Viking 3 kings man, p.12
Viking 3: King’s Man, page 12
‘Greetings! To which company do you belong?’ Halldor called out in Norse.
The strangers stopped and eyed us. Clearly they had not understood Halldor’s question. One of them answered in a language which, by its tone and inflection, I recognised. Yet the accent was so strong that I had difficulty in understanding. Several words were familiar, though the meaning of the sentence was confused. I summoned up the Latin that I had learned as a lad in an Irish monastery and repeated Halldor’s question. This time one of the strangers understood.
‘We ride with Hervé,’ he said in slow Latin. ‘And you?’
‘Our commander is Harald of Norway. We have taken service in the army of the Basileus.’
‘We also serve the Basileus,’ the warrior replied. ‘They call us Frankoi.’
Then I knew. The men were mercenaries from Francia, but not from the central kingdom. They were speaking the Frankish tongue with the accent of the north. They were descendants of Vikings who had settled the lands of Normannia generations earlier, and that was why they looked so familiar to us. I had heard rumours about their prowess as horse warriors, and how they sold their swords to the highest bidder. While we Varangians arrived by sea and along the rivers, the Frankoi came overland, also seeking their fortunes in the service of the emperor. There was, however, a major difference between us: Varangians wanted to return home once we were rich; the men of Normannia – or Normandy, as they themselves called it – preferred to settle in the lands they conquered.
Maniakes took the Frankoi mercenaries with him when he marched inland, and they lived up to their warlike reputation when Maniakes rebuffed the emir’s forces in their counter-attack. Then the autokrator began his long, grinding campaign to regain the east Sicilian cities. The tagmata steadily advanced along the coast, laying siege to one city after another, patiently waiting for them to fall before moving on. Maniakes took no risks, and Harald and his war band grew more and more frustrated. His Norsemen had enrolled in the army of the Basileus hoping for more than their annual pay of nine nomisma: they wanted plunder. But there was little to be had, and, worse, Harald’s men received a lesser share when the army’s accountants divided up the booty because the Norsemen were regarded as belonging to the fleet under Stephen, the brother-in-law of the Orphantrophus, and not part of Maniakes’s main force. By the second spring of the campaign, Harald and his Varangians were very restless.
By then we were besieging Syracuse. The city fortifications were immensely strong, and the garrison was numerous and ably led. Harald’s squadron of a dozen light galleys had the task of occupying the great harbour so that no more supplies reached the defenders from the sea, nor could messengers slip out to summon help. From the decks of our vessels we heard the clamour of the war trumpets as Maniakes manoeuvred his battalions on the landward side, and we saw boulders and fire arrows lobbed over the defences and into the city. We even glimpsed the top of a siege tower as it was inched forward. But the walls of Syracuse had withstood attacks for more than a thousand years, and we doubted that Maniakes would succeed in capturing such a powerful except after many months of siege.
An engineer visited our flotilla. He was rowed out in a small boat and came aboard Harald’s vessel. As usual I was summoned to act as interpreter, and when the engineer scrambled up the side of our ship, I thought there was something familiar about the man.
‘May I introduce myself,’ he said. ‘My name is Nikephorus, and I am with the army technites, the engineers. I’m a siege specialist and, with your permission, I would like to investigate the possibility of building a floating siege tower.’
‘What does that involve?’ I asked.
‘I’d like to see if we could perhaps tie up two, or maybe three, of your galleys side by side to make a raft. We would then use the raft as a base on which to build a tower which could then be floated up against the city wall.’
I translated his request to Harald, and he gave his agreement. The engineer produced a wax tablet and began making his drawings and calculations, and then I knew whom he reminded me of.
‘Do you know Trdat, the protomaistor, by any chance?’
The engineer gave a broad smile and nodded. ‘All my life,’ he said. ‘In fact we are first cousins, and both of us were students together. He studied how to build things up, I learned how to knock them down.’
‘I went with Trdat to the Holy Land,’ I said.
‘Ah, you must be Thorgils. Trdat called you “the educated Varangian”. He spoke to me about you several times. I’m delighted to make your acquaintance. We should talk some more after I’ve finished my arithmetic.’
In the end Nikephorus calculated that the width and stability of the makeshift raft would not be sufficient for a floating siege tower. He feared the structure would capsize.
‘A pity,’ he said, ‘I would love to have designed something novel and to have followed in the footsteps of the great Syracusan master.’
‘Who’s that?’ I asked.
‘Archimedes the great engineer and technician, of course. He created machines and devices to protect Syracuse when the Romans were attacking. Cranes lifted their ships out of the water and dashed them to pieces, weights plunged on to their decks and sank them, and even some sort of focusing mirror, like our signal mirrors, set them ablaze. To no avail, for he lost his life when the city fell. But Archimedes is a hero to anyone who studies siege craft and the application of science to fortifications, their assault and defence.’
