Imperial Fire, page 1
Also by Robert Lyndon
Published by Sphere
All characters and events in this publication, other than those clearly in the public domain, are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Copyright © Robert Lyndon 2014
The moral right of the author has been asserted.
Excerpts from The Seafarer and The Wanderer copyright © Kevin Crossley-Holland 1982. Reproduced by permission of the author c/o Rogers, Coleridge & White Ltd, 20 Powis Mews, London W11 1JN.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the prior permission in writing of the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Also by Robert Lyndon
A Brief Chronology
The Black Sea and the Caucasus
The Caspian Sea and Turkestan
To Sam and Caoileann, Andrew and Jane. And James…
He who is used to the comforts of life
and, proud and flushed with wine, suffers
little hardship living in the city,
will scarcely believe how I, weary,
have had to make the ocean paths my home.
The night-shadow grew long, it snowed from the north,
frost fettered the earth; hail fell to the ground,
coldest of grain. But now my blood
is stirred that I should make trial
of the mountainous streams, the tossing salt waves;
my heart’s longings always urge me
to undertake a journey, to visit the country
of a foreign people far across the sea.
(From ‘The Seafarer’ in the Exeter Book , England, tenth century)
A BRIEF CHRONOLOGY
First mention of ‘gunpowder’ in a Chinese military manual
October Duke William of Normandy defeats the English army at Hastings and in December is crowned King of England. Some dispossessed English warriors travel to Constantinople and join the Varangian Guard, the Byzantine Emperor’s elite bodyguards
August A Seljuk Turk army routs the forces of the Byzantine Emperor at Manzikert, in what is now eastern Turkey
China bans the export of sulphur and saltpetre, two of the ingredients of gunpowder
Suleyman ibn Kutulmish, a Seljuk emir, establishes the independent Sultanate of Rum in western Anatolia
In return for Suleyman’s aid against the Byzantine Emperor, a rival for the imperial throne allows the Seljuks to settle in Nicaea (modern Iznik), less than a hundred miles from Constantinople
April Alexius Comnenus usurps the Byzantine throne
May Robert Guiscard, the Norman Duke of Apulia, invades Byzantine territories on the Adriatic coast, capturing Corfu and laying siege to the port city of Dyrrachium, in what is now Albania
October Duke Robert defeats an army led by Emperor Alexius at Dyrrachium
Vallon’s squadron struck the Via Egnatia around noon and pounded on down the paved road towards the west. They rode with fierce determination, bloodshot eyes fixed straight ahead, and at sunset three days later – the sixteenth day of October – they pulled up their blown horses on a wooded ridge overlooking the Adriatic coast. Vallon leaned forward, squinting into the evening light. The sun had already sunk halfway beneath the sea, leaving a burnished copper fairway fanning back to the port of Dyrrachium. From this distance the city was just a tiny blur, too far away for him to make out the Norman positions or the damage inflicted by their siege weapons.
Shortening focus, Vallon studied the Byzantine encampment about four miles inland, entrenched in a broad rectangle along a meandering river. A pall of dust half a mile long drifted away from the camp.
He glanced at Josselin, one of his centurions. ‘It would appear that we’re the last scrapings of the imperial barrel.’
Josselin nodded. ‘Judging by the size of those earthworks, I’d put our strength at more than fifteen thousand.’
Vallon conned the terrain, trying to work out where the battle would be fought. On the plain north of the city, he decided.
Only a sliver of sun remained above the horizon and the sea had darkened to deep violet and indigo. He looked back down the line. His Turkmen troops dozed in their saddles. Most of the rest of the squadron had dismounted and sat slumped against the cork oaks, their eyes raw hollows in faces masked with dust. In the last two weeks they’d ridden four hundred miles cross-grain through the Balkans from Bulgaria’s Danube border, and now they looked more like the survivors of a battle rather than warriors about to go into action.
From the hillside below came the clanking of sheep bells and the sweet riffle of running water. Some of the soldiers were already ferrying skins and barrels back up to their comrades and their thirsty mounts. Vallon’s three centurions sat their horses, waiting for his orders. He hawked to clear the dust from his throat. ‘It will be hell if we arrive at the camp after dark. Endless questions, ordered from pillar to post. We’ll be lucky to find a billet before dawn. We’ll rest here tonight and ride in before sunrise. Dole out what’s left of our provisions.’ He turned to Conrad, his second-in-command, a German from Silesia. ‘Captain, pick ten men, smarten them up and inform headquarters of our arrival. Take the wounded in one of the supply carts. Beg or borrow whatever food you can. Find out what’s going on and send a report.’
