Viking 3 kings man, p.11

Viking 3: King’s Man, page 11


Viking 3: King’s Man

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  Harald and the Varangians, when I told them the news, looked very pleased.

  ‘Is the great Dome really solid gold?’ Halldor asked.

  ‘No, it’s a hundred thousand dinars turned into gold leaf,’ I answered.

  ‘Who would have so much money to spare?’ he marvelled.

  ‘Saracen rulers are prepared to pay enormous sums for what they hold most dear,’ I said casually, not realising that my comment would help Harald achieve his life’s ambition – the throne of Norway.


  THE DROMON PICKED up her moorings in Bucephalon harbour after a frustrating homeward voyage. Headwinds meant that our passage back to Constantinople took much longer than anticipated, and already there was a wintry feel to the city when I said goodbye to Trdat, then accompanied Harald, Halldor and the others to the barracks of the Varangians-without-the-Walls.

  We arrived in time to intervene in an angry confrontation between the Norsemen of Harald’s war band and a senior Greek staff officer. The professional army, the tagmata, was soon to deploy to Italy for a campaign in the west, and the Armamenton, the imperial arsenal, had been working at full stretch to prepare weapons and supplies. Now the clerks who issued horses and weapons to the soldiers had drawn up a timetable for the troops to collect their requirements. Harald’s five hundred Varangians were flatly refusing to re-equip with standard weaponry, preferring to retain their own axes and shields. Harald curtly informed the Greek staff officer that his men were a special force, recruited under his personal command, and he took instructions only from the palace or direct from the army commander, the strategos. The Greek glared at the Norwegian and snapped, ‘So be it. You will find that the new strategos expects instant obedience, especially from barbarians.’ Then he stalked off, seething with indignation.

  ‘Why all this fuss about our weapons?’ Halldor asked me. ‘Why wouldn’t they be good enough for the Greeks?’

  ‘They are fiercely proud of their history,’ I told him, ‘They’ve been running an empire for seven hundred years and so feel they’ve learned how to organise things properly, whether a tax system or a military campaign. They like to do everything by the book – quite literally. During my time in the Palace Guard, our young Greek officers would arrive with their heads stuffed full of military information. They’d learned it by reading army manuals written by retired generals. Much of the advice was very helpful – how to load pack mules or scout an enemy position, for instance – but the trouble was that it was all book-learned, not practical.’

  ‘Fighting is fighting,’ grumbled Halldor. ‘You don’t have to read books to learn how to do it. Practising how to form up in a battle line or how to use a battle axe left-handed, that sort of thing helps. But in the end it is valour and strength that win the day.’

  ‘Not as far as the imperial army is concerned,’ I countered. ‘They call themselves “Rhomai”, the Romans, because their military tradition goes back to the Caesars and they’ve been fighting on the frontiers of empire for centuries, often against huge odds. They’ve won most of their battles through superior generalship or because they are better equipped or better organised or . . .’ and here I thought about the scheming Orphanotrophus . . . ‘because they’ve been able to bribe the opposing generals or create some sort of disarray in the enemy ranks with rumours and plots.’

  ‘Too clever by half,’ muttered Halldor. ‘No wonder they have to hire foreigners to protect the emperor himself. They’re so busy scheming that it’s become a habit and they forget who their real enemies are. They finish up by stabbing one another in the back, and no longer trust their own people.’

  Harald, who had been listening to us, said nothing. Maybe he already knew what I was talking about, though years later I was to remember that conversation with Halldor and wonder if, once again, I had helped to shape the course of Harald’s life. If so, then I was an unwitting agent, if not of Odinn, then of the Norns, or – as Trdat would have said – the Fates.

  Leaving Harald and his men at the barracks, I lost no time in going to visit Pelagia, for I had been missing her while I was away in the Holy Land. Until now we had been friends, not lovers, but I was coming to sense that if our relationship continued to develop she might soon mean more to me than agreeable companionship and wise advice. Hoping to find her at home, I felt a pang of disappointment to discover that she was no longer living at her old address. I was redirected to a luxurious apartment in a more fashionable part of the city. When I complimented her on the move as well as the expensive furnishings of her new home, she was typically down-to-earth in her response.

