Viking 3 kings man, p.17

Viking 3: King’s Man, page 17

 

Viking 3: King’s Man
 



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  ‘Where I come from,’ I answered huffily, ‘we believe that thunder is nothing more than the sound of one of our Gods driving his chariot through the sky. It doesn’t signify anything.’ I belched as discreetly as possible. ‘But we do believe it is possible to read the future in dreams or by reading signs in the sky, the movements of birds and smoke, or by casting certain sticks carved with mystic signs.’

  ‘Civilised or barbarian, everyone believes in the significance of dreams,’ observed Pelagia, trying to placate me. ‘Entire books have been written about how to do it, though I’ve never read any of them.’

  ‘There was a time when I used to dream a lot,’ I told her. ‘And I had the occasional vision which foretold the future, though this was difficult to interpret. Yet since I arrived in Constantinople, I’ve not had a single prophetic vision, and it’s only after a particularly rich meal like that roast peacock with pistachio sauce we had yesterday that I have even dreamed.’

  ‘And what was in that peacock dream?’ Pelagia enquired, grinning.

  ‘More a nightmare, really,’ I said. ‘The Varangians were back on duty as the Life Guard, instead of the Pechenegs, and we were escorting Michael to the throne room. They were all there – the empress Zoë, his uncle Constantine, even the Orphanotrophus. They all stood around and stared at us. They were looking at the state of the Basileus’s robes. I remember thinking to myself that the vestitores who dressed him were playing a joke. They had given him to wear a chlamys, the imperial cloak, which was in rags. It also needed a good wash—’

  I stopped in mid-sentence because Pelagia had laid her hand on my arm. ‘Don’t go on,’ she said quietly but firmly, ‘I don’t want to hear any more.’

  ‘Nothing much happened after that in my dream.’

  ‘I know next to nothing about oneirokritika, the science of interpreting dreams,’ Pelagia murmured, ‘but I do know that the appearance of the Basileus wearing a dirty or threadbare chlamys means the end of his reign is at hand.’ She paused. ‘Perhaps even the collapse of his dynasty.’

  EIGHT

  FIVE WEEKS AFTER the elimination of the Orphanotrophus, Michael lashed out once more. A platoon of his eunuch guards burst into the gynaeceum, sheared off Zoë’s hair, and forced the empress to put on a nun’s black habit. Then they bustled the old lady out of the palace and hurried her down to the Bucephalon harbour where a ship was waiting to carry her to the Prinkipio Islands, half a day’s sail away and a traditional place of exile for unwanted members of the royal family. There the Pechenegs handed Zoë over to a nunnery.

  The kidnap would have been successful if Michael had not over-reached himself. Alexis the Patriarch had long dabbled in politics and was known to be a supporter of Zoë, whose marriage to the previous emperor he had solemnised. Michael, intending to remove any potential source of dissent, sent four Pechenegs to lure Alexis from the monastery of the Studius. They took a gift of gold and an invitation for Alexis to attend a meeting with the Basileus. The intention was that the gold would lull the Patriarch’s suspicions that he might be the next victim of Michael’s megalomania, but it had the opposite effect. Alexis fled the monastery, and instead of going to the rendezvous, where Michael had an assassination squad of eunuchs waiting, he went to the church of Hagia Sophia, summoned the senior officials of the administration, and denounced the Basileus as unworthy of the throne.

  The first that I and the other Varangians idling in our guardroom knew of these events was when we heard the bells. It began with the great bell of Hagia Sophia sounding out an urgent alarm. Then, as the news spread across the capital, dozens of monasteries and churches joined in. The noise was extraordinary, a massive, constant tolling that reverberated through the city, rolled out across the suburbs, and grew louder and more insistent. The walls of the guardroom seemed to vibrate with the noise. Such a signal was given only when Constantinople was under dire threat, and the citizens poured out into the streets to demand what was happening. The Basileus, they were told by their priests, had tried to kill the Patriarch, and had banished Zoë, representative of the true line of emperors. The Basileus was wickedness personified, and unless he was curbed, he would bring ruin on the city.