Vallon’s rank wasn’t as grand as it sounded. As Kome of a bandon, he commanded a squadron of light and medium cavalry numbering two hundred and ninety-six men by this morning’s muster. That was twenty fewer than when he’d left Constantinople for the Bulgarian marches seven months ago. The Outlanders they were called – mercenaries recruited from all over the Byzantine empire and beyond.
Shadows were pooling among the trees when Conrad’s party left, the wheels of the wagon wobbling and squeaking on its worn axle, five bandaged casualties lying in its bed. Val
The spring ran bubbling from the base of an ancient holm oak whose trunk parted from the roots to create a cleft housing a painted statue of the Virgin holding the baby Jesus. Icons, bells and wind chimes hung from the branches. An old man with a face like an empty purse sat beside the spring, his arms crossed tight over his chest. A boy attended him, one hand placed on the patriarch’s shoulder.
Vallon nodded at him. ‘God keep you, father.’
‘Your men are stealing my water.’
Vallon dropped to his knees beside his horse. ‘It seems to me that there’s not one drop less than when we arrived.’
The old man rocked back and forth in resentment. His eyes were clouded. ‘The spring is sacred. You should pay for it.’
Vallon leaned over the pool, pushed back his hair and scooped a handful of water into his parched mouth. His eyes closed in rapture at the delicious sensation of cool liquid sliding down his throat. ‘All water’s sacred to men who thirst. But who to pay? He who created it or the man who guards it? I’ll gladly offer my prayers to both.’
The old man mumbled to himself.
Vallon wiped his mouth and nodded towards the plain, where fires were beginning to prick the rising tide of darkness. ‘Do you know what’s going on down there?’
The old man spat. ‘Murder, rape, thievery – all the ills that follow in an army’s train.’
Vallon smiled. ‘I’ll tell you what I will pay for.’ He fished a few coins from his purse and pressed them into the wrinkled palm. ‘Some of my men have the marsh sickness from spending too long on the Danube plain. They can’t stomach rough rations. If you could spare a basket of eggs, some milk and fresh bread…’
The boy took the coins and examined the imperial heads. ‘They’re good, Grandpa.’
The old man squinted sightlessly. ‘You’re not a Greek.’
‘A Frank. Driven by life’s tempests to this far shore.’
The man struggled to his feet. ‘Franks, English, Russians, Turks… The empire’s infested with foreign soldiers.’
‘Who are fighting to defend its borders while your native-born lords show off the latest fashions in the Hippodrome.’
The boy guided his grandfather away down the hillside. Vallon chewed a supper of raisins and hardtack, drew a blanket around his shoulders and dropped into sleep to the tinkling of bells.
The boy returning woke him. ‘Here are eggs and bread, Lord.’
Vallon rubbed his eyes and faced uphill. ‘Captain Josselin, some food for the invalids.’
When the officer left, Vallon hunched forward, examining the fires of the imperial army laid out in a grid, the flames of the Normans strung in a burning necklace around the beleaguered city. All he knew about the Norman force was that it was led by Robert Guiscard, the ‘Crafty’, Duke of Apulia and Calabria, a general of genius who’d ridden into Italy as a mere adventurer and within fifteen years had carved out a dukedom and made the pope his staunch ally.
A torch flickered through the trees, approaching up the road. Hooves clattered. By the light of the wind-torn brand, Vallon made out a rider leading a packhorse. The rider drew closer, a man of massive bulk. Tongues of flame fleeted across a braided vermilion beard, receding yellow hair, a red tunic medallioned in gold.
Shadows darted into the path of the rider. ‘Halt! Who goes there?’
‘Beorn the Bashful, primikerios in the Varangian Guard. Are you Count Vallon’s men? Good. Lead me to him.’
Vallon grinned and stood. ‘I’m up here by the spring.’
Beorn slid off his horse, lumbered through the trees and seized Vallon in a scented embrace. The impression of bulk wasn’t false. The man had to walk sideways through doors and his chest was almost as deep as it was broad, yet in matters of grooming he was very dainty.