  ‘I have the coming war to thank,’ she said. ‘It’s amazing how much money can be made from army contracts. It’s such a relief not having to chase creditors in private commerce. The government always pays up, provided you grease a few palms in the commissariat.’

  ‘Surely the army can’t be buying its bread already,’ I said. ‘I know that army bread is rock hard and stale, but the campaign is several months away. Nothing’s going to happen until spring, and by then the army will be in Italy and will be able to obtain bread locally.’

  ‘I’m not selling them bread,’ said Pelagia. ‘I’ve got the contract to supply them with emergency rations, the sort you use on a forced march. The department of the new strategos asked for tenders, and I located someone who could supply sea onions at a good price. It was simple enough for me to assemble the other ingredients.’

  ‘What on earth’s a sea onion?’ I asked.

  ‘A plant like a giant onion. The bulb can be the size of a man’s head. It’s boiled, washed in water, dried and then sliced very thin. The army contract stipulated that one part of sesame was to be added to five parts onion, and one part poppy seed to fifteen parts onion, the whole lot crushed and kneaded together with honey. Nothing that a competent baker can’t organise easily.’

  ‘What’s it taste like?’ I asked.

  Pelagia grimaced. ‘Pretty foul. But then it is only eaten in emergencies. The soldiers are issued with two olive-sized pills of it per day. The stuff is claimed to be sweet and filling, and doesn’t make a man thirsty. Just the sort of thing which the new strategos would want for his troops. He’s a stickler for detail.’

  ‘That’s the second time I’ve heard about this new strategos,’ I said. ‘Everyone seems to be in awe of him.’

  ‘So they should be. Comes from somewhere on the eastern frontier where he used to be just a local town commander. He made a reputation for himself by wiping out a raiding column of Saracens when the imperial army was very low on morale. The Saracens laid siege to his town and demanded its surrender. He pretended to be scared and promised to hand over the place next morning without a fight, even sent supplies to the Saracens to show his good intentions. But he deliberately included plenty of wine in the shipment and the Saracens got themselves drunk. That night the city defenders rushed the Saracen camp and killed every one of them. He presented himself in front of the Basileus with a sack out of which he tipped a torrent of Saracen ears and noses. The emperor promoted him to corps commander on the spot. Since then he’s never lost a battle. He’s a brilliant tactician, and his troops would follow him anywhere.’

  ‘He sounds very like Harald.’ I said, ‘Is this military paragon going to command the campaign in Italy?’

  ‘Only the land forces,’ said Pelagia. ‘My sister, who’s still got her job in the women’s quarters at the palace, tells me that the naval contingent will be commanded by John’s brother-in-law, Stephen. It’s the usual set-up. The palace doesn’t trust anyone enough to give them sole command, so they divide the leadership.’

  ‘And what’s the name of this general who’ll command the land forces?

  ‘George Maniakes,’ she told me.

  RATHER TO MY surprise I heard nothing from the Orphanotrophus directly. I had been expecting a summons to his office to report on Harald’s conduct in the Holy Land, but as my guardsman’s salary continued to be paid – and I arranged fo
r Pelagia to receive and hold the money – I presumed that I was to carry on the duties the Orphanotrophus had given me. Doubtless he had more important matters to occupy him, because the Basileus’s health was showing no signs of improvement despite a frenzy of pious work. More and more of the civil administration had passed into the hands of the man the public referred to as John the Eunuch.

  ‘You want to be even more cautious than before if you are called to his office,’ Pelagia warned. ‘The strain is telling on John. To relax, he organises debauches at which he and his friends get blind drunk and conduct bestial acts. But next morning his friends regret what they have done and said. The Orphanotrophus calls them in to explain any loose talk they have uttered the previous night. It’s yet another of his methods of exercising control.’