  The citizenry were puzzled and anxious, not knowing whether to believe the priests or stay loyal to Michael. Some went to the churches to enquire further and to pray; others flocked towards the Great Palace to demand an explanation from the emperor. He sent his most senior representative, the sebastokrator, to address them in the Forum of Constantine and, because the Pechenegs were held back to protect the emperor himself, the sebastokrator took with him a Varangian escort. Halfdan, myself and twenty others marched along the Mese to the Forum with the sebastokrator in our midst and the clamour of the bells pounding in our ears.

  The great square of Constantine was packed when we arrived. I saw shopkeepers, ironworkers, beggars, cutlers, carpenters, tilers, masons, stevedores and fishermen. There were also a surprisingly large number of women and children.

  The sebastokrator stood on a mounting block and began to address the crowd, shouting to make himself heard over the noise of the bells. His listeners were attentive, though sullen. Zoë the empress had been banished, he shouted, because she was a poisoner. It was better that she was placed where she could do no further harm. Listening, I thought to myself that it was possible that Zoë had poisoned poor bloated Romanus, whom I had seen drown, and that she had done away with her second husband, Michael, whom I had also witnessed dying agonised in the monastery. But claiming that Zoë was involved in a plot to poison the present Basileus seemed highly unlikely.

  The sebastokrator ended his announcement and was met with silence. This was more worrying than if the crowd had jeered or scoffed. Only the clanging of the bells sounded.

  Beside me Halfdan said quietly, ‘Tell him to get down from the mounting block and begin walking back to the palace. He must move calmly and without haste and make it seem as if he has completed his assignment. If he does that, we can protect him. But if he shows any panic, the crowd may turn nasty. There are not enough of us to hold them off.’

  I translated Halfdan’s instructions and the sebastokrator followed them scrupulously. It was only a short distance back to the palace, but at any moment I expected to feel the thud of thrown stones on our unprotected backs. For the first time I regretted that the Varangians did not carry shields, and I began to appreciate just how menacing a crowd can be. The main gate of the palace, the Bronze Gate, opened a fraction to allow us in, and Halfdan let out a sigh of relief as we slipped inside.

  ‘The Basileus had better do something, and quickly or we’ll have a full-scale riot on our hands,’ he said.

  Michael’s response was to reverse his policy towards Zoë. No sooner had the sebastokrator reported the crowd’s mood than a squad of Varangians was detailed to accompany a high official of the chancellery to the Bucephalon harbour. A guard boat rushed them to the Prinkipio Islands, where the grovelling official explained to Zoë that her ‘son’ desired her to return to the city as he needed her advice.

  As we waited for Zoë’s return, we became aware of increasing disturbances in the city. Frightened messengers arrived with reports of gangs of looters on the prowl: the marauders were selecting the town houses of those who were most closely associated with the Basileus. The largest mob had laid siege to the palace of the emperor’s uncle and confidant, Constantine, who had been elevated to the rank of nobelissimus, second in seniority only to the Basileus himself. This worried us because a detachment of Varangians had been assigned to guard Constantine, and we wondered what was happening to our comrades. In mid-morning they joined us, several with cuts and bruises. Constantine had decided to abandon his palace, they said, and had asked his Varangians to escort him through the streets to the Grand Palace where he could join his nephew.

  ‘What’s it like out there?’ asked one of my colleagues.

  A weary-looking guardsman, with a deep gash over one eye where a stone had hit, shru
gged. ‘No one seems to know what’s going on. The crowds are still disorganised. The only thing they do agree on is that the Basileus should not have mistreated Zoë. They’re shouting that she is the true imperial line, and that Michael and his family are upstarts. The women in the mob are the worst. They scream and yell abuse. Apparently the staff from the gynaeceum has been spreading rumours that Zoë was beaten up by the Pechenegs. The crowd can’t tell the difference between Pechenegs and Varangians. It was a woman who flung the stone that caught me in the face.’

  ‘Is Zoë really the true imperial line?’ someone asked. ‘What should we do now? Seems to me that we don’t owe any loyalty to the new emperor. He ditched us in favour of those beardless Pechenegs. Let them look after him.’

