with her arms spinning like a penny whirligig, she had their full attention.

Prince Constantine had noticed her some little while before the mourner cried out at the sight. He had been watching motes of dust drifting through shafts of sunlight – anything to distract him from the misery of the occasion (misery that was not his, but misery just the same) – when an unexpected movement on the gallery high above caught his eye.

He was standing at one end of a row of mourners and she had appeared above him, although a little to his right. The strangeness of her actions meant he said and did nothing while she clambered hesitantly on to the balustrade. Like a scene from a dream, it all seemed beyond his control.

But while the lady mourner’s cry made Yaminah fall, it also pulled Constantine firmly back into the active world.

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Rather than toppling forwards, the girl seemed only to hop in fright, so that she was bolt upright as she began her descent towards the shining marble floor. A collective gasp was tugged from the lungs of the congregation as they watched her flutter into space. A broad beam of sunlight caught the moment so that the silvered fabric of her gown shimmered. All below were transfixed. Hundreds of pairs of eyes opened wide, stretching the fragment of a second into ages.

All were transfixed, rooted to the spot – all save Constantine. Without any conscious decision he had begun to drift away from the rest, pulled into a position directly below the girl. Her arms spun and her head was thrown backwards. Her hair stood straight up like fronds of weed in the clearest sea; the folds of her dress billowed with the force so that her skirts ballooned outwards. Her long, skinny legs, exposed for all to see, were cycling too, searching fruitlessly for purchase – for some or other friction to slow her descent.

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They called it a miracle ever after, said Our Lady herself had reached out a hand to spare the child. Perhaps her billowing dress performed some part of it as well, taking just enough speed out of the drop. In the end, though, it was to Prince Constantine that she owed her life.

Without a thought for the consequences, he had placed himself squarely between the girl and the pitiless slabs of the floor of the church. The sun shone, the dress shimmered, the faithful held their breath, and a teenage prince of the Byzantine Empire thrust out his slender arms.

None of those who witnessed the moment would ever forget it (most would struggle to believe they had even seen it with their own eyes). But there it was – a shining angel fell to earth and a callow boy reached out for her, caught her, and crumpled beneath the impact like a bag of washing.


Neil Oliver is a Scottish archaeologist, historian, broadcaster and writer who has become widely known as the presenter of the BBC’s flagship series A History of Scotland. Before that, his distinctive style was much in evidence as a charismatic presenter of the award-winning multi-part documentary series Coast. Oliver studied archaeology at Glasgow University. He lives in Stirling with his wife and three children. Master of Shadows is published by Orion on 10 September.