  ‘What does his brother, the Basileus, think of this behaviour?’ I asked. ‘I thought he was very religious.’

  ‘More and more so. Besides sending Trdat to the Holy Sepulchre, Michael is lavishing money on monasteries and nunneries all over Constantinople. He’s spending a huge sum on a church dedicated to St Cosmas and St Damian over on the east side of the city. The place is being remodelled. It’s being given new chapels, an adjacent monastery, finest marble for the floors, walls covered with frescoes. You should go and see it some time. The Basileus hopes that his donations will result in his own cure because Cosmas and Damian were both physicians before they were martyred. They’re known as the Anargyroi, “the Unpaid”, because they never accepted any money for what they did, unlike some physicians in this city that I could think of. That’s not all. The Basileus is paying for a new city hospice for beggars, and he’s come up with a scheme to save all the prostitutes in the capital. He’s having a splendid new nunnery built, and the public criers are circulating in the streets announcing that when the building is ready, any harlot who agrees to go and live there as a nun will be accepted. Doubtless the place will be dedicated to St Pelagia.’

  The exodus of the tagmata began the week after we, the Old Believers in Harald’s war band, celebrated our Jol feast, and the Christians observed the Nativity of their God. Watching the orderly departure of the troops, I had to admit that I was impressed by the efficiency of the army’s organisation. First to leave the capital were the heavy weapons units, because they would move the slowest. Their petrobolla for firing rocks, the long-range arrow launchers and the cheiroballistra shaped like giant crossbows were dismantled and then loaded on to carts which ground their way out of the western gate of the city. From there they began the long overland plod to Dyrrachium, where they would be put on transports and ferried to Italy. When the column was halfway along the road, the army signallers flashed back the news along a chain of signal stations and the army despatchers released the light infantry battalions, the slingers and the archers to follow. Everything was tidy and methodical. The regiments of archers were accompanied by squads of sagittopoio, experts in repairing their bows, while the infantry had platoons of armourers who could mend or replace iron weapons. The squadron of Fire operators marched with a dedicated cavalry troop whose task was to protect the munitions wagons loaded with the mysterious ingredients for their secret weapon. Naturally each brigade also had its own field kitchen, and somewhere in the middle of the column was a team of army doctors with chests of surgical instruments and drugs.

  The heavy infantry and the armoured cavalry were the last to leave. For their departure the Basileus himself attended the ceremony. It was a brilliant spectacle. The four palace regiments collected their battle standards from the church of St Stephen and the church of the Lord after the flags had been blessed by the priests, then formed up to march along the Triumphal Way. In front of them rode the heavy cavalry, coloured pennants fluttering from the tips of their lances. Each trooper wore a padded surcoat of heavy felt over his armour, and his horse was similarly protected with a jacket of stiffened leather and a mail breastplate. They looked formidable. Finally came my old regiment, the Palace Guard, on foot and surrounding the Basileus on his charger. They would proceed only as far as the Golden Gate, where the emperor would say farewell to his troops, then the Palace Guard would return with the Basileus to the Palace to carry on their duties.

  Michael himself looked sickly, his face grey with fatigue and strangely bloated. I was reminded of the appearance of his predecessor, the murdered Romanus, at his funeral, which was the last occasion on which the Guard had marched along the Triumphal Way. Then there had been near silence. Now, as the imperial army set out for war, there was music. For the only time in my life I heard an orchestra on the march – drums, pipes and lyres – even as I wondered if I was seeing history repeat itself, and Basileus Michael was being slowly poisoned in some sort of labyrinthine court intrigue.

  I left for Italy by sea a week later with Harald and his war band. Once again Harald’s Norsemen had been assigned to serve as marines, perhaps because they had won fame for their actions against the pirates, but also as a reprimand for their Norse obstinacy about conforming to the army rule book. The result was that for the next two years we were given only a peripheral role in the campaign to regain a former jewel of the empire – the great island of Sicily.