  ‘Enough of that!’ snapped Halfdan. ‘The guard is always loyal to the emperor. As long as Michael is Basileus, we serve him. That is our oath.’

  ‘And what happens if the mob decides someone else is the emperor? Whom do we follow then?’

  ‘You follow orders,’ said Halfdan. But I could see that many of my colleagues were uneasy.

  That night we mounted double patrols on the ramparts and gates of the palace. It was an awkward place to protect because, having been expanded and altered over the centuries, it lacked a single defensive perimeter. The best defence, according to the Basileus’s councillors, who hurriedly convened, was somehow to deflect the anger of the citizenry and prevent the mob from attacking. So when Zoë arrived back in the palace the following morning, Michael apologised to her for his earlier behaviour and then took her to show her to the crowd.

  Crossing the footbridge which joined the palace to the hippodrome, Michael made his entrance in the imperial box with Zoë at his side. But if he thought this display would reassure the mob, he was mistaken.

  The hippodrome could hold forty thousand people to watch the parades and spectacles held there. That day not a single seat was empty, and even the sandy arena where the chariots normally raced was packed. The crowd had waited since dawn for Michael to show himself, and the long delay had increased their discontent. When he finally appeared on the balcony, many in the crowd were too far away to recognise that it was Zoë at his side. Others, suspicious of the duplicity of the palace, believed that the old woman beside the Basileus was not the empress at all, but an impostor dressed up in the imperial regalia. Listening from the parapet above the Bronze Gate where Halfdan’s company was stationed – the Pechenegs were on Life Guard duty and the bells were silent at last – I heard something which previously I had associated with a bungled circus act in the hippodrome: the sound of jeering interspersed with insults and cries of anger.

  As the heckling continued, a movement in the courtyard below me caught my eye. A small group of gatekeepers, the manglabites, was heading towards the palace entrance. Something about their furtive manner told me that they were about to desert their posts. Halfdan noticed it too.

  There was a confused shouting in the distance. The Basileus must have left the hippodrome and returned across the footbridge.

  ‘Here they come,’ warned Halfdan. ‘Lars, take ten men and get down to the gate, make sure it is bolted and barred. Thorgils, you stay close by me. I may need a Greek speaker.’

  When I next peered over the parapet, the front ranks of the mob were already milling about in the open space before the Bronze Gate. Most of them were armed with rocks and stones, crowbars and torches. Several, however, carried swords and pikes. These were soldiers, not civilians. The palace was facing a military mutiny as well as a popular uprising of the citizenry.

  ‘We need archers, slingers and javelin men up here, not a squad of axemen,’ muttered Halfdan. Once again, the veteran guardsman seemed to be taking charge in a palace crisis. ‘Thorgils, go and find me someone in authority who can explain to us the overall plan of defence. Not a tablet scribbler, but a trained soldier.’

  I hurried through the corridors and hallways of the palace. All around me there were signs of panic. Officials, still dressed in their formal costumes, were scurrying about, some of them carrying their personal possessions as they anxiously sought to find some way of leaving the building. Once or twice I passed a detachment of Excubitors, the Greek household regiment, and I was relieved that at least some of the local garrison were still loyal to the throne. Eventually I caught up with one of their Greek officers. Saluting him, I asked if he could send archers to the parapet above the Bronze Gate as the mob was getting dangerously close to breaking in.

  ‘Of course,’ he snapped. ‘I’ll send bowmen. Anything else you need?’

  ‘Two or three scorpions would be helpful. If they could be positioned high up on the wall, they would have a good field of fire and prevent the crowd from massing in front of the gate.’

  ‘Can’t help you there,’ answered the officer. ‘There are no ballistae operators in the Palace Guard. Nobody ever thought they would be needed. Try the Armamenton. Maybe someone there can assist. I know they’ve got some scorpions stored there.’

  I had forgotten about the armoury. The rambling Great Palace was like a city in miniature. It had its royal apartments, formal state rooms, chancellery, treasury, tax office, kitchens, silk-weaving workshops, and of course a major arms store. I raced back to the Bronze Gate, where Halfdan was now standing cautiously behind a battlement, looking down at the mob, which had doubled in size and grown much more belligerent

  ‘Stand well back, Thorgils,’ he warned. ‘They’ve got archers down there, and some slingers.’ An arrow clattered against the stone buttress.