‘What are you doing moping in the dark?’
‘We’ve been riding hard for weeks and I fell asleep through sheer weariness.’
‘You nearly missed the feast. Which reminds me. I ran into your German centurion and he said you’ve been living on worms for the last month. I brought some food. You can’t fight on a hollow stomach.’
Vallon took Beorn’s hands. ‘My dear friend.’
Beorn was an exile like him, an English earl, a veteran of the battles at Stamford Bridge and Hastings who had lost his estate in Kent to the Normans. Vallon had forged a friendship with him while campaigning in Anatolia. They had saved each other’s lives and the bond was reinforced when Beorn discovered that Vallon had made a journey to England, spoke the language and had gone wayfaring in the far north with an English companion.
The Varangian turned to the sentries. ‘Unsling those panniers. Bring them over here.’
The sentries doubled over under the weight of the loads. Beorn opened one of them and rummaged through its contents. ‘Wrong one. Hand me the other.’ He delved into it, gave a grunt of satisfaction and lifted out a roast chicken. ‘Brought three of them.’
‘I can’t fill my belly with meat while my men gnaw stale biscuits.’
‘Same old Vallon. I directed your German captain to the Master of the Camp. Your men will have all the food they can eat by midnight. We’ll keep one fowl for ourselves and you can do what you like with the others.’ He held up a flask. ‘But this is just for the two of us. Finest Malmsey from Cyprus. Tell your men to light a fire. You and I have a lot to talk about and I want to see your face while I’m about it.’
Vallon laughed and called to his centurions. They carried off the food and soldiers bustled to lay kindling and branches.
Vallon held out his hands as the wood began to crackle. ‘So we’re definitely committed to battle.’
Beorn wrenched a leg off the chicken and passed it to Vallon. ‘I pray God we are. The emperor arrived yesterday. Another two days and you would have missed the action.’
‘Would that be the same emperor as when I left?’ Vallon saw Beorn’s brows bristle. ‘Alexius is the fourth I’ve served under in nine years.’
Beorn tore off a piece of chicken with his teeth. ‘The same, except that Alexius is different from the others. He’s a soldier’s emperor. Fought his first battle against the Seljuks when he was fourteen and has not been on the losing side since. Wily in war as he is in diplomacy.’
Vallon gestured at the fires winking on the plain. ‘I’m not even sure what’s led to this confrontation. I’d already left for the north when Alexius was crowned, and I only received orders to ride to Dyrrachium a fortnight ago. News is slow to reach the Danube.’
Beorn cocked a shaggy brow. ‘Hard time of it on the frontier? I saw the wounded men in your wagon.’
‘The Pechenegs harried us as we withdrew. Sending my squadron to defend the border against horse nomads is like setting a dog to catch flies. Most of our losses were due to sickness rather than action.’
Beorn gnawed a drumstick. ‘It’s been brewing for years, ever since the Emperor Michael was overthrown after offering the hand of his son to Duke Robert’s daughter. Gave the duke the excuse he needed to invade. He sailed from Brindisi this May, took Corfu without a fight and marched on Dyrrachium. His fleet followed but was hit by a storm and lost several ships.’
‘How big is his army?’
Beorn tossed the drumstick into the fire. ‘Thirty thousand originally, mostly riff-raff scraped together without consideration of age or military experience. When Alexius heard about the invasion, he played a clever hand by forming an alliance with the Doge of Venice. The last thing the Doge wants is Normans controlling the approaches to the Adriatic. He took personal command of the Venetian fleet, caught the Norman ships napping and destroyed some and scattered the rest. Then he sailed into the harbour at Dyrrachium. When the Byzantine navy arrived, they joined wit
‘Not the most auspicious start to Robert’s campaign.’
‘There’s more. Robert laid siege to the city, but it’s well defended by strategos George Palaeologus.’
‘I served under him in the east. As brave a commander as ever lived.’
‘You’re right. Not only has he held out against Robert’s catapults and siege towers, he’s also taken the fight to the enemy, mounting sallies from the city and destroying one of their siege engines. During one assault, he took an arrow in the head and fought all day with the point lodged in his skull.’
‘Palaeologus threatening the Normans’ rear will make our task easier, even facing twice our number.’