‘I had no idea that there was so much theory to your work.’
‘If you’ve got time,’ Nikephorus suggested, ‘I’ll show you just how much theory there is. If your commander can spare you for a few days, you could join me on the landward side of the city, and see how the army engineers function.’
Harald agreed to let me go, and for the next few days I was privileged to see Nikephorus in action. It turned out that he had been very modest about his qualifications. He was in fact the army’s chief engineer and responsible for the creation and employment favy equipment against the walls of Syracuse.
‘Note how those drills are angled slightly upward. It improves the final result,’ he said as he showed me around a device like a very strong wooden shed on wheels. Inside were various cogs and pulleys connected to the sort of tool that ship carpenters use for drilling holes, only the instrument was far larger. ‘The shed is pushed up against the base of the city wall, where the roof protects the operators from whatever missiles and unpleasantness the defenders drop down on them. The drill opens up holes in the city wall which are then stuffed with inflammable matter and set on fire. By quenching the hot rock – urine is the most effective liquid – the stone can be made to crack. If enough holes are drilled and enough fissures result, the wall will eventually collapse.’
‘Wouldn’t it be safer and easier to dig a tunnel under the wall foundations so it comes down?’ I asked.
Nikephorus nodded. ‘Trdat was right. You should have been an engineer. Yes, if the army technites were to have a motto, it should be “Dig, prop and burn”. Excavate the tunnel under the wall, put in wooden props to hold everything in place, and just before you pull out, set fire to the props and then wait for the wall to tumble down. The trouble is that tunnelling takes time, and often the enemy digs counter-tunnels to ambush your miners, then kills them like rats in a drain.’
‘Is that why you preferred to build a siege tower?’ I asked. ‘We saw the top of it from our ships. And heard the war trumpets.’
Nikephorus shook his head. ‘That was just a ruse. That particular tower was a flimsy contraption, only for show. At the start of a siege, it’s a good idea to create as much commotion as you can. Make it appear that you have more troops than is the case, launch fake attacks, allow the enemy as little rest as possible. That way you dishearten the defenders and, more important, you get to see how they respond to each feint, how well organised they are, which are the strong points in their defences, and which are the gaps.’
‘Won’t that make the tower very heavy to move?’ I objected.
‘Yes, that’s always a problem,’ Nikephorus admitted. ‘But with levers and enough manpower we should be able to roll the tower slowly forward. My main concern is that the Saracens will already have prepared the ground so that the tower topples before it is in place.’
We had clambered up a series of builders’ ladders and were now standing precariously on the siege tower’s highest crossbeam.
‘See over there?’ said Nikephorus pointing. ‘That smooth, level approach to the city wall? It looks like the perfect spot for the tower when we launch our attack. But I am suspicious. It’s too inviting. I think the defence has buried large clay pots deep in the soil at that point. The ground is firm enough to carry foot soldiers and cavalry, but if the tower rolls over them, the amphorae will collapse and the ground cave in. Then the tower will tilt and fall, and, in addition to the loss of life, we will have wasted weeks of work.’
But the Saracens did not wait for the operation of their sunken trap, if there ever was one. Even as Nikephorus and I stood on the half-built siege tower looking down on the suspect ground, a trumpet sounded the alarm. A sharp-eyed sentry had noticed the bronze gates of Syracuse were beginning to swing open. Moments later the gap was wide enough for a troop of Saracen cavalry to ride out. There were at least forty of them, and they must have hoped to catch the imperial troops by surprise with their sudden sortie. As they charged, they nearly succeeded.
There were more trumpet calls, each one more urgent, from the tagmata’s lines. We heard shouts and orders from below us, and a squad of Greek heavy infantry came running towards the base of the tower. They were menaulatos, pikemen with long weapons specially designed to fend off a cavalry attack, and they must have been on standby for just such an emergency. They formed up around the base of the tower and lowered their pikes to make a defensive hedge, for it was now clear that the siege tower was the target of the Saracen sortie.
The raiders were led by a flamboyant figure. He wore a cloak of green and white patterns over his chain mail, and a scarf of the same colour wrapped around his helmet streamed out behind him as he galloped forward. The quality of his horse, a bay stallion, carried him well clear of his men, and he was shouting encouragement at them to follow him. Even the disciplined pikemen wavered in the face of such confidence. The rider swerved into a gap between the pikes. With a deft double swing of his scimitar, first forehand and then with a backward stroke, he hacked down two of our men before his horse spun round nimbly and carried him clear.
Seeing that the siege tower was now protected, the main raiding party changed the direction of their attack and rode towards the infantry lines, where lightly armoured troops were emerging from their tents, hastily pulling on their corselets and caps. The Saracens managed to get in among their victims long enough for them to cut down a dozen or so men before wheeling about and beginning to fall back towards the city gates.