  Our enemy were Saracens from North Africa. For more than a century they had ruled the island after overrunning the Greek garrison. They had established a thriving capital at Palermo, and from their Sicilian bases they raided the empire’s province of southern Italy and, of course, their ships menaced the sea lanes. Now the Basileus was determined to drive back the Saracens and restore Sicily to his dominions. George Maniakes, promoted to the rank of autokrator, was the man to do it.

  He began with an invasion across the straits at Messina. Harald’s war band was there to protect the southern flank of the landing, so I was a witness to the expertise of the imperial troops. The light cavalry had been rehearsing for weeks, and the attack went flawlessly. They arrived off the landing beach soon after dawn in specially built barges. Ahead of them three shallow-draught dromons, packed with archers, cruised up and down the shallows, forcing back the Saracen cavalry which had assembled to deny the landing. When the imperial landing craft touched land, the sailors lowered the sides of their barges, and the light cavalry, already mounted, clattered down the ramps. They splashed through the shallows, formed up and charged up the beach. The Saracens turned and fled. For the next ten days a steady stream of transports, barges and warships shuttled back and forth across the straits, bringing more troops and supplies, and very soon an imperial army of ten thousand men stood on Sicilian soil.

  Maniakes himself crossed over on the fourth day. It was a measure of his professionalism that he saw no need to indulge in heroics by leading the attack. He and his general staff went ashore only when his command headquarters had been set up, ready to receive him. It was there, when he called a war council of his senior officers, that I first laid eyes on him.

  There are times, I believe, when the Gods play tricks on us. For their amusement they create situations which otherwise would seem to be impossible. Trdat had told me that the ancient Gods of the Greeks did the same, and relished the results. The meeting between Harald of Norway and George Maniakes was one of those moments which we ordinary humans describe as coincidences, but I believe are mischievously arranged by the Gods. How else, I ask myself, could two men so similar have been brought together, yet each man be so unusual that he was unique. Harald, as I have described, was a giant, half a head taller than his colleagues, arrogant, fierce and predatory. He struck fear into those who aroused his anger, and was a natural leader. George Maniakes was identical. He too was enormously tall, almost an ogre with his massive frame, a huge voice, and a scowl that made men tremble. He also radiated absolute authority and dominated his surroundings. When the two men came face to face for the first time in the imperial command tent, it was as if no one else was in the room. They loomed over everyone else. Neither man could have imagined he would ever meet someone so like himself, though one was blond and the
other dark. There was a long moment of surprise, followed by a pause of calculation as the two men took the measure of one another. Everyone saw it. We sensed that they made a temporary truce. It was like watching two great stags who encounter one another in the forest, stop and stare, and then cautiously pass one another by, neither challenging the other, yet neither giving ground.

  Harald’s war band, it was confirmed at the council, was to patrol the Sicilian coast and make diversionary attacks on Saracen settlements. Our task was to discourage the local Saracen commanders from sending reinforcements to their emir, who could be expected to mass his forces near Palermo and come westward, hoping to drive the imperial army back into the sea. To meet that attack, Maniakes and the tagmata would march inland and seize the highway which linked Palermo with the wealthy cities of the east coast. Once the highway was under imperial control, Maniakes would turn south and march on Catania, Augusta and the greatest prize: Syracuse.

  The Gods arranged another coincidence that day which, in its way, was a foretaste of what was to come for me and for Harald. Harald, Halldor and I were leaving the council tent when we saw four or five men coming towards us on foot. From a distance they looked like Norsemen. Indeed at first we thought they must be Varangians; they certainly seemed to be Varangian in size and manner. We took them to be volunteers who had recently arrived from Kiev or from the lands of the Rus. It was as they drew closer that we saw differences. For one thing they were clean-shaven, which was unusual. For another their weapons and armour were not quite what we ourselves would have chosen. They carried long swords rather than axes, and though their conical helmets were very like our own, their chain-mail shirts were longer, and the skirt of the mail was split in the middle. It took a moment to understand that these warriors were dressed for fighting from horseback, not from ships. Our two groups stared at one another in puzzlement.

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