  ‘Can you let me have a dozen men?’ I asked. ‘I want to get to the armoury and see if I can bring up a scorpion or two.’

  Halfdan looked at me quizzically. ‘Since when did you become an artillery man?’

  ‘I had a few lessons in Sicily,’ I said.

  ‘Well then, take as many men as you need. The mob has not yet got itself sufficiently worked up to launch a concerted attack.’

  With a squad of a dozen Varangians at my heels, I headed towards the armoury. I hammered on the heavy double doors until a storekeeper pulled one of them open cautiously. He looked decidedly peevish. Doubtless he had hoped that he was in a safe retreat, well away from any trouble.

  ‘I need weapons,’ I blurted, out of breath.

  ‘Where’s your written order? You must have a signed authority from the archon strategos before I can issue any weapons.’

  ‘Where can I find him?’

  ‘Can’t tell you. Haven’t seen him all day,’ said the storekeeper with an air of smug finality.

  ‘This is an emergency,’ I insisted.

  ‘No paperwork, no weapons. That’s my orders,’ was the short answer I got.

  I put my hand on his chest and pushed him aside.

  ‘Here, you can’t do that,’ he objected, but I was already inside and looking around.

  The armoury was generously equipped. I could see everything from parade equipment with gilded hilts and coloured silk tassels to workaday swords and pikes. Against one wall was a stack of the small round shields used by light infantry.

  ‘Grab as many of those as you can carry,’ I told my men, ‘and take them back up to the ramparts, and get some of those bows from that rack over there and as many arrows as you can handle. Tell Halfdan that there are plenty more bows and arrows if he needs them.’

  Meanwhile I had spotted the heavier weapons in the far corner of the store. I recognised the wooden stocks, the iron winding handles, and the thick stubby arms of the bows of at least a dozen scorpions neatly arranged. Looped around a wooden frame were the special bowstrings made of animal sinew. Trying to recall exactly what I had seen in Syracuse when Nikephorus had shown me round his siege tower, and again during the battle at Traina, I began to select enough items to assemble three scorpions. To the strongest man in my squad, an ox-like Swede, I gave all three tripods to carry. To the others I handed out the remainder of the parts as well as two large bags full of iron bolts. I personally took
charge of the trigger mechanisms, as they looked fragile and easily damaged.

  ‘Hail to the new technicians,’ joked Lars as my men laid out the items on the walkway behind the parapet and I began to experiment how they would fit together.

  As it turned out, the scorpions were easy to assemble. Anyone who knew how to lock together the complicated joints in shipwright’s carpentry could do it, and several of my Varangians had that skill. Only the trigger mechanisms were puzzling, and it took one or two false attempts before I finally got them correctly installed and the scorpions were ready for use.

  ‘Here, Thorgils, you get to release the first bolt,’ offered Halfdan as he hoisted the completed weapon up on its tripod.

  ‘No thanks,’ I said. ‘You wind up and pull the trigger. I want to watch and make sure that I have the tension right.’

  Halfdan cranked the handle, drawing back the arms of the bow, placed a metal bolt in its groove, took aim, and squeezed the trigger. To my satisfaction the bolt flew straight, though Halfdan had overcompensated for the angle and the metal bolt whizzed over the heads of the crowd and smacked into the facade of the buildings opposite.

  ‘Powerful stuff, eh?’ commented Halfdan contentedly. ‘Still, if I was going to kill someone, I would prefer to do it from close-up, where I can see exactly whom I despatch.’

  My satisfaction at assembling the ballistae was replaced by dismay. Looking down into the crowd, I saw Harald. Standing a full head taller than those around him, his long hair and moustaches were unmistakable. Then I identified Halldor and several others of Harald’s war band right behind their leader, pushing their way through the crowd to reach the front rank. All of them were wearing helmets and carrying their axes. Obviously the mob had broken into the jails and released all the prisoners. The insurrection had also found a common scapegoat. The mob was chanting, ‘Give us the Caulker! Give us the Caulker!’

 
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