Their entire sortie had been very quick. There had been no time for the imperial cavalry to respond, with the exception of just one man. As the Saracens were about to slip back through the city gates, a lone rider came out from the tagmata’s lines. He was wearing mail and a helmet, and was mounted on a very ordinary horse which, even at a full gallop, would never have caught up with the retreating Saracens. He yelled defiance, and the green-clad leader must have heard his shout, for just as he was about to ride back in through the city gates, he glanced over his shoulder and turned his stallion. The Saracen then waited, motionless, facing his challenger. When he judged the distance to be right, he spurred his mount and the animal sprang forward.
Horse and rider were superb. The Saracen wore a small round shield on his left arm, and held his scimitar in his right hand. Scorning the use of reins, he guided his mount with his knees and raced towards his opponent. At the last moment he bent forward in his saddle and leaned his body slightly to one side. The stallion responded by changing stride and flashed past the other horse, surprising the animal so that it checked and almost unseated its rider. At the same moment the Saracen slashed out with his scimitar at his enemy. Only by chance was the blow blocked by the long shield his opponent carried.
Belatedly I had made out that the Saracen’s challenger was one of the Frankoi mercenaries. He appeared cumbersome and ungainly on his horse, and his weapon was a long iron sword instead of the heavy mace that an imperial cavalryman would have carried. Hardly had the Saracen ridden past his opponent than his agile stallion turned tightly and a moment later was galloping past the Frank, this time on the opposite side. Again the scimitar swept through the air, and it was all the Frank could do to raise his sword in time to deflect the blow.
By now the walls of Syracuse were lined with cheering spectators observing the unequal contest, while below them the troops of the tagmata stood watching and waiting for its inevitable outcome. The Saracen relished the audience. He played with the Frankish rider, galloping in, swerving, feinting with his scimitar, racing past, turning and coming again at a gallop. The heavily built Frank no longer attempted to urge his horse into action. All he could do was tug on the reins and try to turn his horse so that he faced the next attack.
Finally, it seemed that the Saracen had had enough of his amusement, and, riding a little further off than normal, he wheeled about and with a halloo of triumph came racing down on his victim. The scimitar was poised, ready to slice, when the Frank abruptly leaned back over the crupper of his horse. The Saracen’s blow whipped through empty air, and at that moment the Frank swung his heavy sword. It was an ugly, inelegant blow. Delivered flat, and from a man almost lying on his horse’s rump, it was an awkward scything motion requiring enormous strength of the arm. The long blade swept over the ears of the racing stallion and struck its rider full in the midriff, almost chopping the Saracen in half. The green and white striped cloak wrapped around the blade, the Saracen doubled forward even as he was swept out of the saddle by the force of the blow, and his corpse crashed to the ground and lay still. The helmet with its green and white scarf rolled off across the level ground.
For one moment there was a stunned silence, and then a great shout rose from the imperial lines. The stallion, puzzled by the sudden disappearance of his rider, whickered and turned to where his master’s corpse lay, nuzzled the body for a moment, then trotted quietly back to the city gate, which was opened to let the creature in. The Frank ponderously rode back to the tagmata without a word or gesture.
He earned the name Iron Arm, Fer de Bras in his Frankish tongue, for his achievement. His adversary, we later learned, was a caid or nobleman of Syracuse. His defeat in single combat severely affected the morale of the city’s defenders, while, on our side, the rank and file of the Greek army regarded the burly and taciturn mercenaries from Normannia with increased respect.
MANIAKES’S TROOPS HAD little time to celebrate. Word reached us that the Saracens were massing in the interior of Sicily, ready to mar
Maniakes reacted with typical decisiveness. He ordered the tagmata to prepare to march, but not strike camp. Each unit was to leave behind a few men who would give the impression that the siege was still in place. They were to remain as visible as possible, keep the cooking fires burning, mount patrols and follow the normal routines. At the same time the engineers and heavy weapons units were to discourage further sorties from the city by keeping up a regular discharge of missiles, and the Frankish mercenaries from Normannia were to stay behind in case of emergencies. Our harbour flotilla was stripped of men. Skeleton crews, changing from one vessel to the next, would make it look as if the blockade was still operative. Harald gave command of this minimal force to Halldor, and then he and I, with about two hundred fellow Varangians, joined the flying column that Maniakes led inland, leaving quietly by night.
A week of forced marches across a dry and dusty landscape brought us to the west of a mountain whose subterranean fires reminded me of my days in Iceland, where the Gods in anger similarly cause hot rock to flow. Here the emir had established and fortified his base camp. He must have had warning of our approach, because when the tagmata arrived, the Saracens had already withdrawn within their defences and shut the gates.
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